Madam C.J. Walker, the First Self-Made Female Millionaire in the U.S.

Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock

Like many fortunes, Madam C.J. Walker’s started with a dream. As she later explained to a newspaper reporter, Walker was earning barely a dollar a day as a washerwoman when she had a dream about a man who told her how to create a hair-growing tonic. When she awoke, Walker sent away for the ingredients, investing $1.25 in what she eventually dubbed “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.” The venture would propel her to become one of America’s first black female entrepreneurs—and reportedly the first self-made female millionaire in the nation.

Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 to freed slaves on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana, the woman who would become known as Madam C.J. Walker was orphaned by age 7 and married by 14. The couple had one child, Lelia (later known as A’Lelia), but six years into the marriage, Walker’s husband died, by some accounts in a race riot. Walker then worked washing clothes while dreaming of building a better life for her daughter. “As I bent over the washboard and looked at my arms buried in soapsuds,” she later told The New York Times, “I said to myself: ‘What are you going to do when you grow old and your back gets stiff? Who is going to take care of your little girl?’”

By 1903, Walker had relocated to St. Louis and started to work for an African-American hair care company before then moving to Denver, where she had heard that the dry air exacerbated hair and scalp issues. At the time, such complaints were widespread among African-Americans, in part due to a lack of black-focused products and access to indoor plumbing. By the early 1900s, Walker herself had lost much of her hair.

Then came her dream. “[I] put it on my scalp,” she later said of the tonic, “and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out.”

In 1905, Walker began selling her solution door-to-door and at church events. She took the product on tour, traveling throughout the South and Northeast and recruiting other door-to-door saleswomen. A year later, she married Charles Joseph Walker and established the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, and in 1908 founded Lelia College in Pittsburgh, a beauty parlor and school for training Madam Walker brand ambassadors. Two years later, she relocated her business headquarters to Indianapolis—then a commercial hub—where she and a mostly female cadre of top executives produced Wonderful Hair Grower on an industrial scale.

A’Lelia, however, was not content with the Midwestern milieu. In 1913 she convinced her mother to open an office in New York and decamped to Manhattan, acquiring a stately Harlem townhouse designed by Vertner Tandy, the first registered black architect in the state. The home, later nicknamed the Dark Tower after poet Countee Cullen’s “From the Dark Tower,” included a Lelia College outpost on the first floor and living and entertaining spaces on the top three. A’Lelia frequently threw lavish parties there, attended by Harlem Renaissance luminaries such as Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes.

Walker followed A’Lelia north, where she purchased the adjacent townhouse. Soon, she was a cultural mover and shaker in her own right, joining the NAACP’s New York chapter and helping to orchestrate the Silent Protest Parade in 1917, when roughly 10,000 African-Americans marched down Fifth Avenue as a demonstration against the East St. Louis race riots earlier that year, in which dozens of African-Americans had been killed.

“She became politically active and very much an advocate of women’s economic independence,” Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles, a journalist and biographer, tells Mental Floss. “She used her national platform to advocate for civil rights.”

The same year as the Silent Protest, Walker and a handful of Harlem leaders traveled to the White House to petition for anti-lynching legislation, and donated $5000 to the NAACP’s Anti-Lynching Fund—the largest single gift ever recorded by the fund. In 1916, she established the Madam C. J. Walker Benevolent Association, a program that encouraged Walker brand ambassadors to engage in charity work and hygiene education outreach.

As her empire grew, Walker continued to monumentalize her success. In 1916, she bought a four-acre parcel of land in Irvington, New York, and enlisted Tandy to design her a home to rival the nearby estates of Jay Gould and John D. Rockefeller. Her determination only swelled in the face of realtors who tried to charge her twice the price of the land to discourage her, and incredulous neighbors who reportedly mistook the hair care baroness for a maid when she arrived at the property in her Ford Model T.

Villa LewaroLibrary of Congress, Flickr // No known copyright restrictions

Like her Manhattan residence, the mansion became a popular hang-out for the writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Walker also used the home to give back. “She made a blanket invitation to the returning African American soldiers [from World War I] to please come visit the home,” Bundles says. It also served as a kind of early safe space for A’Lelia and her largely LGBTQ social network.

But almost as soon as the home was complete, Madam Walker’s health began to crumble. Though she was diagnosed with high blood pressure and kidney problems, Walker continued to work and roll out new products. “Like most entrepreneurs she couldn’t figure out how to slow down,” Bundles says. “She needed to rest, but she couldn’t really make herself.”

In the spring of 1919, while on a business trip to St. Louis to unveil five new formulas, Walker fell gravely ill and was shuttled back to Irvington in a private car. That May, she died of kidney failure at the age of 51.

Yet her influence would live on. At the time of her death, an estimated 40,000 black women had been trained as Walker saleswomen. In 1927 the Madame Walker Theatre Center opened in Indianapolis, housing offices, a manufacturing center, and a theater. Her name on the building reflected her unprecedented imprint on black entrepreneurship.

Madam Walker items at the Women's Museum in Dallas, TexasFA2010, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Madam C.J. Walker brand also survived. In fact, it’s recently been revitalized, after black-owned hair care company Sundial acquired it in 2016, debuting two dozen new formulas exclusively at Sephora that same year. “It’s very glam,” says Bundles, who serves as the line’s historical consultant. In a historic deal in November 2017, consumer goods conglomerate Unilever acquired Sundial’s $240 million portfolio, and as part of the agreement designated $50 million to empower businesses led by women of color.

Walker’s house, known as Villa Lewaro, has had a rockier afterlife, having been owned by the NAACP and then used as an assisted living center for decades. In 1993, stock broker and U.S. ambassador Harold Doley and his wife Helena purchased the property, committing to a years-long restoration process. They secured a protective easement for the site, in order to prevent future buyers from altering the appearance of the home—a means of preserving the house’s history, and that of Madam Walker. Earlier this month, the home was acquired by the New Voices Foundation, a leadership-focused organization that helps women entrepreneurs of color achieve their visions.

"Under the 25-year stewardship of Ambassador Harold Doley Jr. and his wife Helena, Villa Lewaro flourished as a monument to all that Madam Walker represented; the spirit of American entrepreneurship, perseverance in the face of adversity, and African American achievement," Brent Leggs, director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, said in a statement. "We believe that the New Voices Foundation’s and Dennis Family’s stewardship of this site will not only ensure its future, but will lay the foundation for a new generation of entrepreneurs and cultural leaders to explore ways they too can preserve places that help to tell the full American story.”

Walker’s legacy is also likely to gain a new round of admirers with the recently announced Octavia Spencer-fronted Netflix series about her life, which is based on On Her Own Ground, a biography written by Bundles.

With her brand in full swing and her life story about to be immortalized on the small screen, it seems that even in death, Madam Walker’s dream lives on.

This article originally ran in 2017.

Celebrate the Holidays With the 2020 Harry Potter Funko Pop Advent Calendar

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Funko

Though the main book series and movie franchise are long over, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter remains in the spotlight as one of the most popular properties in pop-culture. The folks at Funko definitely know this, and every year the company releases a new Advent calendar based on the popular series so fans can count down to the holidays with their favorite characters.

SIGN UP TODAY: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping Newsletter!

Right now, you can pre-order the 2020 edition of Funko's popular Harry Potter Advent calendar, and if you do it through Amazon, you'll even get it on sale for 33 percent off, bringing the price down from $60 to just $40.

Funko Pop!/Amazon

Over the course of the holiday season, the Advent calendar allows you to count down the days until Christmas, starting on December 1, by opening one of the tiny, numbered doors on the appropriate day. Each door is filled with a surprise Pocket Pop! figurine—but outside of the trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, the company isn't revealing who you'll be getting just yet.

Calendars will start shipping on October 15, but if you want a head start, go to Amazon to pre-order yours at a discount.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Audrey Munson, America’s First Supermodel—And First Nude Movie Star

Audrey Munson photographed in 1915.
Audrey Munson photographed in 1915.
Arnold Genthe, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

While you might not know Audrey Munson’s name, you’ve almost certainly seen her likeness somewhere. Munson’s figure can be found in bronze, copper, and marble across New York City, and, in fact, all over the country—Missouri and Wisconsin each have a statue of her atop their State Capitol buildings, for example.

The model posed for some 200 artists throughout her brief career, earning her nicknames like “Miss Manhattan” and “the American Venus,” along with a reputation as the most well-known muse of early 20th-century America. But after an attempt at a film career fizzled out, Munson struggled to reclaim her place among New York’s artist elite. Even as Munson’s image lives on in sculptures and other works, her story is an often overlooked part of art history.

An Ideal Chorus Girl

Munson photographed by Arnold Genthe in 1915.Arnold Genthe Collection, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Audrey Marie Munson was born on June 8, 1891, in Rochester, New York. Her father, Edgar Munson, was a real estate broker who was descended from one of the founders of New Haven, Connecticut, and her mother, Kittie Mahoney, was the daughter of Irish immigrants. Familial bliss, however, was short-lived—the couple separated when Audrey was only 6, after Kittie caught wind of Edgar’s affair. They divorced two years later.

After the split, Kittie and Audrey began a new life in Providence, Rhode Island. Kittie worked as a boarding house keeper, and Audrey eventually attended a Catholic high school called St. Francis Xavier Female Academy. It was there, under the tutelage of the Sisters of Mercy, that the young Munson learned how to sing and play the piano, violin, harp, mandolin, and guitar.

By 1908, a 17-year-old Munson had started performing in small shows like the touring production of the musical Marrying Mary. She and her mother relocated to New York the following year so the teenage performer could pursue a career in show business. On May 31, 1909, at 18 years old, Munson set foot on a Broadway stage for the first time, dressed in drag and playing the part of a footman in a musical comedy called The Boy and the Girl.

Around this time, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. was beginning to make waves with The Ziegfeld Follies, a series of extravagant variety shows that often featured large choruses of attractive young women who came to be known as “Ziegfeld girls.” Though Munson never performed in one of Ziegfeld’s revues, her arresting beauty and many musical talents made her an ideal chorus girl. She appeared in the choruses of similar productions, including The Girl and the Wizard, Girlies, and La Belle Paree.

Had Munson continued on this path, it’s possible her name would have faded into anonymity with the hundreds of other Broadway hopefuls whose careers petered out once they aged past their chorus-girl prime. But a chance encounter steered her in a drastically different direction.

From Performing to Posing

In late 1909, Munson was window-shopping on 5th Avenue with her mother when she noticed a man paying unusually close attention to her. After she confronted him, he invited her to pose for him in his photography studio.

“We did not like the idea at all,” Munson later said in a 1913 interview for the New York Sun. “But finding out that he was one of the best photographers in town my mother and I went. He took some photographs, said I had a head almost antique in line, and began to tell his artist friends about me.”

The photographer was Felix Benedict Herzog, who was also an accomplished electrical engineer, patent attorney, and inventor. Though his role in Munson’s career only lasted a few years—he died suddenly in April 1912, after complications from intestinal surgery—he jumpstarted her pivot from performing to posing.

As Munson posed for Herzog and his contemporaries, she used her newfound connections to seek out more work. This streak of industriousness led her to the studio of sculptor Isidore Konti, who asked her to model for her first sculpture, The Three Graces, to be displayed in the main ballroom of New York’s Hotel Astor.

It was an extraordinary opportunity, but it came with a catch: Munson would have to pose nude.

Making It to the Top

Isidore Konti's Three Graces.Isidore Konti, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Though the ever-so-enterprising Munson was open to the idea, her more conservative mother hesitated to endorse it. But after three months of chaperoning her daughter’s (clothed) modeling sessions with Konti, Kittie finally gave Audrey her blessing to bare it all for art’s sake.

Munson quickly became one of New York’s most prolific early models, posing for what she estimated was a total of 200 artists, including photographers, illustrators, painters, sculptors, and even a tapestry weaver. If you’ve been to New York, you’ve almost definitely seen at least a few statues bearing Munson’s image, even if you didn’t realize it—many Manhattan neighborhoods have at least one, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art houses another 30 or so. The caryatids supporting the main saloon’s mantelpiece in one of J.P. Morgan’s yachts were carved from Munson’s likeness, and tapestries in George Vanderbilt’s mansion were designed in her image, too. Since some of the pieces Munson modeled for were privately commissioned, it’s not clear where they ended up (or if they’ve even survived various renovations and relocations).

As for those still prominently displayed, perhaps the most striking piece is Civic Fame, a 25-foot gilded copper statue atop the Manhattan Municipal Building that Adolph Alexander Weinman designed in 1913. It’s New York’s second largest statue, dwarfed only by the Statue of Liberty herself.

Adolph Alexander Weinman's Civic Fame atop the Manhattan Municipal Building.CelsoDiniz/iStock via Getty Images

Another gilded version of Munson—bronze, this time—decorates the top of the USS Maine National Monument in Columbus Circle, honoring the 260 sailors who died during the 1898 sinking of the USS Maine in Havana, Cuba. Funded by William Randolph Hearst in 1913, the statue depicts Columbia—the female personification of the United States—riding a seashell chariot pulled by three horse-seahorse hybrid creatures called hippocampi. Sculptor Attilio Piccirilli used metal from the sunken ship for parts of the memorial, which also includes a ship's prow jutting over a fountain and a plaque that lists the victims' names.

Attilio Piccirilli's USS Maine National Monument in New York's Columbus Circle.Elisa Rolle, Attilio Piccirilli, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Munson is also immortalized in marble outside the New York Public Library’s main branch, the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. Frederick MacMonnies's Beauty depicts a mostly nude Munson looking skyward as she leans against a horse.

Frederick MacMonnies's Beauty, at the New York Public Library's main branch.William de Witt Ward, Frederick MacMonnies, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By mid-1913, Munson-inspired works were so prevalent around the city, the New York Sun published a profile on her titled “All New York Bows to the Real Miss Manhattan” in its June 8 issue.

But despite the hundreds of artworks to which Audrey lent her likeness, her paychecks weren't on par with today's Instagram influencers. The going rate for a model at the time—nude or not—was 50 cents an hour, meaning the Munsons lived a modest life. “It was just enough to pay our rent, grocery bills and buy a few clothes once in a while … Almost nothing for amusements,” Munson said in a 1921 newspaper article.

Between the countless hours of sitting, standing, or lying stock-still for artists, Munson branched out into another industry: film.

A False Start in Film

On November 18, 1915, Thanhouser Company released the silent film Inspiration, and Munson became the first American movie star to appear naked in a non-pornographic film. Loosely based on Munson’s own life, Inspiration tells the story of a young girl discovered in New York by a sculptor in need of a muse; it even features some real-life statues that Munson posed for. Though the film was an overall success, it did stir up some dissent from viewers who balked at the nudity. Local officials actually arrested a theater manager in Ossining, New York, for showing the “improper film,” and the city’s Civic League established a censorship committee to prevent similar calamities from happening in the future. “I saw enough and got all the ‘inspiration’ I wanted,” one member said.

Munson was characteristically undeterred. She and her mother moved to California, where the performer appeared nude again in 1916’s Purity. It was another successful (yet polarizing) motion picture, but it also marked the beginning of the end of Munson’s meteoric rise to fame. Her next film, The Girl O’ Dreams, was never released. The reasons are unknown, but biographer James Bone has speculated it may have been a dispute over film rights—no fault of Munson's.

Struggling to Stay Above the Fray

Munson in Purity, 1916.Apeda Studio, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

The Munsons returned to New York in late 1916. Audrey spent the next two years caught up in the high society circles of New York and Newport, Rhode Island, and allegedly struck up a relationship with shipping heir Hermann Oelrichs, Jr. Her mother claimed the two had actually married, though there’s no record to support this.

Whatever feelings Munson had for her purported beau turned sour by early 1919. That January, she sent a strange letter to the U.S. Department of State insisting the German government’s considerable investment in the film industry was preventing her from booking any roles. She listed Oelrichs, Jr. and other well-known German-Americans as co-conspirators in this plot, arguing that they discriminated against her because she was descended from early British settlers. “As you know the Kaisers [sic] $25,000,000 in the Motion Picture Industry has thrown me out of work as I am an American of English blood dating back to the Mayflower days,” she wrote.

Nothing came of Munson's baseless accusations, but her vilification of “the German” and “the German-Jew” in the letter hinted at a festering anti-Semitic streak both Munson and her mother made evident throughout other correspondence.

Things unraveled further in February, when Munson and her mother were brought in for questioning about Dr. Walter K. Wilkins’s murder of his wife, Julia. The press reported that Wilkins, who owned a boarding house where the Munsons had stayed, had been carrying on an affair with a “pretty young woman” many assumed was Audrey. She denied any relationship and even vouched for his character, but the onslaught of negative publicity certainly didn't help her career.

In 1921, Munson attempted to reclaim control of her reputation by telling her life story in 20 serialized articles entitled The Queen of the Artists’ Studios in Hearst’s New York American newspaper. The series was meant to drum up publicity for her new film, Heedless Moths, also based on Munson’s life. But the filmmakers only used Munson herself for a few shots, and gave the majority of her role to newcomer Jane Thomas. It was another instance of others enjoying and profiting from Munson's image with little regard for the woman behind it—an inescapable theme of her career as a model and muse—and her writing reflected her despondence.

“I am wondering if many of my readers have not stood before a masterpiece of lovely sculpture or a remarkable painting of a young girl, her very abandonment of draperies accentuating rather than diminishing her modesty and purity, and asked themselves the question, 'Where is she now, this model who has been so beautiful?'” she wrote in one article. “'What has been her reward? Is she happy and prosperous, or is she sad and forlorn, her beauty gone, leaving only memories in its wake?'”

Advertisements used Munson's name to drum up interest, but Jane Thomas got to be the star of the actual show.Equity Pictures Corporation, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Not long after that, Munson launched a widely publicized search for “the perfect man.” But Munson had grown up valuing her own English-American beauty above all else, and her idea that marriage should be “for the good of the race” reflected her eugenic, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic tendencies. Though she did choose a husband—Joseph J. Stevenson, a World War I pilot and wealth contractor from Chicago—they never actually pursued their relationship.

By 1922, a dispirited, hapless Munson was living with her mother in Mexico, New York, north of Syracuse. In May of that year, at 28 years old, the former model attempted to swallowed mercury-based poison in an attempt to die by suicide. She survived, but she didn't try to return to the limelight.

A Quiet New Life

For almost a decade, Munson lived with her mother in upstate New York, where her mental health further deteriorated. In 1931, citing depression, delusions, hallucinations, and more, Kittie committed her daughter to an asylum.

Shortly after she turned 40, Munson moved into the St. Lawrence State Hospital in Ogdensburg, New York. Except for a brief stint in a nursing home, she remained at that hospital for the next 65 years, and her mother's death in 1958 marked the beginning of a 26-year period with no visitors. Then, in 1984, Munson's half-brother's daughter, Darlene Bradley, tracked her down and took her father to be reunited with his long-lost sister. Bradley continued to pay regular visits until her elderly aunt died on February 20, 1996, at 104 years old.

Munson was cremated, and her ashes were placed in her father’s grave at New Haven Cemetery in New Haven, New York. The tombstone listed Edgar Munson, his second wife, Cora, and their daughter, Vivian—but for 20 years, there was no mention that the former star was laid to rest there, too.

In 2016, New Haven town clerk Debra Allen and town historian Marie Strong decided it was time to honor Munson’s legacy with a tombstone of her own. Since they couldn’t allocate town funds for that purpose, they entered and won numerous county fair baking contests. The two spent their prize money on a simple, elegant tombstone etched with flowers and the words Actress & Model—the last bit of stone bearing witness to the everlasting legacy of America's first supermodel.