Helena Rubinstein, the cosmetics entrepreneur, was “the world’s first self-made female tycoon.” Eugene Schueller, the founder of the French hair-color company L’Oreal, thought women had no business in the workplace. In 1988, after their deaths, his firm acquired hers.
In “Ugly Beauty: Helena Rubinstein, L’Oreal and the Blemished History of Looking Good,” Ruth Brandon plays the two companies and their founders off each other. She admires Rubinstein and hates Schueller, whom she blames for the misery of his daughter and heir, Liliane Bettencourt.
“Rubinstein’s New York living room, like everything else about her, was tasteless but full of gusto,” Brandon writes, citing the gold floor lamps, the purple and magenta velvet chairs, the acid-green carpet. For her, Rubinstein epitomizes the vulgar Jew, and her Jewishness is central to the story.
The ghetto-raised daughter of a Krakow kerosene merchant, Rubinstein more or less ignored her roots until, following her second marriage, in 1938, she was turned down when she tried to buy a 26-room Park Avenue apartment.
“The building had a no-Jews policy. Enraged, Madame bought the building,” Brandon says.
That was her first real encounter with anti-Semitism. In the war that followed, one of her sisters refused to leave Poland and died in the camps.
Schueller on Trial
In France, meanwhile, Eugene Schueller was busy taking advantage of the German occupation: L’Oreal’s profits quadrupled between 1940 and 1944. Brandon dutifully enumerates acts (such as his donations to the Resistance) that weigh in his favor. He was later tried twice for collaboration and acquitted both times. But not by Brandon.
After the war, L’Oreal hired Jacques Correze, a war criminal who’d been sentenced to 10 years hard labor for leading a fascist gang that confiscated Jewish property. It was Correze who, after Madame’s death, snapped up Helena Rubinstein for L’Oreal, and Brandon is convinced he did it out of spite:
“Given his past, and his defiant arrogance, it is hard to believe that Helena Rubinstein’s Jewishness played no part in Correze’s absolute determination to acquire her business. He never showed any interest in the very comparable Elizabeth Arden.”
Wear Red Lipstick
For Brandon, Rubinstein isn’t just a paragon of female independence but one of the founders of an industry that championed it. “Participants in the big women’s suffrage marches held in New York in 1912 and 1913,” she points out, “were told to wear white shirtwaists -- and red lipstick, the badge of independence.”
Cosmetics were frowned on in precisely those societies -- like Victorian England and Nazi Germany -- where women were subjugated most severely. A major reason for Rubinstein’s initial success was that she started her business in Australia, where some 40 percent of working-age women were wage earners and could buy her products without worrying about male disapproval.
In her final chapter, Brandon offers a double portrait of “Two Old Ladies.” Rubinstein died at 92, an exuberant spender and a holy terror to the end. Schueller’s daughter and heir, Liliane Bettencourt, now 88, is one of the richest women in the world and, as Brandon sees her, a living corpse.
Rubinstein rebelled against her father to become a career woman. “Work was, as she said, the best beauty treatment,” Brandon writes.
Bettencourt (who in recent years has been the focus of a pathetic, headline-grabbing scandal involving millions she shelled out to a much younger man, Francois-Marie Banier) never rebelled against her own authoritarian father or his insistence that women should “stay home, devoting their lives to their families,” Brandon says.
Brandon argues -- credibly, though of course it can’t be proved -- that Bettencourt remains unfulfilled because she never had a career.
And she does something more in this unshapely but incisively written and fascinating history. She puts morality at the center, which makes “Ugly Beauty” a very unusual business book for the 21st century.
“Ugly Beauty” is published by Harper (290 pages, $26.99). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)