Madam C. J. Walker? Sarah J. Walker? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The cosmetics entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker once spoke to a journalist about her enormous accomplishments. She indicated that her pathway to success was not strewn with flowers, and her ascent required hard work and sleepless nights. Would please help me to find a citation?
Quote Investigator: In 1917 “The New York Times” interviewed Sarah J. Walker (Madam C. J. Walker) about her recently constructed mansion and her thriving cosmetics company. Boldface added to excepts by QI: 1
What wealth is hers, she says, had been acquired through perseverance, persistency, and hard work. “Perseverance”, she remarked the other day, “is my motto.” . . .
“I was born forty-nine years ago,” she said in speaking of her life, “was married at 14, and was left a widow at 20 with a little girl to support. If I have accomplished anything in life it is because I have been willing to work hard. I never yet started anything doubtingly, and I have always believed in keeping at things with a vim.
In 1919 “The Dallas Express” published a piece about Walker that included her remark about flowers: 2
At another time when asked about her great success Madam Walker said, “There is no royal and flower strewn road to success, and if there is I have not found it for what success I have obtained is the result of many sleepless nights and real hard work. I had all kinds of doubters and skeptics to deal with; the principal obstacle I had to deal with was the traditional distrust and incredulity of the public, owing to their having often been deceived with worthless preparations . . .
Walker died in May 1919 a few months after the article above was printed.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The ancient Greek mathematician Euclid employed a precursor while discussing learning with Ptolemy I: 3
There is no royal road to geometry.
In 1920 the London publication “Answers” employed the variant phrase “rose-strewn path” to comment on the difficulty of careers in cinema: 4
Cinema acting isn’t always a rose-strewn path to success. A picture isn’t always taken at a picnic in a picturesque and sunny Californian valley, nor at the end of a friendly gossip in a warm and comfortable studio.
In 1933 the colorful phrase was applied to a retiring school teacher by a newspaper in Lancashire, England: 5
He had no rose-strewn path to success. His early years were hard and difficult, but he never shirked the challenge, and became, as we now know, one of the best-known educationists in North-East Lancashire.
In 1992 the “San Francisco Examiner” of California published an article about Walker and attributed an instance of the quotation to her: 6
“I never yet started anything doubtingly, and I have always believed in keeping at things with a vim. There is no royal flower-strewn road to success, and if there is I have not found it, for what success I have obtained is the result of many sleepless nights and real hard work.”
In 2000 “The African-American Century” by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cornel West included a chapter about Madame C. J. Walker which contained the following: 7
There is no royal flower-strewn path to success. And if there is, I have not found it, for if I have accomplished anything in life it is because I have been willing to work hard.
—Madame C. J. Walker
In conclusion, Madam C. J. Walker (Sarah J. Walker) should receive credit for the remarks in the 1917 and 1919 citations. Some instances of the quotations currently circulating use slightly different phrasing. It is possible that Walker changed her phrasing during different interviews. Alternatively, the alterations were inadvertently introduced over time.
Image Notes: Public domain painting of “Flowering Garden” by Vincent van Gogh circa 1888. Image has been cropped and resized.
(Great thanks to Sue Ferrara whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks to Tim Marschall Jones and John Simpson who pointed to the Euclid citation.)
- 1917 November 4, New York Times, Section: The New York Times Magazine, Wealthiest Negro Woman’s Suburban Mansion, Quote Page 4, Column 4, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1919 March 29, The Dallas Express, The World’s Famous Hair Culturist Puts New Toilet Articles On The Market, Quote Page 4, Column 7, Dallas, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Euclid, Quote Page 248, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩
- 1920 May 22, Answers, Volume 64, Issue 26, Filming “Bleak House”; Some Scenes Were Taken on the Embankment by Constance Collier, Quote Page 617, London, England. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1933 December 15, The Nelson Leader, A Schoolmaster Retires, Quote Page 6, Column 1, Lancashire, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1992 February 14, San Francisco Examiner, Ambition, cosmetics, betterment by Tennessee Reed, Quote Page A23, Column 4, San Francisco, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 2000, The African-American Century by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cornel West, Chapter: Madame C. J. Walker – The Hairdresser (1867-1919), Start Page 28, Quote Page 31, The Free Press, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩