Meet The Gay Man Who Founded Maybelline!

thomas williams Maybelline

A pioneer in LGBT history

Maybelline is one of the most widely known cosmetic lines in the world. But what do you really know about the company? For example, were you aware that Maybelline was founded by a gay man?

It’s totally true! And he was a major pioneer in LGBT history.

His name was Thomas Lyle Williams and his life story is nothing less than remarkable.

thomas williams maybelline founder
Thomas Williams. Credit: Sharrie Williams

He was born on January 19, 1896 in Kentucky. While still a teen, he moved to Chicago to work at Montgomery Ward. He didn’t stay at the catalog company long.

That’s because in 1915, Tom noticed his older sister Mabel tried applying a mixture of Vaseline, ash and coal dust to her eyelashes. She was hoping to give them a darker, fuller look.

It was then a light bulb went off in his head about women’s cosmetics.

Using a standard chemistry set and the help of a friend, he created a product called: Lash-Brow-Ine. It would be sold locally in the Chicago market for several years.

In 1917, with the assistance of Park Davis, he began production and sale of a cake eyelash and eyebrow beautifier. He named the new product, ‘Maybelline’, after his sister, Mabel.

Tom Lyle Williams and his sister Mabel, for whom the business was eventually named and who served as Tom's original inspiration. [Provided/Sharrie Williams]
Tom Lyle Williams and his sister Mabel, for whom the business was eventually named and who served as Tom’s original inspiration. [Provided/Sharrie Williams] via DNA Chicago
As detailed by William’s great niece Sharrie Williams, author of: The Maybelline Story and The Family Dynasty Behind It, the founder of the legendary company was gay but fiercely closeted because of the times.

Back in the early 1900’s, Chicago was an excellent place to start a business. But like most all cities around the nation, being openly gay was considered “abnormal”.

It could also get you blackballed in business.

But Tom had a spirit about him that went against the grain. Not only was he determined to make Maybelline a success, he did it without compromising who he was.

What many people do not know is that Tom had a partner named Emery Shaver; a man who he would be with from his early 20’s and remained devoted to for the rest of his life.

Tom and his partner, Emery – DNA Chicago
Credit Sharrie Williams via DNA Chicago

While same sex marriage did not exist back then, Emery was Tom’s husband. In fact, his memorial tombstone lists Emery as Tom William’s spouse (link).

As reported in Chicago DNA:

“Williams said the family always knew her great-uncle was “different” but lacked the context and societal acceptance to fully understand or come to terms with his sexuality.

When the Great Depression hit and the era of glitz and grandeur began to fade, the Williams family had a more difficult time blending in.

In 1934, Tom Williams had a custom car like one he’d seen at the The Chicago World’s Fair delivered to Maybelline’s Edgewater offices, infuriating the people starving and scrounging around them.

Tom’s flamboyancy in attire and attitude also put a target on his back during a time when the government was conducting nationwide “witch hunts” to keep gay men from influencing the public, in particular women, his great-niece said.”

Tom Williams suddenly found himself in a dangerous place. “There were not designers like there are today that were gay and out in the ’20s and ’30s — it just wasn’t done,” said Sharrie.

Feeling fearful, Tom and Emery decided to relocate to California; a place where Williams purchased Rudolph Valentino’s old house in the Hollywood Hills.

There, the couple could safely be with one another while rubbing elbows with beautiful stars of the day. We’re talking icons like Joan Crawford, Betty Grable and Viola Dana.

 “It’s a story you don’t hear about because everyone had to be in the closet,” said Andrew Clayman, creator of the Made in Chicago Museum that contains original Maybelline products. “So the LGBT community doesn’t really have these pioneers of industry, when really they were there, probably in the same percentage as anybody else.”

The Maybelline building in 1932

An "M" is still engraved above the Ridge Avenue door frame. [DNAinfo/Linze Rice]
The “M” is still engraved above the Ridge Avenue door frame. [DNAinfo/Linze Rice]
In 1964, Tom’s partner Emery passed away. It was at this time he decided to sell Maybelline to Plough, Inc.; the pharmaceutical company that today is Merck.

In 1976 at the age of 80, Tom passed away. It is said that he died broken hearted because he was never able to move past the loss of his life-long partner, Emery.

Today, the former Maybelline building is still stands. It’s in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood, located at 5900 N. Ridge Ave.

There’s no two-ways about it. Tom Williams was a huge person in LGBT history. A businessman, inventor, entrepreneur and loving husband.

h/t: DNA Chicago