Edna_Wallace_Hopper_1910I’ve mentioned in previous posts that celebrity endorsements and branding of cosmetics is nothing new. One of the earliest and most successful brandings of a line of cosmetics would use the name and image of actress Edna Wallace Hopper.

edna wallace hopper_hair_front_final

Edna Wallace was born in San Francisco, California to Waller and Josephine Wallace. She was likely born on January 17, 1872, but throughout her life she steadfastly refused to reveal her age. She said that no one could verify it because her birth records had been destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Acting was in her blood, well, sort of – her father was head night usher at the California Theater. Even if her father didn’t act in the theater there was sufficient drama at home to make an impression on young Edna.

Edna’s dad was also employed as a barkeep, and it was in that capacity that he met Alexander Dunsmuir in about 1879. Dunsmuir was the son of a wealth Scots coal baron in Victoria, B.C. He’d been sent to run the family’s business office in San Francisco, but he much preferred a glass of whiskey. And who can blame him?


Waller eventually moved his wealth drinking buddy into the family home as a boarder. That wasn’t a very smart move. On one side of the coin was hard working Waller, on the other side was the enormously wealthy Alex. Could anyone have been shocked by the outcome when Edna’s mother fell in love with Alex, and the Wallace’s divorced? Waller was left with Edna and her brother, but after a while Josephine missed her kids. When Waller was offered a settlement in exchange for custody of the kids, he accepted.

Alex and Josephine may have been in love, but Alex’s mother had a vice-like grip on the purse strings and she wasn’t about to accept “that woman” as her daughter-in-law. She was so adamant about her disapproval that she even threatened to disinherit Alex.


Rather than annoy Alex’s mother by forcing the issue, the lovers quietly set up housekeeping (pretty risqué for the time) and waited for the inevitable – the woman couldn’t live forever, right? In 1898 Alex and his brother James finally gained control of the family business.

Alex took $350k (approximately $9 million in current dollars) of his share of the family fortune and built Josephine a fine home near San Leandro, California. He deeded the house to Josephine.

dunsmuir-house-oaklandWith no further family hurdles to overcome, Alex and Josephine were married. On their much-delayed wedding day Alex made out a will leaving everything but the San Leandro home to his brother James. The couple was married on December 21, 1899 at a hotel in San Pablo, California and honeymooned in New York City – where just one month later, while still on their honeymoon, Alex died. His years of hard drinking had taken their toll. Sadly, Josephine didn’t live much longer, she passed away in 1901.

In 1904 Edna filed suit hoping to crack the will and walk away with about $1M. Even with the evidence of Alex’s drinking, the judge determined that he’d been of sound mind when he willed everything (but the house) to his brother James.

hopper floradora girls

Floradora Girls

By the time of her mother’s death Edna had already starred in her most famous role, Lady Holyrood in the popular London stage play FLORADORA [see my earlier post on FLORADORA]. Though not playing one of the renowned Florodora Sextettes, she shared in some of the wild adulation of male admirers who mobbed the backstage door after every performance.
dewolf poster

During the late 1890s Edna had married, and divorced, a fellow actor DeWolf Hopper. DeWolf had been as bald as a billiard ball from childhood (he had alopecia), so he wore wigs both on and offstage. In later years a reaction to harsh medicines that he took for throat problems gave his skin a bluish tinge. Being bald and blue did not diminish his powerful voice and great sense of humor, so DeWolf was still able to attract women – apparently in legion numbers. He reportedly had an insatiable appetite for young actresses and he’d left a trail of six wives and countless mistresses in his wake—he became known as the “The Husband of His Country.”

If the name Hopper seems familiar to you, you may be thinking of famed gossip columnist Hedda Hopper to whom DeWolfe was married from 1913-1924.

hedda hopper 1920s

Hedda Hopper c. 1920

Edna took fewer acting roles in the 1910s, but her career took off in a surprising new direction in the 1920s. She was one of the earliest stage actors to have a facelift – she even had the operation filmed! She would make personal appearance tours over the next eight years showing the film and giving beauty tips.

hopper dont envy me_nov 1923

Edna’s beauty advice appeared often during the 1920s in newspapers like the Los Angeles Times.

Edna’s tours and timeless good looks captured the attention Claude C. Hopkins, and advertising man who worked for American Home Products. The cosmetics line was a success and was still be advertised in the 1940s, although by that time only Edna’s name was being used.

Hopper separated from her second husband and he died in the 1930s. She went on to become the only woman of the thirty-six member board of L. F. Rothschild & Co. She traveled daily by subway to her office to handle investments until shortly before her death in New York City from complications of pneumonia on December 14, 1959. The news reports of her death gave her age as anywhere from the mid-80s to 95.

hopper dies headline

Floranet c. 1920

Floranet c. 1920

Advertising reflects its time, and the themes and designs are often derived from popular culture. Who hasn’t heard a pop song in a car commercial on TV? Things weren’t much different 80 years ago. The concept for the Floranet shown above was most likely a result of the New York revival of the musical Florodora in 1920. The play had its original debut on the London stage in 1899, and was one of the first successful musicals at the dawn of the 20th century.

Floradora Girls

Floradora Girls

When Florodora moved from the London stage to Broadway in 1900 it was a runaway hit. The women who played in the chorus were dubbed the Florodora Girls, and they were so popular that no fewer than 70 women rotated into, and out of, the first run production in New York. Many of the women were courted by wealthy young men whom they later married.

Not all of the Florodora girls would go on to have successful relationships with the men that they met. The most famous of them was Evelyn Nesbit.

Evelyn Nesbit

Evelyn Nesbit

Evelyn Nesbit was born on Christmas day in 1874 in Tarentum, a small village near Pittsburgh. Her family wasn’t well off — so when her father, a struggling attorney, died at age 42 they were left nearly destitute. Evelyn was a beautiful girl, and it wasn’t surprising when she came to the attention of artists in her hometown. She was soon earning enough as a model to support her family.  The Nesbits moved from Philadelphia to New York City in 1893 where Evelyn continued her career. Among the artists who hired her was famed illustrator Charles Dana Gibson. It is said that Evelyn was the inspiration for his famous Gibson Girls.

Gibson Girl

Gibson Girl

While playing in the chorus of Florodora, Evelyn caught the eye of millionaire architect, notorious womanizer, and grower of an extraordinary mustache, Stanford White. White was 47, and Evelyn only 16; however, it wasn’t long before the married White was pursuing the teenaged chorus girl. Evelyn’s mother was undoubtedly swayed by White’s fortune because she turned a blind eye to Stanford’s reputation and his married status, and encouraged her daughter’s relationship with “Stanny”.

Stanford White

Stanford White

 White had designed an opulent apartment in New York City, complete with many strategically placed mirrors and the most intriguing amenity of all, a red velvet swing suspended from the ceiling.  White loved nothing better than to push his nude young paramours in the swing! 

While Evelyn’s mother was conveniently out of the city, White made his move. He plied the young beauty with champagne, took suggestive photographs of her in a yellow silk kimono, and then he took her virginity. Of course the evening ended with Evelyn perched upon the red velvet swing. White would pursue other young women, and Evelyn would begin dating the actor John Barrymore [yes, Drew is related].

Harry K. Thaw

Harry K. Thaw

The stunning chorine finally became involved with Harry K. Thaw. Thaw came from money – his father was a coal and railroad baron.  She married Thaw, who was no less kinky in his sexual habits than White had been. Thaw had a history of violence and drug use. He had a rapacious appetite for cocaine and morphine, both of which he injected, and he was in the habit of carrying a pistol and a whip. 

Evelyn was obviously attracted to older “bad boys”; however, Harry wasn’t just bad, he was mad as a hatter. Perhaps fueled by cocaine induced paranoia, Thaw’s jealous obsession over Evelyn’s previous relationship with White finally drove him to confront the architect in the rooftop restaurant at Madison Square Garden. In full view of the patrons,  the whip cracking, pistol packing Thaw produced a gun and fired three times into White’s face, killing him. Some of the diners thought that the shooting was part of the play they were attending, and others thought that it might be part of an elaborate practical joke (practical jokes were de rigeur in society at the time). Holding the weapon above his head, Thaw calmly walked to the elevator to meet Evelyn.

Harry was shortly arrested for the slaying and put on trial. The jury deadlocked at his first trial. By offering her money and the promise of a divorce, Harry’s mother convinced Evelyn to testify during his second trial that she’d been raped by White. In the courtroom, all eyes were on Evelyn as she told tales of the red velvet swing. Evelyn was a compelling witness on Harry’s behalf – he was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sentenced to Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Following the trial Evelyn got the divorce, but none of the money she’d been promised. Harry’s ungrateful mother reneged on their deal and cut her off without a cent.

Even though Thaw was allowed almost total freedom at Matteawan, he escaped after a few years and fled to Canada. He was eventually extradited back to the United States, and in a second sanity trial he was determined to be sane.  Throughout the remainder of his life Thaw would have brushes with the law, and questions regarding his sanity would continue to arise. Thaw died of a heart attack in 1947.

There have been many references to Evelyn Nesbit in popular culture over the years. Joan Collins played her in the 1955 film The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing. Evelyn also became a character in E.L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime.

The infamous “Girl in the Red Velvet Swing” died on January 17, 1967 in a Santa Monica, CA nursing home.