Helena Rubinstein – Empress of the Beauty Business
portrait, Helena Rubinstein, 1930, photo: Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Image, center, helena_rubinsteingettyimages_0.jpg
Empress of a beauty empire which she herself created. She gave women wrinkle-free faces and relaxed bodies. Were she alive today, she would be the queen of Instagram: she loved being photographed and Picasso himself immortalised her image numerous times.
Twelve jars of luxury
Rubinstein is known by various names. To her Jewish family, she is Chaja from Kraków’s Jewish district of Kazimierz. On board a ship to Australia, she registers herself as Helena. Her first husband Edward Titus calls her ‘Madame’ and the whole world follows suit, with Jean Cocteau even referring to her as the ‘tsarina of beauty’.
Rubinstein leaves her family home in order to avoid an arranged marriage with an elderly widower. She emigrates to join an uncle in Australia. In her suitcase, she stows away 12 jars of Dr Jacob Lykusky’s cosmetic cream, although she has no idea that she will end up making a fortune from them.
Her creamy complexion is admired by the local farmers, with their wives falling in love with the cosmetic that Rubinstein called Valaze. She receives a magical recipe from Poland: herbal extract, almond essence and an extract from pine tree bark. To that she adds advertising based on a legend (that the plant ingredients only grow in the Carpathian Mountains) and an appropriately high price. Production gets under way.
She opens her first beauty salon in Melbourne and later opens further branches in Sydney and New Zealand. Her cream supposedly causes Australian star Nellie Stewart’s freckles to vanish. Rubinstein marries the journalist who directs her advertising campaign.
Australia is not enough. In 1908, Rubinstein conquers London, followed by Paris a year later. Soon she declares a global war on wrinkles.
Europe at her feet
In Europe, Rubinstein studies under dermatologists and dietitians. She promotes the eating of raw vegetables. Her book, Food for Beauty, becomes a bestseller.
She likes order. She sorts her diamonds alphabetically. She divides skin types into categories: dry, fatty, mixed and normal. For each type, she creates a line of cosmetics: day and night creams, tightening and stimulating tonics and an anti-acne mask. The latter generates a furore among Englishwomen, who flock to Rubinstein’s salon through the back entrance, so as not to cause a scandal.
She loves to use colour. She embellishes her autobiography in accordance with the principle: ‘A good story is worth more than the truth’. She persuades the wife of Britain’s Prime Minister to test out a rouge product in public.
‘Maison de Beauté’ is the name of the first spa in history. Parisian women, less prudish than their English counterparts, eagerly enjoy massages, electrolysis and hydrotherapy. Rubinstein herself doesn’t make use of these procedures. She prevents herself from aging through the application of creams and massaging of her chin and neck.
The cosmetics war
Enemy No. 1 – the sun – is defeated by Rubinstein with the introduction of a cream with a sun-blocking filter.
Enemy No. 2 lurks in the United States. She is Elizabeth Arden, whom Rubinstein calls ‘the Other One’. Rubinstein fights this battle until the end of her life: not only with creams and powders. When Arden hires away one of Rubinstein’s managers, Rubinstein retaliates, hiring her ex-husband.
As the Great War rages, Madame opens salons in New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago and San Francisco. Since only suffragettes use lipstick, red lipstick is viewed as immoral. Rubinstein has no problem with that. She trains make-up instructors, who pass on their knowledge to clients. She promotes gymnastics.
During World War II, Rubinstein sends American troops burn salves and camouflage-coloured creams. She supports the Polish Red Cross. During this time she creates a waterproof mascara, a skin-firming cream and one containing vitamins.
Beauty has two initials
Rubinstein is good with numbers from childhood. First she maintains her father’s accounts when he trades in petroleum and eggs. When she comes to run her own firm, she passionately tracks the company’s stocks on the stock exchange. She comes out of the great financial crisis richer by nearly $6 million. In her official documents, Rubinstein subtracts several years from her age and adds her high heels to her height (147 cm). Her one problem is calculating calories: with age, her figure becomes rounder. This can hardly be seen in photographs of her: she orders that they be airbrushed.
For a millionaire, Rubinstein is thrifty. In her tax returns, she claims her high-fashion dresses as working clothes and she gets tax refunds both in New York and Paris. She sends her secretary to buy her discounted stockings. She organises energy-saving courses for her employees. For lunch, she buys take-away fried chicken and eats it at work, so as to save time.
She always says that there are no ugly women, only lazy ones. She is happiest when working and is amazed that there might be something more important. She hires from within her own family: Arden calls this the ‘Polish mafia’.
She surrounds herself with luxury. Fights with her husband regularly end in gifts of pearls, but ultimately they end in divorce. In her 26-room flat, she collects African sculpture, Victorian chairs, Chinese tables and Turkish lamps. On her walls hang works by Renoir, Picasso, Chagall and Matisse.
She has 27 portraits of herself. The one in which she is bound to a rock by a rope of emeralds is painted by Salvador Dali. He also designs her corporate logo – HR – and a cosmetics compact. He also refurbishes her dining room.
The 66-year-old queen of beauty marries a prince of Georgia, a man some 23 years her junior. After his death, she throws herself back into work. At 95 years of age, she suffers a stroke in her office. She dies a day later the world’s wealthiest woman: Her empire is worth $100 million. Today, the firm belongs to the cosmetics company L’Oréal.
Translated by Yale Reisner