Mascara, Murder and a Multibillion Dollar Company

I wrote A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients (now in its 7th edition) and found most ingredients are of botanical or synthetic laboratory origin. I came across a history of an ingredient, however, which has a really unique history. Not only did it begin in a kitchen by accident, it eventually became a multibillion dollar industry involving love triangles, bisexuality, company failures, thefts, and murder. Sharrie Lynn Williams, the great grandniece of the founder of Maybelline, Tom Lyle Williams, co-authored with Bettie Youngs The Maybelline Story published by Bettie Youngs Books.

In 1915, a kitchen stove fire singed Lyle Williams’ sister, Mable’s, eye lashes and brows. He watched as she performed a “secret of the harem.” She mixed petroleum jelly with coal dust and ash from a burnt cork and applied the mixture to her lashes and brows.

Williams, a Kentucky, a 19 year old farm boy, who loved movies, observed that his sister’s eyes became glamorous and made her look like Gloria Swanson or Lillian Gish. He then went to cosmetic counters to find out if there were competitive eye lash and brow products. He found the field was wide open. Victorian women were not using “eye enhancers.”

Williams borrowed his friend’s chemistry set and mixed a concoction of Vaseline, cottonseed oil and carbon black from the chemistry set. He believed he had the formula. Mable tried it. It looked good until it began to melt run into her eyes with painful results.

Frustrated, young Williams took a train to Detroit where there was whole-sale drug company, Parke-Davis. He described what he wanted and sometime later, a chemist sent him ten pounds of refined white petroleum with some fine oils and a touch of perfume.

In a boarding house, three members of the Williams family melted the concoction in a tea pot and then squeezed mixture into small aluminum containers and called their creation “Lash- Brow-Inc”.

Williams took ads in Photo Play, the Police Gazette, Saturday Evening Post and other magazines. The quarters, the price they had set on the product, poured in by mail and the Maybelline Company was born.

Now one of the largest cosmetic businesses in the world, Maybelline products are more complicated. And as for complication, one of the main characters in the mix was Evelyn Boecher with whom the teen-aged Williams had a son, Billy. Evelyn and Williams never married but years later she did marry his alcoholic brother, Preston.

Eventually, as wealthy older woman due to her shares in Maybelline , she became what today is called a “cougar”—an older woman who covets younger men. And like many famous female beauties, she made poor choices. Several took her money and eventually someone allegedly killed her by burning down her house with her in it.

Sharrie Williams, Evelyn’s granddaughter. has described a history of cosmetic company which seems to be more dramatic than most, except perhaps for the botanists that tramp through jungles looking for new ingredients. Sharrie Williams can be contacted at: