Lively, literate biography of the incredible Sarah Breedlove, who rose from perfect poverty to create her own hair-care business and build a mansion on the Hudson.
“There has never been anyone like her,” declares novelist Lowry (The Track of Real Desires, 1994, etc.; Creative Nonfiction/George Mason Univ.) of the African-American entrepreneur praised by the National Association of Colored Women as “the foremost business woman of our race.” Charging into her story with boundless energy and a bountiful imagination, the author employs all her considerable artistic and scholarly skills to uncover the rough edges of a life smoothed over in her subject’s promotional materials. A consummate businesswoman who took the surname of her third husband and declared herself “Madam,” Walker frequently lied to journalists, and many details of her life cannot be verified. Not for lack of effort on the part of Lowry, who chased Walker all over the country—from her birth in 1867 and her childhood on the Mississippi to her years in St. Louis, Denver, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and New York City—digging in public records, reading old newspapers, trying to establish a sturdy foundation on which to erect the edifice of her story. When Lowry cannot uncover fact, her fecund imagination suffices: “[We] engage in storytelling and educated guesswork,” she states, and one magnificent example is her stunning set piece about doing wash in pre-Maytag days (Walker spent years as a washerwoman). The author chronicles the long and uneasy relationship between Walker and Booker T. Washington, who was never comfortable around this determined, ambitious woman. Throughout, Lowry weaves in depressing data about lynchings and racial murders. She includes characters as diverse as the two Johnsons (Jack and James Weldon), but the focus always remains sharply on Walker, on the development and marketing of her hair-care products, and on her wastrel daughter A’Lelia, who frittered away her mother’s fortune. (A’Lelia gets more sympathetic treatment in Ben Neihart’s Rough Amusements, p. 213.)
Impeccable research informs a prose that sings, whirls, and delights. (10 photos, not seen)