Thanks to a combination of business savvy, breathtaking chutzpah, and lucky timing, Helena Rubinstein managed to transform herself from a poor Polish emigrant to the world's first self-made female tycoon. She went from selling homemade "Crème Valaze" out of her house in Australia to becoming an international cosmetics magnate. Tiny and plump, wearing extravagant jewels and spiked heels, she was a fixture of upper-crust New York for many years. She was larger than life, and never took no for an answer: when she was refused from a New York City apartment on the grounds that she was Jewish, she went ahead and bought the whole building and promptly moved in.
The story of Eugène Schueller and L'Oréal begins in 1907, in a dingy working-class part of Paris, where a young Schueller sat at his family's kitchen table trying to develop the first harmless artificial hair dye. The tale of how L'Oréal went from that point to the world's largest cosmetics company is fascinating and full of intrigue, with a little of everything: fascist assassins, bitter unmaskings, political scandals. In 1988, although Schueller and Rubinstein had long since passed away, their worlds collided when L'Oréal bought Rubinstein's company — leading to a series of scandals that threw a new and sinister light on L'Oréal. For starters, Rubinstein was Jewish, but Schueller and many other top L'Oréal executives had been active Nazi collaborators. What came to light threatened the reputations of some of France's most powerful men - up to and including its president.
This is a powerful, dramatic, and largely untold story about the ugly truth behind a beauty empire.
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RUTH BRANDON is a prominent historian, biographer, and novelist. Her widely acclaimed books include Other People's Daughters: The Lives and Times of the Governess; The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini; Surreal Lives: The Surrealists 1917-1945; and Being Divine: A Biography of Sarah Bernhardt.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Her life,” said Vogue of Helena Rubinstein, “reads like a fairy story.”1 It was 1915: Madame (as she was always known) had just opened her first New York salon. Dark-blue velvet covered the walls of its main room, with rose-colored woodwork and sculptures by Elie Nadelman from Madame’s own art collection. Each of the many other rooms had its own decorative theme, from a Louis XVI salon to a Chinese fantasy in black and gold and scarlet. The diminutive proprietor, high heels adding a few needed inches to the mere four foot ten nature had allowed her, personally showed the journalists around. However busy she might be, there was always time for journalists. Madame, ever keen to pinch a penny where she could, knew no amount of advertising could equal the boost afforded by a really long interview, with photos, spread over several pages. And such a piece cost nothing at all.
The fairy story in question was a classic rags-to-riches tale. Twelve years earlier, in 1903, Helena Rubinstein, a poor emigrant from Poland, had opened her first beauty salon: a single room in Melbourne, Australia, from which she sold pots of homemade face cream. So great were her marketing skills, such the demand, and so enormous the markup, that within two years she was rich. By 1915 she was a millionaire. She had dazzled London and Paris, and was set to do the same in America. Fairy stories, however, are more than just dazzling social leaps. They are also dramatizations of our deepest dreams. And in this sense, too, the metaphor was apposite, both for Rubinstein and for her chosen industry. For cosmetics are all about dreams—specifically, the dream of an ideal, time-defying physical self.
Generally speaking, the public acceptance of women’s cosmetics has varied according to the social status of their sex. When the Roman poet Ovid, in his Ars amatoria, advised women to make sure their armpits didn’t smell, that their legs were shaved, to keep their teeth white, to “acquire whiteness with a layer of powder,” to rouge if they were naturally pale, “hide your natural cheeks with little patches,” and “highlight your eyes with thinned ashes,” he was speaking to a society where women had substantial social freedoms in all spheres other than politics. Equally, the heroine of Pope’s Rape of the Lock, with its famous dressing-table scene enumerating “Puffs, Powders, Patches, Bibles, Billet-doux,” was free to take her place as an active player on the social stage. But in societies where a wife’s functions are solely to produce children and ser vice her husband, cosmetics are taboo. Saint Paul inveighs against them; the Talmud declares that “a beautiful wife—beautiful without cosmetics—doubles the days of her husband and increases his mental comfort.”
The nineteenth century, particularly in Britain, was just such a society: in the words of social commentator William Rathbone Greg, writing in 1862, a woman’s function in it was to “complete, sweeten, and embellish the existence of others.”3 But Helena Rubinstein’s good fortune, after a century of repression during which no respectable lady could allow herself even a touch of rouge, was to hit a moment when women were poised to claim new freedoms. Her fairy-tale riches—rubies, emeralds, pearls, and diamonds that would not have looked out of place in Ali Baba’s cave, sculptures and paintings, apartments and houses in New York, London, Paris, and the Riviera— reflected, in the reassuringly solid form Madame always favored, this surge of empowerment. And since empowerment is the keynote, too, of her own personal story, nothing could be more appropriate than that the first woman tycoon—the first self-made female millionaire—should have amassed her fortune through cosmetics.
Rubinstein’s life, as recounted by herself in two memoirs, was a fairy tale in yet another sense: a desirable fiction that had little to do with reality. “I have always felt a woman has the right to treat the subject of her age with ambiguity until, perhaps, she passes into the realm of over ninety,” she wrote—she herself being, by then, well into that realm. And ambiguous she was, and remained, not just about her age but about every aspect of her life. Although in the year of her death she finally acknowledged she was born “in the early 1870s, on Christmas Day” (the year was in fact 1872), even then she maintained the story—repeated so often she had perhaps come to believe it—that the family had been well-off. They lived, she said, in a big house near the Rynek, the ancient and splendid market square that is Krakow’s city center; her father, a “wholesale food broker,” was an intellectual who collected books and fine furniture; she herself had attended a gymnasium, she had for two years been a medical student, and her sisters, too, had attended university.
In fact anyone could tell that Helena had been poor, and hated it, from the extreme pleasure she took in being rich, piling up the bright, shiny goodies with a compulsive delight that never dimmed and that no one born rich could ever experience. Similarly, it is clear she would have studied medicine if she could. She always projected herself as a qualified scientific professional, was constantly photographed in white lab coats amid test tubes and Bunsen burners, emphasized her products’quasimedical aspects. She became as knowledgeable in her field as anyone alive. But that field was far from scientific, and such knowledge as she possessed was laboriously gleaned over the years, not formally acquired.
The Rubinsteins actually lived in Kazimierz, Krakow’s Jewish ghetto, whose cramped streets, despite restoration as a tourist attraction by the wealthy descendants of the poor Jews who once lived there, still exude a dingy poverty. There, Naftali Herzl Rubinstein, Helena’s father, was a kerosene dealer, occasionally selling eggs in the market. His eldest daughter, Chaja, who would become known as Helena, attended a local Jewish school.
She was, like many firstborn children, ambitious and highachieving, and as the eldest of eight sisters acquired a precociously adult habit of responsibility. When she recounts that her father, “since he had no son . . . fell into the habit of talking over his plans and projects with me,”5 there is, for once, no reason to doubt her. Many Jewish wives kept the family going by managing a business as well as running a home and raising children, providing the material necessities while their menfolk lived the life of the mind. Yiddish has a special word—baleboosteh— for this combination of worldly competence and efficient domesticity, and this, clearly, was clever Chaja’s destiny.
For a poor girl from her orthodox background (her mother’s father was a rabbi), medical school could never have been anything but a dream. A girl’s career was marriage. Any activities preceding that were mere time-marking. Afterwards, if her mother’s example was anything to go by, she could expect more or less permanent pregnancy: a cramped and frantic life amid an ever-increasing brood of babies.
It was enough to put any intelligent girl off marriage and motherhood for life, and (judging by her later forays into those territories) this was just the effect it had on Chaja. It can be no coincidence that the only Krakow suitor she mentions with enthusiasm was not a possible prospect, as he was not a Jew. Coming from a family like the Rubinsteins, to marry “out” would have been equivalent to death. Had Chaja done so, they would have cut off all contact with her and recited funeral prayers. Instead, her father produced a suitable widower. Chaja refused him, there was an almighty row, and she left the family home, never to return. She took refuge in Vienna with an aunt, her mother’s sister. It was her life’s defining moment. From now on she would be Helena, and her own woman.
Everything that happened to her subsequently, everything she did, stemmed from this furious decision. It not only reflected her attitude toward the prescribed female life of marriage and motherhood, but would influence her view of what cosmetics were for and what they might do for the wearer. No one was ever less interested in politics, whether of the international or the gender variety, than Helena Rubinstein—on the contrary, throughout her life, until it became impossible, she would shun, in every possible way, the political arena. But this one act catapulted her into it from the outset.
Her Vienna relations, the Splitters, were prosperous furriers. (A photo exists, taken in Vienna, of Helena, aged twenty-one, looking matronly in astrakhan.) Frau Splitter continued, on her sister’s behalf, the hunt for a suitable husband. But Helena refused all comers. And since Europe offered no obvious prospects, she decided to move on to a new continent. Three of her mother’s Silberfeld brothers had settled in Australia. John was a jeweler in Melbourne; Bernhard and Louis, along with Louis’s daughter Eva, a cousin about Helena’s age who was married with two small children, kept a general store and a grocery in Coleraine, a small town two hundred miles to the west. The Coleraine family were in need of some extra help, and in the summer of 1896 Helena sailed from Genoa to join them.
Nothing in Europe could have prepared her for the rude life of an Australian small town. She did not get on with her Uncle Louis, who, she hinted in a memoir, made unwelcome advances, and her cousin Eva’s marriage was disastrously unhappy. But, speaking no English, she could communicate with no one else: she was stuck with them. In later years Helena conducted her enormous correspondence (even when writing to her sisters) in English, the language of her adult life. But until her arrival in Australia she had spoken only Yiddish and Polish. Her spoken English always remained heavily accented, resounding with Yiddishisms. She described herself as shy, a quality hard to reconcile with her singularly uninhibited approach to business and her constant entertaining. The difficulty, however, seems largely to have arisen from her awkwardness in English. “She uttered in grunts,” fashion writer Ernestine Carter recalled6—a strange mix of English, French, Polish, and Yiddish that made her hard to follow and reluctant to strike up conversation with strangers. Surrounding herself with family as she famously did, calling in sister after sister, cousins, nephews, nieces, as the business expanded, she carried her homeland with her, whether to New York, Paris, or London: the archetypical rootless cosmopolitan.
She endured Coleraine for three years. Then, having picked up enough English to operate independently, she decided it was time to make her escape. Revisiting Australia in 1958, she refused to set foot in Coleraine. “No! No! I don’t want to go back there,” she told Patrick O’Higgins, the aide and companion of her later years. “For what? I was hungry, lonely, poor in that awful place.” But the Coleraine years had not been wasted. She knew now that she wanted to start up a business, and knew, too, what that business would be. One reason she was so convincing a beauty counselor was that her exquisite complexion meant she did for a long time look much younger than her real age. This was unusual in Australia, whose harsh climate, with its strong winds and baking sun, is hard on the skin. Her weather-beaten neighbors were admiring. What was her secret?
Helena claimed to have begun by selling her own spare pots of face cream to the local ladies, telling them that she used a formula discovered by some brothers called Lykusky “who had supplied us with it for our personal use ever since I was a little girl.” When the supply was exhausted, the legend went, she sent off to Poland to replenish her supplies. This was, on every level, a fantasy. The voyage between Europe and Australia took forty-five days—far too slow if orders had to be fulfilled—and it is unlikely that her own initial supplies would have provided any surplus. But for a natural entrepreneur like Helena, her neighbors’ interest was enough to plant an idea—the idea she had been looking for ever since abandoning her father’s house and the narrow life it offered. She would start a business selling face cream.
This chance direction was Helena’s first great stroke of luck. In all other areas of commerce, women were at a disadvantage, but the beauty business was different. With odd exceptions, such as the French court of Louis XV, where everyone, male and female, whitened their faces (as a sign that they did not lead a lower-class outdoor life) and rouged their cheeks and lips, the misogynistic Christian world had frowned upon cosmetics even where (as in Restoration England) they were widely used. Even when everyone knew that women did use rice powder, or face cream, or rouge, or whitened their skins with the notorious and poisonous ceruse, made from white lead, these preparations still had to be obtained discreetly and applied in strict privacy. Men averted their eyes from such arrangements—and so failed to realize what was obvious to Helena Rubinstein: that half the human race was interested in what she had to sell. Indeed, long after Helena Rubinstein, Elizabeth Arden, and Estée Lauder had all made millions out of cosmetics, men remained noticeably absent from the beauty business. There was Max Factor, but his main specialty was stage makeup, although he did introduce a line of cosmetics to the public in 1920. Otherwise, until the arrival of Charles Revson’s Revlon in the 1950s, women entrepreneurs dominated the beauty scene. This was partly because, as Life magazine observed in 1941, “Most men do not find an atmosphere conducive to their best work in the tight little matriarchy of the beauty business”8—a business Madame described in 1920 as “working for women with women, and giving that which only women can give— an intimate understanding of feminine needs and feminine desires.” But the prospect of enormous profits is generally enough to overcome any squeamishness or uncertainty. What gave women the edge in the beauty industry was that, in the beginning at least, this was a huge potential market of which only women were aware.
Helena decided to start her business in Melbourne. It was a large city (in 1901 it already had over 500,000 inhabitants), and her uncle John was established there. And—in her second stroke of luck—it proved to be an uniquely propitious location for what she now proposed. Whether or not Australian men disapproved of makeup was of little interest to Australian women—for unlike Europeans, they did not depend on men for their money. In Europe in 1901, respectable women only worked if they had no other means of support. Possible jobs were still effectively limited to dressmaking, millinery, and teaching, either as governesses or in schools. Australia, too, had its dressmakers, milliners, and governesses. But Australian women also worked in other fields, as journalists, telephone switchboard operators, and secretaries, in shops and hotels, in small factories . . . Around 35 percent of Melbourne’s breadwinners were women, and 40 percent of working-age women were in paid employment. The Melbourne Age coined the phrase “bach...
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