When she was growing up in Indianapolis, A'lelia Bundles knew the Walker Building was named for her great-great-grandmother. She knew the china her family used at Christmas and Thanksgiving belonged to that same great-great-grandmother. The lavish gowns that belonged to her great-grandmother gave some clues to the grand life she had led. As a child she used her great-grandmother's custom-made bed as a trampoline.
But it wasn't until Bundles was in high school that she understood how legendary her relatives were.
Bundles' great-great-grandmother Madame C.J. Walker -- born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 in Delta, La., the daughter of former slaves -- built a hair products empire that gave thousands of black women employment and in some cases ownership of a business. She is credited with inventing the "hot comb" that straightened black hair. And when she died in 1919 she was described as the first self-made American woman millionaire.
"We didn't really talk about the details of Madame Walker's life when I was growing up. My mother did emphasize you have a lot of advantages, you have a history and we expect you to live up to that history, but not in an overwhelming way," says Bundles, 35, a field producer for NBC News who has lived in Washington since 1985. Bundles' grandmother, Mae Walker Perry, was 11 or 12 when she was adopted by A'lelia Walker, the daughter of Madame Walker, whose wealth had enabled A'lelia to be a patron of the Harlem Renaissance.
"What I understood about Madame Walker was what most people understand about Madame Walker. She did something to hair that made it straighter. But once I really began to learn more about her, I began to realize that that was a small portion of what her life was about," says Bundles.
In a documentary airing tonight at 10 on Channels 26 and 32 and again on Channel 32 Friday at 2 p.m., the story of Madame Walker and her equally famous daughter is told by filmmaker Stanley Nelson in "Madame C.J. Walker: Two Dollars and a Dream." Nelson, whose mother, A'lelia Ransom Nelson, was a president of the Walker Co. (but of no relation to A'lelia Walker), has meshed all the standard approaches of a narrative biography -- the interviews, the music, the stills, a company-made film -- into an illuminating hour.
In the next few years the work and mystique of Madame Walker will reach an even larger audience through a book and mini-series from "Roots" author Alex Haley. Bundles is not part of tonight's story but did the preliminary research for Haley's projects. She found a gold mine of memorabilia in her grandfather's house in Pine Bluffs, Ark. "One night he said, 'Why don't you try the closet in the front bedroom?' There was a huge trunk and several boxes. Inside were clothes, photographs, A'lelia Walker's bills from Wanamaker's, her marriage license, her divorce papers, just tons of things. And there was the last letter Madame Walker wrote to A'lelia. I became obsessed," says Bundles.
As she read the material Bundles could almost hear the voices of her famous relatives. "I really began to know their personalities. My sense of it all was amazement at what they did. A'lelia Walker had gone to Ethiopia in 1920 to meet the princess. They had such strong personalities. Madame would indulge A'lelia tremendously and then get mad when she was spoiled," says Bundles.
Although her extravagant life style brought the company immeasurable free publicity, A'lelia Walker also had inherited her mother's business skill. "A'lelia Walker was at a friend's house in Los Angeles, sitting at the kitchen table, dressed in a beautiful chiffon negligee, filling jars with Madame Walker's 'Wonderful Hair Grower' and with each spoonful, she would say, one dollar, two dollars, three dollars. That's a wonderful story about how to become a millionaire."