Helena Rubinstein: The Woman Who Invented Beauty by Michele Fitoussi

Gallic Books edition. Image: belgraviabooks.com
Gallic Books edition. Image: belgraviabooks.com

This book came to me entirely by chance when I saw it was up for grabs from the publisher Gallic Books on Twitter. I had heard of Helena Rubinstein at some point, not sure where, but my first memory of hearing her name was in an episode of Sex and the City when the girls visit the Helena Rubinstein spa in New York and Samantha gropes her male masseur. The manager throws them out because “Helena Rubinstein is a civilised place for civilised people”. I reckon the lady herself would have agreed.

Personally I’ve come to care a lot more about beauty and skin care in the last few years, and now find myself reading about it more and more, both in magazines and online (XOVain is particular favourite). Helena Rubinstein is a hugely respected name in the industry but has been a little forgotten of late, with no visible campaigns and their products barely mentioned in the press. But, as Michele Fitoussi’s title states, Helena Rubinstein was a pioneer of the beauty industry and was a key player in the invention of what we now know as ‘beauty’ in the modern sense.

Madame (as she came to be known) was born in Krakow, Poland in 1872, the eldest of eight daughters. She refused to follow her parents’ wishes and marry someone just because she should, and so was more than happy to be sent to live with her maternal uncles in Australia in 1902. Her mother Gitte had created a simple face cream that she insisted all her daughters use every day; Helena took twelve jars of it with her and began telling women about it in her uncle’s shop after they asked how she achieved her flawless complexion. She sent for more cream from her mother and after obtaining the formula made it herself, and sold it in her uncle’s shop. This simple face cream, originally called Valaze cream, was the beginning of her beauty empire.

Charismatic and with excellent marketing and sales skills, Rubinstein made her Valaze cream so popular that she was eventually able to set up salons in the biggest Australian cities, after selling it in her uncle’s shop and encouraging word-of-mouth amongst society ladies. She remained a national hero there for the rest of her life. Her empire (an appropriate word once you read her story) spanned Australia, New Zealand, Europe, America, and even Japan in the late 1950s.

From Australia Madame moved to western Europe, conquering Paris and London, before tackling New York. She was always ambitious, and no success was ever enough – work was everything. Even through her troubled first marriage and the births of her two sons, she worked tirelessly, even to the point of neglecting her family. This is where we might not like Madame as much as we did initially. I was certainly thrown by her willingness to leave her children with nannies for such long periods of time, to the point where the boys felt a huge emotional distance between them and their mother. Fitoussi however is sympathetic to both Madame and her sons, and describes their relationships from both sides, examining how their childhood affected their later lives. I think Rubinstein’s approach to motherhood says a great deal about her, as career was everything for most of her life. It was only when bad health forced her to slow down that she began to reflect on her role as a mother and wished she had spent more time with her children when they were young.

She was certainly not without heart, but she was consistently tough with all those around her, demanding more and more from them every time she saw them. Most of her sisters were summoned to work in her salons, as well as nieces and nephews, and even her beloved assistant Patrick O’Higgins, a fixture in her later life, was not immune to her harsh words. It seems to me that Madame greatly appreciated family, but was so incredibly determined to succeed in business that she sometimes forgot just how important they were to her.

Michele Fitoussi documents the life of Madame with obvious affection and admiration, although sometimes the sheer amount of travelling and dramas that happened seem to be too much to fit into the pages, and a list-like structure sometimes appears. Most of the time, however, Fitoussi manages to include all the major life events and key minor moments while still portraying the humanity of the woman at the centre of an enormous business empire. It is glamorous and exciting, but not without the mundanity of everyday life and the struggles of familial relationships.

Despite her shortcomings, I really do admire Helena Rubinstein. She battled through a tough childhood, very uncertain and difficult beginnings in Australia, a constantly changing industry and challenging rivals, not to mention being a woman and a Jew in a world that favoured neither. She was defiant and brave, and unendingly determined to succeed. She was always in charge and never let anyone beat her – even when her home was burgled, she sat in the bed, a defenceless old woman, and hid her diamonds and the key to safe in her nightgown while the thieves tried to find her best jewels. Helena Rubinstein was tough, bold and very intelligent. She is quoted as saying she felt as if she had lived “a dozen normal lives” and after reading Michele Fitoussi’s excellent biography I can see why.

*

Originally published by in France by Grasset in 2010, and was published in English in 2013 by Gallic Books. My copy was kindly provided by Gallic Books for review.

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