DATE February 15, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: A'lelia Bundles talks about her great-great-grandmother
Madame C.J. Walker
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev in for Terry Gross.
In 1914, few women were even allowed to drive a car but Madame C.J. Walker
not only had a license, she drove a Model-T bought with her own hard-earned
cash. Madame C.J. Walker was born to freed slaves. She was a washer woman
who went on to found a hair care and cosmetics empire. The first female,
black millionaire, Walker gave thousands of dollars to charity, supported
anti-lynching campaigns and testified before Congress for the cause. Her
daughter, A'Lelia Walker, ran a popular literary salon during the Harlem
Renaissance, which attracted artists and writers including Paul Robeson and
Langston Hughes. A'Lelia Bundles is my guest. She's the
great-great-granddaughter of Madame C.J. Walker. Bundles is a former
Washington deputy bureau chief for ABC News. She's just written a history of
the family matriarch, "On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madame C.J.
Walker." Hair was a highly charged and political issue in the '60s, when
Bundles was growing up. I asked her if she ever felt conflicted about Madame
Walker's reputation for marketing hair straighteners and other beauty products
which helped black women look white.
Ms. A'LELIA BUNDLES (Author): That was a little problematic for me because
many people did associate her with that. And at that point, I was ambivalent
about her. I was much more fascinated with her daughter A'Lelia Walker, who
had been the toast of the Harlem Renaissance and who gave great parties. But
it was through the next few years--because there was quite a bit of focus on
hair among white kids and black kids. You know, white kids were letting their
hair get long and frizzy and black kids were letting their hair go natural so
whatever household you were in, there was probably a battle going on with one
generation to another. But it was really into my late teens, early 20s that I
began to re-examine Madame C.J. Walker and I began to learn that hair
straightening was not her main objective. In fact, she was trying to
help women have a better hygiene regimen, a better grooming regimen and she
really liberated black women from some of the old-fashioned ways that they
were approaching their hair. And she helped them move beyond the scalp
disease that was plaguing so many people because hygiene was very different in
the late 19th century, early 20th century. Women only washed their hair once
a month. And that meant they had horrible scalp disease. Her regimen was
more frequent washing, apply an ointment that contains sulphur, a
centuries-old healing curative for scalp disease. So she really helped women
in that way.
BOGAEV: Well, let's go back to her early history to set the record straight.
Madame C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove, born to freed slaves, I think
about five years after emancipation. What was the family economic situation?
Ms. BUNDLES: She was born in 1867, in a little hamlet of Delta, Louisiana.
Her parents were absolutely poor. They had been slaves on the Burney
plantation and that was an area in Delta, Louisiana, across the river from
Vicksburg that had been totally decimated by Sherman and Grant so life was
just a scramble for them. They were very, very poor and the crops of 1867
and 1868 were horrible so they had no money. And when Sarah was born two days
before Christmas in 1867, that was probably the only Christmas present that
the family had. They were just eking out a living.
BOGAEV: Did Sarah work the fields?
Ms. BUNDLES: As a little girl, yes. As all children who were living in the
South during that time, as soon as you could walk, you were part of what was
going on. Your mother had to take you to the field because there was no child
care, there was no place to leave you. So children would learn to carry water
to the parents or they would help pull some of the cotton off the cotton
balls. So children very early on learned how to work.
BOGAEV: She ended up living with her sister. What was her situation there?
Did she have to work for the family?
Ms. BUNDLES: When Sarah was seven, her mother died first, her father
remarried and then died apparently shortly after so that before she turned
eight years old she was an orphan. She moved in with her sister and
brother-in-law. Her sister was about 14 years older than she. And she
always described the brother-in-law as cruel. And that--she never elaborated
but that says to me there was some kind of abuse going on. So life was very
difficult for her. And, of course, they expected her to work. And by 10
years old, most black girls were working, if not in the fields, they were
working as laundresses. So she probably was working all the time by 10 years
old. And at that point they moved across the river from Delta, Louisiana, to
Vicksburg, Mississippi. But by the time she was 14, she said, `I married to
get a home of my own, to get away from my cruel brother-in-law.'
BOGAEV: It sounds as if her marriage, if not solid, was OK. She produced a
daughter which was your namesake.
Ms. BUNDLES: Right.
BOGAEV: Your grandmother A'Lelia.
Ms. BUNDLES: Right.
BOGAEV: And then by the time she was 20, Sarah was widowed. How did she make
a living at this point? It seems as if this is another--that her story is one
of tragedy and incredible resilience over and over again.
Ms. BUNDLES: Over and over again. Yes, she just kept bouncing back. And
most black women in that era were working. It was very different. The
percentage of white women who were working, who were married, is much lower
than the percentage of black, married women who were working. So like most
people that she knew, she had to make a living for herself and she was working
as a washerwoman, probably picking cotton some parts of the year. And after
her husband died when she was 20 years old, and this is in 1888, she moved to
St. Louis. Fortunately for her, she had three brothers who were living in
St. Louis and they were barbers.
BOGAEV: Is this what got her into the hair business?
Ms. BUNDLES: Well, I will never really be able to definitively say her
brothers, being barbers, got her into the hair business. But it certainly--as
a historian and as a journalist, I take a little bit of a leap of faith and
believe that it must have influenced her, at least planted the seed.
BOGAEV: Now she did have problem with her hair. Problem hair.
Ms. BUNDLES: Yes. Problem hair.
BOGAEV: And, apparently a problem that was pretty common at the time. Her
hair was falling out. What was going on there and what did she try as a
Ms. BUNDLES: Well, I have to, especially when I'm talking with students,
with young people, I say, `You know, you're not going to believe this but 100
years ago, people didn't have bathtubs in their houses and they might have
taken a bath once a week at the public bath. They didn't have running water.
They didn't have central heating or electricity in most instances around
America. And Sarah Breedlove was one of the people who was in those kinds
of circumstances. Through old wives tales, women believed that they should
only wash their hair once a month. People who lived in rural areas might not
wash their hair at all during the winter because they might fear that they
would get colds. So over time, they developed really horrible scalp disease
and their hair began to fall out. So if you think about what dandruff is like
now and you just multiply that by about 1,000 times and think about what your
scalp would feel like and how much you would scratch your scalp, that created
huge problems and she was losing her hair as a result.
BOGAEV: Were there hair care products for this problem, to deal with this
Ms. BUNDLES: There were some things on the market but, remember, this was an
era before the Federal Drug Administration had passed some of these bills that
prevented people from making wild claims about what their products did. So
Madame Walker experimented--at that point, she was still Sarah Breedlove--she
experimented with some of the products that were already on the market. But
many of them had chemicals or they used things like ox marrow and all kinds of
wild ingredients that weren't particularly helpful. But there were other
products very similar to the ones she developed and it's a very basic formula
that's still sold today. It was an ointment called petrolatum, mixed in with
sulphur, which was the curative, and then the sulphur was masked with a violet
perfume extract and coconut oil.
BOGAEV: How did she market the product? Was it a door-to-door business, like
an Avon lady?
Ms. BUNDLES: She did go door to door initially, selling the products. And
then, as she really got her sea legs, she began to gather women as she
traveled from town to town at the--she'd always go to a Methodist church and
a Baptist church. She wanted to make sure she covered all the bases. She
would gather women and she would talk to them, not only about her products,
but about pride in themselves and economic independence and she would talk
about what was going on with African-Americans in other parts of the country.
So in a time when there were no movies and no radio and no TV, when she would
come to town, she was the big event. And she once told one of her sales
agents--she would do slide shows and show pictures of different black schools
and her own manufacturing factory and her own homes and those kinds of things.
And she said to one of her agents, `It's not the product, it's getting people
to come. Once you get them to come, then you can sell them anything.'
BOGAEV: What other products did she develop?
Ms. BUNDLES: Madame Walker initially sold five products: her Vegetable
Shampoo, her Wonderful Hair Grower, which was the petrolatum including
sulphur, something called Tetter Salve, which healed dandruff, Temple Salve,
and then Glossine. And Glossine was just a very light ointment and that was
the ointment that was used when she used the hot comb to straighten the hair.
They would apply the Glossine and then comb the hot comb, that was heated in a
lantern or over an open flame, through the hair.
BOGAEV: So this is where the hair straightening reputation came in.
Ms. BUNDLES: This is where the hair straightening came from, right.
BOGAEV: Was hair a politically charged issue even back then before the turn
of the century?
Ms. BUNDLES: Yes, hair was a politically charged issue even in the mid-19th
century, where some people said, `This is the way God made you. You should
stay that way.' And things get a little jumbled up I think because during
that era--there was a Victorian era. It was a very proper era.
Women--African-Americans were becoming more urbanized. People were moving to
the cities. They wanted a more sophisticated look. But if you consider that
most people were not really grooming their hair and so people had lost many of
the traditions, the African traditions, that beautified them. So they were
not caring for their hair in a way that made women feel attractive. And if
they were also going bald, you can understand that they weren't focused on
straightening hair, they were focused on having hair. And then I think we
went through a period into the '20s where the flapper look and the Josephine
Baker--Baker fix, very straight, slicked down hair, evolving into the '30s,
'40s and '50s, where straight hair was just what everybody did. And it meant
black women couldn't go swimming because their hair would go back. And so
people approached hair as if it was supposed to be straight. And then it
really took the civil rights movement and the re-examination of the position
of African-Americans in the society for people to become more comfortable with
And, you know, there was something Madame Walker said in 1918--a white
reporter had ridiculed her, called her the `dekink queen(ph).' And she was
very offended by that. And she said in response, `Let me correct the
erroneous impression that I claim to straighten hair. I grow hair. I want my
people to care more about their grooming. And I predict that in 10 years from
now, you will not see a kinky head of hair but it will not be straight
either.' Now I read into that something that maybe everybody else doesn't read
into. But I think it sort of anticipated where we are today.
BOGAEV: What did the packaging look like?
Ms. BUNDLES: I found the packaging very interesting. I did a lot of research
looking through old black newspapers and compared the advertisements used by
the Walker Company and other companies. And it was very interesting that in
the 1890s, you would see a lot of advertisements for hair care products
directed towards black women in black newspapers. And many of the
advertisements were from white-owned companies who really were kind of
exploiting the insecurity that black women felt about their hair and about
their skin. So that you would see an ad that had a before picture where
someone looked like a pickaninny and had bad skin and then you would see a
drawing that was the after picture, after you used their product--a product
called Kinkella(ph), for instance--and there would be a person who looked
like--who was a mulatto. So you knew that that transformation could not be
made, nor should have it been made. Madame Walker, I think, was very clever
in putting her own image on her products. Because she was saying to women,
`I'm a very African-looking woman and you can look as I do. You can have the
long hair that I have.' She used advertisements that showed a before picture
where her hair was patchy and then her after picture was her long hair. And
it was kind of bushy. You know, she was showing, I think, her own beauty. So
she was smart enough to use her own image. And it's almost as if she said,
`Not only can you look like me but maybe you can be rich like I am as well.'
BOGAEV: So it's kind of a self-empowerment image.
Ms. BUNDLES: I think so.
BOGAEV: It wasn't aspiring to some kind of white ideal of beauty.
Ms. BUNDLES: No, you know, I think you can't dismiss that the tyranny of
beauty in America was impossible for most women to achieve. Most women were
not going to look like the Gibson Girls, who was the popular look of the
1890s: the wasp-waisted Gibson girl with the hair cascading on top of her
head. Most women weren't going to look like that, whether they were black or
white. But just as we have certain styles now where people feel they want to
look a certain way, everybody can achieve it and people are often striving to
be something that they can't really be.
BOGAEV: I'm talking with A'Lelia Bundles. She's the author of "On Her Own
Ground," a new biography of Madame C.J. Walker, who was A'Lelia Bundles
great-great-grandmother and one of the first and most successful
African-American entrepreneurs. We'll talk more after the break. This is
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: If you're just joining us, my guest is A'Lelia Bundles. She's the
former Washington deputy bureau chief for ABC News. She had a new book about
her great-great-grandmother, Madame C.J. Walker, the African-American hair
care entrepreneur and philanthropist. The name of the book is "On Her Own
Madame C.J. Walker, part of her empire was also building hair salons which
really were a rarity then--hair salons for black women that is.
Ms. BUNDLES: Well, hair salons, I think, in general--really the cosmetics
industry, the hair care industry in a commercial sense was just evolving in
the early 20th century. Madame Walker, Helena Rubenstein, Elizabeth Arden and
Annie Pope Turnbo Malone were all pioneers at a time when the commercial
interest had not become interested in these kinds of products for women. In
fact, you know, there was a real prohibition. Painted ladies and ladies who
paid too much attention to their grooming were looked down upon. And this was
a business that was not of interest to most men and I think that's how these
four giant women were able to develop the industry and to become pioneers.
BOGAEV: Now there were plenty of other entrepreneurs, as you say, making big
money at the turn of the century. Fuller Brush was going strong, Lydia
Pinkham's patent medicine tonic had earned her hundreds of thousands of
dollars, Avon had already gotten big. What distinguished Madame C.J. Walker
from these other direct sales magnates?
Ms. BUNDLES: Well, she was definitely focusing on a market that was a market
they were ignoring and she was taking her products to women who had not been
told they should be pampered. She was giving them pampering and paying
attention to them and telling them that they were beautiful and also, very,
very important, helping them become economically independent. I mean, she had
her first convention of Walker sales agents in 1917, around the time Mary Kay
was born. Madame Walker was already giving prizes to her sales agents, to the
people who had sold the most products, to the people who had brought in the
most new agents and also to the agents who had contributed the most to their
churches or to their community organizations. She wanted her agents to use
their economic clout to make a difference. So before there were political
PACs, Madame Walker was already creating a large group of women, coalesced
around their financial independence, to make a difference as lobbyists in a
BOGAEV: So she was really promoting business development.
Ms. BUNDLES: She really was. I think she was a total visionary. Madame
Walker was a visionary because she saw the potential power of African-American
women and saw that they could make a difference. At the 1917 convention, the
agents sent a telegram to President Woodrow Wilson to urge him to make
lynching a federal crime and that would be very similar to the hate crimes
bill that we've been looking at in more recent years. During the next
convention in 1918, they sent another telegram to the president, urging him to
honor the rights of black soldiers who were fighting in France during World
BOGAEV: Madame Walker earned her name as a philanthropist primarily for two
big bundles of money she gave towards the YWCA and also the NAACP's
anti-lynching movement. I believe she also gave to African-American colleges
and other smaller grants to institutions. Was she accepted by the black
leadership of the time, by the black political elite? Or did they look
askance at this woman marketing cosmetics?
Ms. BUNDLES: There was a range of response to Madame Walker. But I think
anyone who looked askance to her initially was finally won over and respected
her, because she was really one of the only African-Americans who had the
money to make a difference with her political perspectives. Other people
might have been outspoken and pushing different political agendas but Madame
Walker could actually put some money where her mouth was. Now she did have,
initially, a bit of a set-to with Booker T. Washington, who, at the time,
was the most powerful black man in America. And Madame Walker very much
wanted his respect and his endorsement. But he did look askance at the
products that she made. He lumped her products, her hair grower, in with some
of the products that were manufactured by white-owned companies that were
making these wild claims about straightening hair. He was very uncomfortable
with that and thought that that would hold African-Americans up to ridicule.
So he dismissed her initially without really understanding what she was doing.
And when she appeared at his 1912 National Negro Business League Conference,
he refused to allow her to speak on the first and second day. And on the
third day, she just pushed her way to the front and told him, `Surely, you're
not going to shut the door in my face.' And then he listened to her speech
with some caution but the next year he invited her back as the keynote
In terms of some of the other members of the leadership in the
African-American community, people like W.E.B. DuBois and Ida B. Wells
Barnett; some names that we're not as familiar with today, James Weldon
Johnson, Mary Church Terrell, Mary Burnett Talbert, people who were in the
leadership of the National Association of Colored Women and the NAACP. Those
people really did respect Madame Walker and especially after she moved to New
York in 1960, she became a part of the leadership and contributed her money
and helped support the causes.
BOGAEV: A`Lelia Bundles' new biography is "On Her Own Ground: The Life and
Times of Madame C.J. Walker." We'll continue our conversation in the second
half of the show. I'm Barbara Bogaev and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: Langston Hughes called her the joy goddess of Harlem's 1920s. Coming
up, we hear more about A'Lelia Walker and her mother, the legendary
African-American entrepreneur Madame C.J. Walker. And Maureen Corrigan
reviews a new biography about another entrepreneur who built a beauty empire
in the 1930s for men and women who like to be pampered.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev.
Let's return now to our interview with A'Lelia Bundles. Her new book is
"On Her Own Ground," a biography of her great-great-grandmother, the black
hair care and cosmetics entrepreneur Madame C.J. Walker. The daughter of
slaves, at 20 Walker was a widow with a young child. She worked for two
decades as a washerwoman before going on to found a beauty empire. She used
her wealth to support the political causes of her friends Booker T.
Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, and was also active in the NAACP's
anti-lynching campaign in the early 1900s.
Did Madame Walker's activism against lynching and testifying in Washington for
anti-lynching legislation get her in any hot water politically, earn her any
kind of name as a troublemaker?
Ms. BUNDLES: Well, you know, that was--I found it very interesting that if
we think of the climate, almost like during the Vietnam War when anybody who
spoke out against the war or anyone who had some different perspective than
the Nixon administration, for instance, was put on the enemies list. Well,
there was something very similar going on during World War I, where Woodrow
Wilson and his secretary of State were rather freaked out by what they
considered Bolsheviks or people who were subversives. And being a subversive
just meant that you were a little militant or you were a little outspoken and
you did not agree with them. Well, Madame Walker was very militant about the
anti-lynching legislation that was being proposed, and she was very militant
about the civil rights of African-American soldiers. And as a result when she
met with other African-American leaders, both in her home and in public
places, she was watched by a black spy who was working for the military
intelligence department of the War Department.
BOGAEV: Did she know?
Ms. BUNDLES: I don't know that she knew at the time, but I think there were
some hints because she applied for a passport to go to France. She and a
number of other African-Americans wanted to go to Paris to observe the peace
talks at Versailles after World War I, and her passport was denied.
Coincidentally, she and her attorney, F.B. Ransom, happened to be very close
to Emmet Scott(ph), who was the undersecretary for Negro Affairs at the War
Department, and apparently, Emmet Scott had seen the file on her and suggested
in a letter to her attorney that her name was on file as a Negro subversive.
BOGAEV: Madame C.J. Walker died in her 50s when her business was at her
height, and she left it to her daughter Lelia, your grandmother, to care
for the company. She didn't have much of a head for business, but she did end
up as one of the leading figures in the Harlem Renaissance. What role did she
play in Harlem culture? Was she a benefactress?
Ms. BUNDLES: A'Lelia Walker was called the joy goddess of Harlem's 1920s by
Langston Hughes, the poet and author. I always loved that word. And she
was the person who first attracted me. We share the same name. Our birthdays
are a day apart. I was always fascinated by her because she had known people
like Duke Ellington and Zora Neale Hurston and Countee Cullen, the poet, and I
wanted to know much more about her. The story that many people told is that
Madame made the money, A'Lelia Walker spent the money. But it was really more
complicated than that.
And in "On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madame C.J. Walker," I have
really tried to develop her, give her more dimension, so that people could see
early on she was very involved in the business. But as time went on and
her mother spoiled her a little bit more and she became more the heiress than
the businesswoman, that her life began to evolve. And like, I think, many
children of larger-than-life figures, she was trying to find something that
was her own, so that she would not always be compared to her mother. And the
'20s seemed to be the perfect time for her because she did have more money
than most people, and she had beautiful homes and it was a decade of parties
and a decade of music and literature and culture. And she was the one who
often provided the venue for people.
BOGAEV: You mean she sponsored parties and kept them fed and happy...
Ms. BUNDLES: Right. She...
BOGAEV: ...and connected people with other people.
Ms. BUNDLES: ...right, she--exactly. She had parties, she had a beautiful
town house in Harlem, a beautiful four-story town house, and she turned the
top floor of that town house into a salon called The Dark Tower. And there
were always events there, there were teas, there were parties, there were
after-hours parties, there were jam sessions. And then her house in
Irvington, New York. Her mother had built a beautiful mansion that's still
standing--it's a national historic landmark called Villa Lewaro. And at
that home, A'Lelia would have weekend parties. I once interviewed Alberta
Hunter, the blues singer who in the 1980s was playing downtown in New York at
a place called the Cookery(ph). And when I interviewed her, she described
playing the organ at Villa Lewaro, this organ that was piped all through the
house, and she even told me that A'Lelia Walker had a great singing voice.
And A'Lelia Walker had this wonderful, flamboyant, outgoing, gregarious
personality. People loved her and loved being around her. And remember, she
had grown up in St. Louis right in the beginning of the ragtime era. Where
they lived in St. Louis was where Tom Turpin and Scott Joplin and other people
were playing ragtime, so she--I think, in her bones, she had always been able
to feel the music.
BOGAEV: She died relatively young, when she was 46, and the business had
really faltered since Madame Walker's death under her heading. Was the
consensus that she never lived up to her mother's expectations?
Ms. BUNDLES: I think that's true. Now what--the business itself was really
run on a day-to-day basis during the '20s by F.B. Ransom, who was Madame
Walker's attorney. And he did everything he could to hold the business
together. But where sales in 1919, the year of Madame Walker's death, had
been $1/2 million, which would be about $5 million today, by 1930, a year deep
into the Depression, the sales had dropped to $130,000. Well, that was
because the people who had been buying the products no longer had jobs. They
couldn't work. So it really wasn't A'Lelia Walker who created the demise, at
that point, of the company. But she really wasn't as interested in the
business as time went on.
BOGAEV: She's your namesake. A'Lelia, growing up were you told, `Oh, perhaps
you'll turn into a toast of popular culture, like your grandmom,' or, `Don't
turn out like your grandmom'? She did kin--come to a somewhat sorry end.
Ms. BUNDLES: Yes, she did. She did have a sorry--she did have a very sad
ending because she had become accustomed to the wealth and all the trappings
and, you know, both the good and the bad that comes along with that. And I
just think--my grandfather said that she had a stroke, and my grandfather said
she knocked herself out because she wanted to be knocked out. And I just
think she saw nothing but poverty ahead, and she couldn't really face that.
That's what she had known as a child, and it was just too much for her to deal
with. But, you know, I never--I was really fortunate growing up that my
mother was wise enough not to overwhelm me with Madame C.J. Walker and A'Lelia
Walker. I was never told, `Be like this,' or, `Don't be like that.' I was
really encouraged to follow my own dreams. And I was allowed to discover
these women on my own in my own time.
BOGAEV: Were you pressured by your mother to follow her into the family
Ms. BUNDLES: No, my mother was a wonderful lady--very, very smart--and she
had been pressured to go into the family business. I think there just wasn't
really any discussion. And she was the fourth woman to be an executive of the
Walker company from her family. But by then, she knew that she--because I
think she had been forced to go into it, I think she enjoyed certain aspects
of it. But she really wanted her children to follow their own dreams and to
develop their own interests. And I just find it very ironic that my interest
was always writing. At eight years old I had my first story published, and I
really got a thrill from seeing my byline and I got a thrill as I learned that
I could write and describe scenes and, you know, make myself tingle by
writing--that I developed my own interest as a journalist. And I was telling
other people stories, but all the time I was really burning to tell this story
and to understand the story of my family. So the birthright and the
inheritance that I had appeared to be abandoning finally came back to me.
BOGAEV: A'Lelia Bundles' new biography of Madame C.J. Walker is "On Her Own
Ground." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: If you're just joining us, my guest is A'Lelia Bundles. Her new
book, "On Her Own Ground," is a biography of the African-American hair care
entrepreneur, Madame C.J. Walker. Her empire included hair and cosmetic
products, as well as beauty schools and a network of hair salons.
Even early on, a visit to a salon was about more than just hair.
Ms. BUNDLES: There's, you know, quite an interesting culture of women talking
with each other in the beauty shops, and really many of the beauticians
who--anybody over 50--most of the black beauticians were either trained at the
Walker Beauty School, the Apex Beauty School or the Poro Beauty School, which
was the company that Annie Malone had founded. But I have very fond memories
growing up and being in the beauty salon and listening to the ladies, you
know, as they gossiped and told stories and as the man came through from the
church selling fish on Saturdays and as all the music was playing in the
background with people like Theola Kilgore and Aretha Franklin. So there's
quite an interesting culture, and there's a lot of scholarship going on right
now about the history of the hair care industry. There's a young woman named
Tiffany Gills at Rutgers who's writing about beauty shops and politics that in
places like Selma, Alabama, after the bombing happened where African-Americans
were afraid to meet sometimes in churches, that they would meet in beauty
shops because no one suspected that anything would be going on in a beauty
shop. So they have, in a sense, always been very much a center of the
BOGAEV: Well, that's interesting--that merger of politics and hair care.
Ms. BUNDLES: Absolutely.
BOGAEV: It runs through your whole story.
Ms. BUNDLES: Well, exactly. I mean, that was Madame Walker's message, and I
think people lost--much of her story has been lost, and I think that is--if I
can help restore that understanding of the combination, not of the hair care
and the money that was made and that the money was used for philanthropy and
BOGAEV: Growing up, what did you know about your grandmother? Did you hear
Ms. BUNDLES: I definitely heard stories, but I think I began to feel these
women organically. When I was three years old, my mother and father and I
moved back to Indianapolis and we spent a couple of months in my grandfather's
apartment, and I happened to be sleeping in the bedroom of my late
grandmother. And in that bedroom were all kinds of things that had belonged
to Madame C.J. Walker, my great-great-grandmother, her daughter A'Lelia
Walker, as well as my grandmother--their photographs, clothes, jewelry. So I
began to sense the magic of these women even at a very early age.
BOGAEV: Did you have an image of what her business was and what she
represented? Because there was an idea that Madame C.J. Walker sold hair
Ms. BUNDLES: Right. Right. Well, when I was growing up, my mother was vice
president of the Madame C.J. Walker manufacturing company, so I would go to
her office and I was always sort of fascinated by the adding machine and the
typewriter and played with that. I wasn't focused very much when I was young
on whether she was making a hair straightener or not making a hair
straightener. It was actually in the '60s when I wanted to have an Afro and I
was a senior in high school in 1969, and that then became somewhat of an
issue. But before that people weren't really debating whether black women
should straighten their hair or not straighten their hair.
BOGAEV: So the hair wars raised their specter over your family in the '60s.
Ms. BUNDLES: Absolutely. Absolutely. By that time, my mother was still vice
president of the Madame C.J. Walker manufacturing company, and my father was
president of a competitor, Summit Laboratories, and they made chemical hair
straighteners. And my father really liked my long hair; I think most daddies
do like their daughters in long hair. And he was really opposed to my idea to
get an Afro. And he said, `Well, the boys will never look at you again,'
which was--you know, that was not nice of my daddy to do that. But my mother,
having the wisdom of mothers, took me straight down to the Walker Beauty
School, and proceeded to have the students there develop this big Angela Davis
size Afro for me. So I was transformed right there at the Walker Beauty
BOGAEV: In the course of researching the book and writing it, did you find
out anything that you felt you might not want to include in the book, given
that you're writing about someone, Madame Walker, who's pretty--almost a
popular culture icon and she's your great-great-grandmother? This is family.
Ms. BUNDLES: Right. Well, I really wanted to tell the truth. It was ver--I
had read so many errors and mistakes and found so many myths and
misconceptions about her that I wanted to set the record straight, and I had a
very important moment in my life. In 1976 when I was at Columbia in graduate
school, I had started writing a paper about Madame Walker, and I went back to
Indianapolis for Christmas break. And my mother was very ill; she had lung
cancer. And we knew that she wasn't going to live much longer. And I
remember sitting at her hospital bed and telling her that I was discovering
some flaws and I was finding things about divorces and lawsuits and things
that were something other than the triumphs and the achievements of Madame
Walker and A'Lelia Walker. And I said, `You know, Mommy, what do I do about
these things? Do I include this and do I include that?' And she looked at me
and she really had so little energy at that point because she'd been going
through chemotherapy, and she said, `Tell the truth, baby. It's OK to tell
the truth.' And that really freed me up. I meant that I had permission to
tell the story as I found it. And I think if I--I didn't want to gloss over
it because I wanted Madame Walker to be real because her story is more
inspiring to me--I--really if people understand that she's a human being.
There are other women who want to achieve things in their lives, and if they
were to see a person who was flawless, then there would be no possibility.
They would not believe that they too could achieve the kinds of things that
BOGAEV: A'Lelia Bundles, I want to thank you for talking with me today.
Ms.BUNDLES: It's been a great pleasure.
BOGAEV: A'Lelia Bundles. Her new book is "On Her Own Ground: The Life and
Times of Madame C.J. Walker."
Here's Alberta Hunter, with Fats Waller on organ, recorded in 1927. It's from
the box set "Rhapsodies in Black: Music and Words from the Harlem
(Soundbite from 1927 recording)
Ms. ALBERTA HUNTER: Hey, sugar. Here come my baby, my sugar. I named my
baby my sugar. That's why my sugar is pure, confectionery, funny. He never
pleads for my money, but when he feeds me on honey, he gets his needs every
time. I'd make a million trips to his sweet lips if I were a bee, 'cause he's
sweeter than any candy to me. Oh, sugar, I never cheat on my sugar, 'cause
I'm too sweet on my sugar, that sugar baby of mine.
(Soundbite of organ music)
Ms. HUNTER: Pump that thing, Fats.
(Soundbite of organ music)
Ms. HUNTER: Say, have you heard what I've done? Found a word, just the one,
to take the place of the one I used to call my baby doll. It ain't new, and
it ain't old, but if you do what you're told, you'll find the answer when you
take a look in Mr. Webster's dictionary book. That little word is sugar. I
call my baby my sugar. I named my baby my sugar. That's why my sugar is such
a little lollipoppa. Funny, he never pleads for my money, but when he
feeds me on honey, he gets his needs every time. I'd make a million trips to
his sweet lips, if I were a bee, 'cause he's sweeter than any candy to me.
Oh, my little sugar, sugar. I call my baby my sugar, sugar. I named my baby
my sugar, that sugar baby of mine.
(Soundbite of organ music)
BOGAEV: Alberta Hunter and Fats Waller from a 1927 recording.
Coming up, a review of a biography about another beauty business pioneer.
This is FRESH AIR.
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Review: Book "Martha Mathilda Harper and the American Dream" by Jane
TERRY GROSS, host:
Madame Walker's fantastic success in the beauty business was paralleled by the
careers of several white women at the turn of the century. There was Helena
Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden and a woman whose name is no longer a
household word: Martha Mathilda Harper. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has
a review of the first biography of Harper called "Martha Mathilda Harper and
the American Dream."
MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:
It's February. Need I say more? Nature looks gray and dead, and so do I.
That's why it was a lift to imagine walking into a Harper's Salon, circa
1930 or so. Painted white and staffed with operators wearing pseudo nurses'
uniforms, the Harper's Salons specialized in massages, facials and shampoos
meant to stimulate blood flow and tighten the skin. For two hours, a customer
would be smeared head to toe in patented Harper hair tonics and creams. No
cosmetics were pushed, no permanents or dye jobs offered, and customers pretty
much styled their hair themselves. But when they left a Harper's Salon, women
and men would be aglow.
Once as ubiquitous as white gloves, Harper beauty products were carried by the
major department stores, and at the height of their popularity, by 1930, there
were some 500 Harper's Salons in the United States and Europe. Customers,
over the 70-odd years that the Harper's Salons flourished included Susan B.
Anthony, President and Mrs. Coolidge, Danny Kaye, the Marx Brothers, Irene
Dunn, patriarch Joe Kennedy and daughter-in-law Jackie. During the
negotiations of the treaty of Versailles, a fatigued Woodrow Wilson even
patronized a Harper's Salon in Paris.
The woman responsible for all those radiant complexions was Martha Mathilda
Harper, and she's the subject, at last, of a biography called "Martha Mathilda
Harper and the American Dream." Author Jane. R. Plitt is a business professor
and entrepreneur. Nothing against those two professions, but you can tell
that Plitt is more accustomed to writing business plans than prose. The dull
title of this biography hints at what's to come. Plitt's writing style is
about as bland as a stick of beige pancake makeup.
No matter. Harper herself is such a spunky character, and her story is so
amazing, that even the lackluster prose of this biography doesn't do much
damage. And to give Plitt her due, while resurrecting Harper's life from the
dustbin of history, she also provides an interesting mini history of the
American cosmetics and beauty industry from the turn of the century through
the 1940s. As I learned from Plitt, Harper pioneered the retail franchise
system. In a way, we have her to thank for transforming the face of retail
America into strip malls full of Domino's and Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets.
Harper also invented the first reclining shampoo chair and pushed organic
products in her salons.
Harper's quintessentially American Horatio Alger story began in Ontario,
Canada, in 1857. Born into a poor, large family, Harper was basically sold
off into servitude at age seven by her horrible father. She worked as a
household servant for the next 25 years and would have remained one were it
not for a few lucky breaks. First of all, as Plitt's copiously illustrated
biography shows, the young Harper had a head of hair to rival Rapunzel's:
floor length, lustrous and crimped. When Harper went to work at age 12 for a
Canadian doctor, who was interested in herbalism, she picked up the formula
for a tonic that made her tresses even more tremendous. About a decade later,
Harper boarded a boat for Rochester, New York, with 60 silver dollars and the
tonic formula in her pocket. There, she was introduced to Christian Science
and the women's movement.
The rest of Harper's life is history--forgotten history, until Plitt's
biography. In Rochester, Harper used her savings to open one of the first
public hair salons in the US. When her salon took off, Harper was influenced
by feminism, Christian Science, her own working-class consciousness and her
longing to create the family she never had, to hire former servants like
herself and offer them franchises to set up Harper's Salons across the
country. That's the most thrilling aspect of this biography, the whole
`sisterhood is powerful' angle.
Plitt quotes former Harper girls, who recall the pride they felt in their
self-sufficiency, and you can see that pride exuding from their faces in the
photos in the biography. Wouldn't you know it, though? Romance brought down
Harper's sororial empire. At the age of 63, Harper married a charmer 24 years
her junior. He eventually took over the company, put it in the hands of
managers, and by the time Harper died at age 93, the end was near for her
salons, too. I guess the all-too-familiar lesson of Harper's remarkable life
is `hair today, gone tomorrow.'
BOGAEV: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Martha Mathilda Harper and the American Dream" by Jane Plitt.
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