Well-Heeled Women: The Lives of Female Tycoons

As the presidential candidates debate the best way to fix the economy and throw around numbers that end in trillions, it can feel impossible for one person to get ahead, let alone an entire country. But, as Janet Wallach’s new biography "The Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green in the Gilded Age" reminds us, patience, restraint, and common sense can lead to big rewards. The frugal Green, who resisted the temptations of her lavish-spending times, would have been a billionaire today. She’s not the only female tycoon who understood the value of a dollar, and how to turn a profit on her dreams. (For a glimpse into how Janet Wallach brought her to life, click here.) Here are stories about some other notable female tycoons of this century and the last.

"Her Dream of Dreams: The Rise and Triumph of Madam C.J. Walker" by Beverly Lowry

Before there was Hair Club for Men or Gee, Your Hair Smells Terrific shampoo, there was C.J. Walker’s “Wonderful Hair Grower,” a magical elixir promising customers longer, stronger locks that made its inventor the first African-American female millionaire. Walker, whose parents were slaves, parlayed business savvy and unquenchable ambition into a lucrative cosmetics empire. A teen mother and young widow, Walker, who was born Sarah Breedlove, taught herself to read and write before making her fortune with her hair and beauty products. But, as Lowry points out, her most successful product was herself.

"Oprah" by Kitty Kelley

Each year, business publications release their lists of the most successful and powerful businesswomen, and each year, one name tops the list.  In this biography, Kelley, who has turned her impressive research acumen on subjects including Frank Sinatra and Nancy Reagan in the past, takes on the former Queen of Daytime. Oprah, who gets her guests to reveal so much, keeps tight control of her business empire, with exhaustive confidentiality agreements and a steely eye on the bottom line.

"Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World’s Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her" by Robin Gerber

Born the tenth child of Polish immigrants, Ruth Handler knew how to fight from an early age, and never let an opportunity slip by. She cofounded the Mattel toy company with her husband Elliot, and helped create Barbie, whose curves were based on a German sex doll. Handler gave her life to the business (Barbie’s boyfriend, Ken, got his name from her own son), and when she was forced out of the company in the 1970s, she created and sold prosthetic breasts for breast cancer survivors like herself.

"War Paint: Madame Helena Rubinstein and Miss Elizabeth Arden: Their Lives, Their Times, Their Rivalry" by Lindy Woodhead

They were two of the biggest names in makeup, but their professional rivalry was downright ugly. Both Rubinstein and Arden grew up outside the United States with little money (Rubinstein in Poland, Arden in Canada) and each made her way to New York in the beginning of the twentieth century to seek her fortune.  In this dual biography of two of the first women to understand the power of marketing in selling the illusion of everlasting beauty, Woodhead paints a broad portrait of the times in which they lived and the culture that created the modern cosmetics industry.