Short and squat and built like an icebox, with a strong nose and a salient chin, she didn’t reek glamour or beauty, yet the promotion of feminine beauty was her lifelong obsession. Helena Rubinstein was a shrewd businesswoman and workaholic who cut a striking figure with her high-fashion outfits and layers of jewelry, her dark hair pulled back in a tight chignon, her eyes traced in black, her lips bright red, and an air of dominance. Clearly, this was a woman to reckon with.
“Beauty is power,” she famously said, and her career confirms it amply. Born Chaja Rubinstein to a Jewish family of modest means in Krakow in Russian Poland in 1872, she was the eldest of eight daughters. Since there was no son, she was recruited by her parents to help keep the brood in order and so from an early age was assuming responsibility. And being good at figures, she helped her father, a wholesale food broker, with bookkeeping, and at age 15, when he was sick, filled in for him at a business meeting.
But her mother was a great influence, too. With eight daughters to marry off, she drilled into the girls the importance of minding their appearance, and especially of taking care of one’s hair and skin, a lesson that her eldest thoroughly absorbed. And since her mother used a homemade face cream, her business-minded eldest began peddling it to the neighbors.
“I am a merchant,” she explained later. “To be a good merchant you need a sharp eye. I know a good thing when I hear it and I like quick decisions. Take advantage of the situation. Every situation. That and hard work.” A workaholic from the start, she worked eighteen-hour days. “Lost many a beau,” she later admitted, “and missed the fun of being young.” But she also realized that work was her very life, preferable to any marriage her family might have arranged. “My only recreation is work.”
|An ad circa 1905.|
When her father arranged a marriage for her with an elderly widower willing to take her without a dowry, she rebelled. In 1902, at age 30 and with little money or English, she escaped by making a great leap from Poland to a small outback town in Australia, where an uncle was a shopkeeper. She had brought 12 pots of her mother’s beauty cream with her and was soon giving them away, then selling them, and asking her mother for more. When demand outpaced supply, she began making it herself. Sheep were abundant in the region, providing lanolin, a key ingredient for her products, whose pungent aroma she masked with lavender, pine bark, and water lilies. Working as a servant and governess and then in Melbourne as a waitress, with some financial help from friends she launched her Crème Valaze (a French-sounding name that she invented), a face cream advertised as having rare herbs “from the Carpathian Mountains” (she was a shrewd, if not scrupulous, marketer); it flew off the shelves. Having skin often ravaged by the sun, Australian women marveled at her milk-white skin. This proved a great advertisement for her product, though the whiteness of her skin owed nothing to her cream.
Now calling herself Helena Rubinstein, she opened a fashionable salon where, going at glamour as a science, she donned a white lab coat and “diagnosed” the skin problems of clients and “prescribed” an appropriate treatment. (Her pretensions to medical training, like many of the facts she marshaled, were bogus; she was self-taught.) She knew she was selling illusion – the illusion of youth and beauty – and the higher the price of the products, the more her customers would want them. Those products now included soaps, lotions, and cleansers, and in time much more. Next she expanded her operation to Sydney, and within five years had realized sufficient profits to open a Salon de Beauté Valaze in London. Australia couldn’t hold her; she wanted the world.
In London in 1908 she married the Polish-born American journalist Edward William Titus, who became her partner in business. By him she had two sons – an inconvenience, she later admitted, since her obsession with business left little time for family. Edward was charming, witty, and urbane, but, as she soon learned, incapable of fidelity. In 1912 they moved to Paris, where she opened yet another salon. Edward helped her meet writers and artists and thus recast herself as a woman of the world. She was doing well now and gave lavish dinner parties. But away from business, her perceptions were not always keen; meeting Marcel Proust socially, she shrugged him off because “he smelt of mothballs.” Her later observation: “How was I to know he was going to be famous?”
The outbreak of World War I put a damper on business, so in 1915 she and her husband moved to the U.S., still neutral, opening a cosmetics salon, the Maison de Beauté de Valaze, on East 49th Street in New York, the first of what would become a chain nationwide. And her timing was good: American women were wrenching free of Victorian mores, taking charge of their lives, and demanding the vote. So Rubinstein urged them to take charge of their appearance, too. “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.” Whereas in Victorian times noticeable makeup had been worn only by actresses (always morally suspect) or prostitutes, she promoted the notion that it was the means whereby respectable women could improve their appearance. Hers was a democratic vision: beauty was obtainable by all. But the U.S. was a challenge, since immediately upon arrival she observed that American women had purple noses and gray lips, and faces chalk-white from “terrible” powder. “I recognized that the United States could be my life’s work.”
|The competition: Elizabeth Arden, 1939.|
In New York began a keen competition with that other great lady of cosmetics, Canadian-born Elizabeth Arden; there was no love lost between them. Both knew the importance of marketing, and the value of celebrity endorsements, overpricing, and the use of pseudoscience in skin care. “She tries to get me in every way she can,” said Rubinstein of her rival. When their paths crossed at social events, they made a point of not speaking. And when Arden hired away some of Rubinstein’s sales force, Rubinstein in retaliation hired Arden’s divorced husband, Thomas Lewis: “Imagine the secrets he must know!”
In 1917 Rubinstein took on the manufacturing and distribution of her products. She was a pioneer in selling her products in department stores, in herself giving training to the clerks, and in hiring women as traveling sales representatives to demonstrate her products in local stores. To her army of employees, whom she ruled demandingly, she was simply “Madame.” In 1928 – again her timing was remarkable – she sold her American business to Lehman Brothers for $7.3 million. Just one year later came the crash, followed by the Depression. She then bought back the grossly undervalued stock for less than $1 million and in time saw its value soar.
|Theda Bara, heavy with mascara, 1921.|
But would this work today?
Possessing a seemingly infallible instinct for what women would buy and how to present it to them, she built a brand long before business schools taught marketing. “I could have made a fortune selling paper clips!” she asserted, and was probably right. She soon had salons and outlets in many U.S. cities, and in the 1920s she went to Hollywood to instruct film stars Pola Negri and Theda Bara in the use of mascara, which emphasized their eyes and enhanced their image as “vamps.”
By the late 1930s her seven-floor spa at 715 Fifth Avenue included a gym, a restaurant, sumptuous displays of art, rugs by painter Joan Miró, and classrooms where women received instruction in facial care. There was also a private residence, likewise sumptuously furnished, on an upper floor. And to launch a new scent called Heaven Sent, she had hundreds of pink and blue balloons float down onto Fifth Avenue, with a sample attached and a message announcing this gift from heaven.
Having divorced her philandering first husband the year before, in 1938 Rubinstein, now 66 and a multimillionaire, married Prince Artchil Gourielli-Tchkonia, age 43, whose chief attractions were good looks and a dubious claim to Georgian nobility. A dedicated social climber, Rubinstein may have seen the marriage as a marketing tool that let her present herself as Helena, Princess Gourielli. In any event, she named a line of male cosmetics for him.
Frugal in many ways, Rubinstein would walk from her Park Avenue apartment to her office on Fifth Avenue wearing a fur coat but carrying a brown-bag lunch. She pinched pennies yet spent royally on clothing from the top Parisian couturiers, and on furniture and art. Her private art collection included paintings by Renoir, de Chirico, Modigliani, Chagall, Utrillo, Matisse, and Picasso, Rouault tapestries, and portraits of herself by Picasso (sketches only), Marie Laurencin, Raoul Dufy, Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, and others. But she also went further afield, buying what she liked without help from an adviser, and so acquired African and Oceanic art before it caught on, as well as Russian icons, American glass, artifacts, rugs, both fine and junk jewelry, and miniature rooms with objects made of ivory, silver, crystal, mahogany, and pewter that she loved to show off to visitors, especially children.
She got into real estate, too. Having at first lived over the shops selling her products, when business expanded she moved into apartments. “So I bought the apartments. Next I bought the buildings. Then I bought the neighboring buildings. Why not? Real estate is a good thing to have.” In 1941, when her bid for an apartment at 625 Park Avenue was turned down because of anti-Semitism, she bought the whole building and established herself in a 26-room triplex penthouse with wrap-around terraces and lavishly decorated rooms, including one with three walls with murals by her friend Dali. The furnishings reflected gusto, if not taste, with Victorian chairs covered in purple and magenta velvet, Chinese pearl-inlaid coffee tables, gold Turkish floor lamps, six-foot-tall blue opaline vases, life-size Easter Island sculptures, African masks, and walls crammed with paintings. Admittedly, connoisseurs might criticize Madame for a lack of discernment; she confessed to buying in bulk.
And 625 Park Avenue wasn’t her only pied-à-terre by a long shot. She had residences in London and Paris, and two country homes in France – one near Paris and one in the Midi -- and a third in Greenwich, Connecticut. They were all crammed with art and objects reflecting her assertive taste, and the staff were trained to welcome her at a moment’s notice.
When the U.S. entered World War II, there were those who suggested that beauty and cosmetics were now irrelevant, a notion at which she scoffed. A canny patriot, she partnered with the Army to provide the GI’s with smartly packaged sunburn cream and camouflage makeup.
When her second husband died of a heart attack in 1955, she mourned him deeply. In May 1964 thieves broke into her Park Avenue apartment, posing as deliverymen bringing roses. They tied up her butler at gunpoint and then confronted her in her bedroom. Or perhaps, at age 93, she confronted them. Having secreted the keys to her safe deep in her bosom, she watched as the intruders emptied her purse, which contained some handfuls of paper, a powder compact, five twenty-dollar bills, and a pair of diamond earrings worth $40,000. When they upended the purse, the earrings rolled away and Madame covered them with a Kleenex. Having tied her to a chair, the thieves departed with the hundred dollars in cash. When her butler freed her, she had him put the roses in the refrigerator, in case they had visitors that day. Since the thieves must have spent forty dollars for the roses, she calculated that their profit was a mere sixty dollars.
Even in her early 90s she was helping run her business from her Lucite bed with built-in fluorescent lighting. She herself died of a heart attack in 1965 at age 94, her business worth billions, and is buried beside her second husband in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Queens. Again, good timing: she got out before the “natural look” came in, before feminists denounced makeup as a stratagem to appeal to the gaze of males. When her enormous estate was auctioned off by Parke-Bernet Galleries in 1966, the catalog ran to six volumes. Her company, Helena Rubinstein, Inc., was sold to Colgate Palmolive in 1973, and is now owned by the French cosmetics conglomerate L’Oréal. Published in 1966, her autobiography My Life for Beauty is a mix of fact and fiction.
And who then bought her fabled 26-room penthouse at 625 Park Avenue? Charles Revson, the founder of Revlon, a cosmetics competitor whom she had dismissed with scorn as a copycat, calling him “the nail man.” Madame must have turned over in her Mount Olivet grave.
Coming soon: Money. What is it? (You'd be surprised.) When did we first get dollar bills, and why? The fascination of gold. Did you know that 40% of the world's gold is right here in Manhattan, buried deep and lodged on bedrock? And whose is it? What opinion did historical Christianity and Ma Perkins share about bankers? And to round things off, a glance at one of the world's greatest tightwads and one of the greatest spendthrifts, both active right here in New York.
© 2015 Clifford Browder