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From The Maybelline Story: And the Spirited Family Dynasty Behind It

Sharrie Williams with Bettie Youngs

 'Many a wreck is hid under a good paint job,' my grandmother, 'Miss Maybelline,' always told me. That and 'Glamour is just sex that got civilized.' And so the Maybelline story begins, as it should, with illusion: the illusion of perpetual, larger-than-life glamour.

As a fifteen-year-old, my great uncle Tom Lyle Williams loved movies in a way that was different from that of most people his age. I imagine him poised over the film projector in the back of the nickelodeon where he worked after school for six dollars a week, watching a silent movie flickering in the darkness while a pianist banged out ragtime melodies in time with the action on the screen. The year is 1911, and even a small farming town like Morganfield, bordering the coalfields of western Kentucky, provides enough business to keep a movie theater thriving.

But for Tom Lyle, as everyone calls him, working in the nickelodeon is not merely a job. He does not just project the films, and he does not just watch them. He is absorbed by them. There in the nickelodeon, Tom Lyle can slip into worlds so unlike Morganfield that it's hard to believe they exist on the same planet. And the people who dwell there! Mary Pickford in In the Sultan's Garden . . . so ethereal with her blonde curls and lambent eye, so captivating in her every expression and gesture . . . it's shocking to look from her to the audience of farmers and their stolid wives, all sunburns and corded hands, dreary frocks and crumpled hats.
This is the mystery that holds Tom Lyle spellbound in the darkness: what makes the actresses flickering on the screen so much more attractive and fascinating than ordinary women? Even his sisters Mabel and Eva, whom he loves dearly, are so plain in comparison. And the same is true of men. Can any man Tom Lyle has ever seen in person compare in handsomeness to the sleek, square-chinned Wallace Reid or the dapper Dell Henderson? What is their secret, these stars, these larger-than-life miracles? Are they just born special, or is it something they learn? And if it can be learned, is the secret available to Tom Lyle Williams of Morganfield, Kentucky?

One day Unk Ile, as I came to call him, would tell me about how he studied the film stars: how they stood, how their gazes caught and held your own, how they moved their bodies. He noted the clothing they wore and how they combed their hair, searching for the key that would unlock their secrets.

His neighbors in Morganfield had already pegged Tom Lyle as a hopeless dreamer, a lad who would never amount to anything. If asked, they would have said that a projector boy should focus on his job instead of pondering something as frivolous as the nature and power of beauty. Did he not come from one of the better local families? Was his father not both a gentleman farmer and the town sheriff, a tough, no-nonsense fellow more likely to toss a person in jail than discuss the interplay of light and shadow on the silver screen?
And yet it was the art and artifice behind beauty that would one day tear our clan away from its deep Kentucky roots and bring us into a new world of glamour and fortune. It was the desire to possess this magical power and all that went with it that eventually seduced us all, as surely as if we'd been sitting with Unk Ile in the nickelodeon back in 1911.

To this day, I personally identify with Unk Ile more than I do with his younger brother Preston, my own grandfather. For one thing, Preston died before I was born, but that is not the main reason. I relate to my great uncle's thoughtful, sensitive nature, which by all accounts was the antithesis of my grandfather's mercurial misbehaviors. Both men were handsome, but again in different ways . . . one light, one shadow. My great-grandmother said that of all the children, her fourth, Tom Lyle—with his head of blond, curly hair, his twinkling brown eyes, his provocative personality—was the most beautiful.

Tom Lyle loved, respected, and wanted to please his parents. Thomas Jefferson 'TJ' Williams and his wife Susan assumed Tom Lyle would one day become a gentleman farmer like his father and grandfathers, although other acceptable career options included professor or priest. But when Tom Lyle looked in the mirror, he saw none of these things. He saw a boy who, at age fifteen, had less muscular definition than his thirteen-year-old brother Preston, and no facial hair at all. This bothered him. How could a man who looked like a boy possibly win the heart of Bennie Gibbs, the only girl in Morganfield as lovely as the actresses on the silver screen? She seemed to like him, holding his gaze a moment longer than necessary when she came into the nickelodeon or when they bumped into each other in town, but that wasn't enough. He needed more. He needed her to know he was special, too. For inspiration, he headed straight for the family Bible . . . which he slid aside in favor of what was always kept beneath it: the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalogue.

For Tom Lyle, the catalogue offered sojourns into the sophisticated existence he craved, an overview of the desires, habits, and customs of people far more worldly than his neighbors—or himself. The catalogue so fascinated him that he'd taught himself to read, at age four, by poring over its product descriptions.
But that wasn't all. The greatest thing about the catalogue was that through the magic of mail order, a small-town boy like Tom Lyle had access to the same products as city dwellers. He turned to the well-thumbed page advertising motorcycles. He'd practically memorized the information by now, but he went over it again. The black Pierce four-cylinder was the latest thing on two wheels: urbane, with an aura of menace—but far too expensive for a nickelodeon operator. The Pope one-cylinder was much cheaper . . . but it seemed so ordinary. Then there was the Indian two-cylinder—candy-apple red, with the sexy curves of a woman . . . and cheap enough to save for.

Although Tom Lyle was every bit the dreamer townsfolk thought him to be, he also possessed qualities that they would never have guessed existed. One was the pragmatism worthy of any hard-bitten farmer. He calculated that he would need two months to save what he needed using his nickelodeon salary alone—too long to suit him. So he supplemented that income with his earnings from a business he'd started at the age of nine: selling baseball cards. Although he was a fan of the sport and loved the pictures, player info—and advertising copy—on the cards, he mostly viewed his collection as an investment. At age ten he'd begun selling off his most prized cards, then used the profits to buy more highly collectible cards and sold those. Soon he'd expanded his business to include the trading cards found in cigarette packages, which featured photos of portions of scantily clad women that could be pieced together to form a pin-up. He could charge the highest prices for a pretty face or an exposed ankle.

Another quality Tom Lyle possessed in volume was determination. In only six weeks, he had amassed the formidable sum of forty dollars and placed his order for the Indian. Only after the money was gone did he admit the deed to his parents. They scowled and lectured but didn't forbid him to have the motorcycle.
When the Indian finally arrived, gleaming and beautiful, Tom Lyle was ready. He had purchased goggles and leather gloves and borrowed a red-fringed scarf. Now he brushed his initials onto its rear fender out in the barn, then climbed onto the saddle. Suddenly he was no longer an ordinary small-town boy. On this machine, he would be a dashing, irresistible hero like those he saw flickering across the movie screen each night.
As chickens squawked and feathers flew, he practiced riding the bike around the barnyard. The whole family watched as, decked in goggles, cap, and gloves, the red scarf fluttering around his neck, he finally struck out on the road that ran along the Ohio River. His destination was the home of thirteen-year-old Bennie Gibbs, with her flawless skin and sparkling eyes.

Tom Lyle knew he cut an impressive figure as he sped past the old red brick courthouse, the library, and Morganfield's town square with its big American flag flying high. He zoomed along at a breathtaking thirty-five miles per hour, then accelerated to forty, passing fields of tobacco and hay, fruit orchards and pastures, feeling the glory of the ride down to his toes. In a mere twenty minutes, he covered the twelve miles to Millburn where Bennie lived.

Bennie heard the bike and slipped away from her chores to come out and greet him. Her mother wouldn't allow her to get on 'that contraption,' so Tom Lyle parked the bike and the young couple wandered away on foot, holding hands as they strolled past the rose bushes and the massive cottonwood trees. Almost accidentally, they kissed for the first time. The afternoon slipped blissfully past, until Tom Lyle noticed the position of the sun.

'Oh, gosh, I have to get home!' he cried. 'I can't be late for dinner.'

'Not even a minute?' Bennie asked.

'Not even a second.' He began hauling her back toward her house by the hand. 'My father's very strict about the family eating together. I don't want to get thrown in jail!'

'Jail?' Bennie said.

'Don't forget, Dad's the Morganfield Sheriff as well as a farmer.'

'But . . . jail? His own son?'

Tom Lyle laughed.

'My brother Preston's already been there twice—once for stealing chicken eggs as a prank and another time for neglecting his chores on purpose.'

'But that's terrible!'

'Not for Preston. He just sat around reading dime novels about the Old West and ignoring Dad's lectures. But I've got a motorcycle to worry about—my folks are already upset I bought it in the first place.'

'When will I see you again?' Bennie asked, as he released her hand in front of her house.

'Soon, if I make it home in time for dinner. Pray ... (Sharrie Williams The Maybelline Story )