Sunday, April 16, 2017

291. Helena Rubinstein: "Beauty is power."

          First, two LibraryThing early reviews of Bill Hope: His Story.  (Be patient, we'll get to Madame Rubinstein soon.)

graham, March 30, 2017:  I sat down to read this book around 6 p.m.; it's 11:20 p.m. and I've just finished it. I couldn't put it down. This is a very engaging, fast-moving first-hand "biography" of a turn-of-the-century petty thief turned con man which held me enthralled from start to finish.  

terry, April 7, 2017:  Engrossing novel that makes you want to continue reading in order to find out what happens next in the life of Bill Hope. Many ups and downs make it a truely enjoyable read, about a bygone time.


Bill Hope: His Story: ($20: Softcover: 6X9”, 158pp: 978-1-68114-305-7; $35: Hardcover: 978-1-68114-306-4; $2.99: EBook: 978-1-68114-307-1; LCCN: 2017933794; Historical Fiction; May 17, 2017) is the second novel in the Metropolis series. New York City, 1870s: From his cell in the gloomy prison known as the Tombs, young Bill Hope spills out in a torrent of words the story of his career as a pickpocket and shoplifter; his scorn for snitches and bullies; his brutal treatment at Sing Sing and escape from another prison in a coffin; his forays into brownstones and polite society; his brief career on the stage playing himself; his loyalty to a man who has befriended him but may be trying to kill him; and his sojourn among the “loonies” in a madhouse, from which he emerges to face betrayal and death threats, and possible involvement in a murder. In the course of his adventures he learns how slight the difference is between criminal and law-abiding, insane and sane, vice and virtue—a lesson that reinforces what he learned on the streets. Driving him throughout is a fierce desire for better, a yearning to leave the crooked life behind, and a persistent and undying hope.
          This is the second title in the Metropolis series of historical novels set in nineteenth-century New York.  The first in the series is The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), mention of which appears at the end of this post. 

         The book can be ordered from Amazon and will be shipped after the release date of May 17, 2017.  But the paperback, which goes for $20, will cost an additional $4.95 for shipping, unless you order books totaling $25 or more.  The book is also available now from the author and will be mailed immediately ($20 + postage).  And now let's talk about beauty.

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         On the first page of the Weekend Arts section of the Times of April 7 there appeared, under the caption “Sing a Song of Face Creams,” a review of a new musical that just opened on Broadway, “War Paint,” about the fierce rivalry of two great cosmetics queens of yore, Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, both of whom were based in New York.  A photograph shows the two of them sitting at separate tables in a restaurant or cocktail lounge, Rubinstein on the left in a wide-brimmed lavender hat, matching dress, and gloves, and Arden on the right, in a fantastic flying-saucer tilted hat topped by a plume and trailing a long white scarf across her richly jeweled bosom and over her right shoulder: two fiercely stylish women staring straight ahead, each seemingly oblivious of the other, their juxtaposition (with ample space between them) suggesting parallel existences destined from the start to clash.  And clash they did, in real life, though never face to face, and clash they do in “War Paint,” albeit in music, with a big assist from makeup and costumes.  All of which has inspired me to reintroduce here a post of long ago about Helena Rubinstein and her rival. 

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         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 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.

File:Helena Rubinstein 2.jpg

         “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 assumed responsibility from an early age.  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 knew that work was her very life, preferable to any marriage her family might have arranged.  “My only recreation is work.”

         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”; 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 also, 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., which was still neutral, and opened  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, Rubinstein promoted the notion that it was the means whereby respectable women could improve their appearance.  Hers was a democratic vision: beauty 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.”

File:Elizabeth Arden NYWTS.jpg

         In New York she 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!”  And if an acquaintance of either confessed to using the rival’s products, sparks flew.

         In 1917 Rubinstein took on the manufacturing and distribution of her products.  She was a pioneer in many ways: selling her products in department stores, herself giving training to the clerks, and 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. 

         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 boasted, and she was probably right. Having established salons and outlets in many U.S. cities, 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” – a significant contribution to silent films and the atmosphere of the Roaring Twenties.  And back in New York she launched a new perfume called Heaven Sent by sending hundreds of pink and blue balloons floating down onto Fifth Avenue, with a sample attached and a message announcing this gift from heaven.

File:B theda-serpent.jpg
Theda Bara as Cleopatra.  Yes, mascara did help.

         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 to give instruction in facial care.  When a woman went there – probably a well-heeled woman -- she knew at once that she was in a different world, that she had left the daily and the humdrum behind.  Here all the attention was focused on her, here she could be coddled and inspired.  And also “fixed,” for she would be stretched and exercised, scrubbed and rubbed, wrapped in hot blankets, bathed in infra-red rays, massaged out of water and in it, and bathed in milk.  And then, of course, her renewed self – or what was left of her -- could have lunch.

         Rubinstein herself was a walking ad for her approach to beauty.  Photos of her in her fifties and later show a well-preserved woman, her dark hair brushed back, her mascaraed eyes and dark lips sharply accented against her smooth white skin, with rings and earrings and a handsome dress.  No glamour puss, perhaps, but the epitome of New York chic.

         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 an exotic name hard to pronounce, 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 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.

         Nothing stopped her; 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 Salvador Dalí.  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.  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, which was just as well, since she did gad about.

         When the U.S. entered World War II, there were those who suggested that beauty and cosmetics were now irrelevant, a notion that she royally rejected.  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 tissue.  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 at 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 died of a heart attack in 1965 at age 94, her business worth billions, and was laid out in an Yves St Laurent suit adorned with her famous black pearls, and makeup applied artfully by an expert from the Rubinstein salon.  Thousands came to view her.  Said one knowing visitor, “I bet this is the only time Arden didn’t mind Rubinstein being ahead of her.” 

         Some eighteen months later “the other one” would follow, laid out in the very same de luxe funeral parlor, overflowing with floral tributes dominated by pink, her favorite color, that gave off a heady perfume.  “Too, too floral, dear,” remarked one beauty editor, “just like her fragrances.”  Mercifully, she was buried in a different cemetery, far removed from her rival, though one does wonder how the two of them get along in the afterlife.

         Helena Rubinstein was buried, minus the black pearls, beside her second husband in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Queens, their gravestone adorned with a coat of arms.  (His, of course.)  Again, good timing: she got out before the “natural look” came in, before feminists denounced makeup as a stratagem to appeal to lustful males.  As for the black pearls, they soon reappeared adorning a relative.  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 sumptuous Mount Olivet grave.

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         The Arts & Leisure section of the Times of April 2 had already interviewed the two stars of “War Paint”: Patti LuPone (Rubinstein) and Christine Ebersole (Arden), the sleek dark locks of the first contrasting vividly with the rich blond locks of the second.  (Both are in their sixties, but who would know it?)  The two are not enemies offstage, far from it, and the fight they play onstage is not waged by hurling insults and compacts, but as it was in real life, by introducing new products, raiding each other’s staff, and investing.  And the two actresses share the greatest respect for the women they play, hailing them as inspiring role models paving the way for other women even before women had the vote.  (Though it can also be said that they built their empires by exploiting the vulnerability of women, by convincing women that they needed cosmetics to compete and survive.)  And David Stone, the producer, emphasizes that the musical isn’t about makeup, it’s about “women and beauty and power and how women treat each other.”  It doesn’t hurt that the Broadway audience today is disproportionately female, though the show’s investors -- significantly -- are male.

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BROWDERBOOKS:  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received these awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.  As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series,  tells the story of a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client   It is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Coming soon: Americans are pigs.  (And no, I'm not anti-American, just a realist.)

 ©   2017   Clifford Browder


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