Small-town Ontario girl. Seeks respect, fortune, maybe fame, in the bright lights of New York. If you can make it there … well, you know the rest.
Welcome to the life and success of Florence Nightingale Graham, a “spinster” from Woodbridge, Ont., who reinvented herself in the early 20th century as Manhattan beauty maven Elizabeth Arden – and whose personal wealth would be the equivalent of $500-million today.
Welcome also to the parallel path of Louise Claire Johnson, an aspiring Ivey Business student who at 18 years old dreamed of a similar success story – and ended up writing a different one instead.
“I don’t regret a single minute of it,” says Johnson of her journey from Oakville to a full-time marketing career at the beauty company before she was 25, and then to the realization that words, not the executive suite, would be her career path.
Johnson, Ivey HBA’11, is author of Behind the Red Door: How Elizabeth Arden’s Legacy Inspired My Coming-of-Age Story in the Beauty Industry, a biography of the cosmetics queen and a diary of Johnson’s path to self-discovery, published by Gatekeeper Press.
The red door in the title refers to the iconic entryway to Arden stores.
Johnson was still in high school when she tagged along to a 25-year reunion with her father Eric Johnson, Ivey HBA’81, and found herself exchanging business cards with his former classmate, Scott Beattie, Ivey HBA’81, MBA’86. (At the time, Beattie was president, CEO and chairman of the beauty-products leviathan Elizabeth Arden Inc. He is now vice-chairman of Revlon Inc., which bought Arden in 2016.)
Johnson became obsessed with learning more about Arden’s life and with earning an internship at the company.
A summer internship after her first year at Western turned into three and, when she’d graduated from Ivey, became a full-time marketing job that embedded her in New York, Geneva, London (England) then back in New York.
Her dogged pursuit of Arden – the historical person and the career aspiration – became near-total.
The early 20th-century definition of success for a woman didn’t feel right for Arden, Johnson said in an interview. “The idea of taking care of a husband and children didn’t really appeal to her. Elizabeth didn’t want to conform.
“At the same time, she never felt like she fit in. In the man’s world, the business world, she never felt at home. And in New York society with all the society women, she never fit in.”
Even as Johnson was describing in her cheery blog the glamour and glory of her locales, she was keeping a private, and more honest, diary.
“From the outside, to peers and to my parents, I looked like I had it all,” she said. “But over time I started to ask, ‘is this not only what success looks like but feels like?’
“I was writing – doing what made me feel happiest – on the side. It didn’t feel like work. Then it became this strong thought that I’ll be 88 years old and be like Elizabeth Arden and not really having achieved happiness.”
After a stop at Harvard University to earn a journalism degree, she returned to Oakville to pursue writing.
Arden is said to have turned down an offer to ghostwrite her autobiography because, in her 80s, she believed memoirs were for those who were either elderly or dead.
Johnson wanted to excise her own narrative from the story but her editors persuaded her otherwise.
“It’s not an identical story because it covers my life from 18 to 25 and it’s the full narrative arc of Elizabeth’s life,” she said. “But what it does is highlight how much and how little life has changed for women in business in the past 100 years – using my modern-day lens to bring the story to a younger generation.”
When Arden began her career, women couldn’t sign a lease or take out a loan without a man’s signature. (Her brother co-signed her first salon’s lease and loaned her money to buy out the previous owner.)
Women didn’t launch multinational beauty makeover businesses that thrived through two wars and the Depression, and they didn’t become horse-racing icons or household names.
But Arden — savvy, exacting, demanding, ambitious and the confidante of queens and businesses magnates’ wives – did.
Work was Arden’s passion and horses were her love. The company she founded was worth a billion dollars when she died in 1966.
Johnson ultimately realized that the ambitions that drove her when she was 18 no longer sustained her at 25. “My goals and my views of what success looked like changed.”
She credits her time at Ivey with helping inspire her passion in business and in writing. “To me,” said Johnson, “marketing was the most creative of the business disciplines. I’ve always loved storytelling, and marketing is just storytelling at its core.”
Behind the Red Door is her first book; her second, a murder-mystery-thriller, is in progress.