Helena Rubinstein (born 1872 in Kraków, Poland, died 1965 in New York City) created the cosmetic industry, became a billionaire starting with nothing (inflation adjusted), transformed herself into an Icon perhaps matched in her time only by Coco Chanel. She taught millions of women how to make themselves beautiful. She became a renown supporter of the visual arts, know for her exquisite taste.
She was the eldest of eight daughters from a struggling family in a povertly ridden Jewish Shetl in Kraków, Poland. Fitoussi shows us how much a potential struggle it was for her parents to find suitable husbands and provide the expected dowry for each daughter. (In my post on this wonderful biography I will mostly focus on some of the many things in the book that most struck me and will not set out a sketch of her life.) I will say this is a very good book, it is far more than just a biography but also a portrait of Jewish life, a history of the modern cosmetics industry, and it gives us a vivid look at the struggles that Helena Rubenstein as a Jewish woman basically on her own for her formative years faced creating a business empire that still thrives. The roots of her empire were in a cosmetic cream her mother made.
Members of the greater Rubinstein family had emigrated to Australia and Helena decided that was best for her. She did not want to be just another housewife, none of the prospective mates suggested for her were suitable. As I read on in the book, I am more and more impressed by the tremendous work ethic of Helena. When she arrived in Australia, she went to work on an uncle's farm. She worked tremendously hard. She was very beautiful and her family there tried to find a match for Helena among the limited number of single Jewish men in the area. In the mean time Helena noticed the devastating impact of the Australian sun on the skin of women, she had her mother send her some jars of her cream. She began to research cosmetics, wondering how to make a skin cream from local products. She developed a product and with the help of men friends she had acquired, began to market her product. After having a falling out with her uncle she went to work as a waitress in a coffee shop. There she met men who helped her set up a cosmetic shop selling a cream she had created. An important skill she learned in Australia was advertising and promoting her product. Compressing a bit, her shop did very well and soon she had shops throughout Australia. One of the things I liked so much about Helena was her loyalty to her family. Numerous family members ended up working for her. She wanted to go back to Europe for a visit and to expand her empire. By the time she returned to Europe, she had over half a million pound in an Australian bank.
Helena wanted to conquer the French cosmetic world and she succeeded. She began to use her now serious wealth to buy beautiful apartments, collect art and mix in high social levels. She married a man that helped her business a lot, he was also dependent on her financially but once I overcome my skepticism I thought he was not that bad a husband, aside from cheating on her. They had two sons but Helena was so busy with work that much of the raising of the boys was done by hired servants. The boys had life time issues with their mother but they were very close. Helena kept getting richer and richer and more and more famous.
She had one world left to conquer, the American cosmetic market. Conquer it she certainly did. It was hilarious to follow her feud with Eve Arden. Just before the American stock market crashed in 1929 Helena sold ninety percent of her company to a Wall Street firm, the Lehman brothers. The sale made her one of the richest women in the world. Lehman Brothers took the company public by selling stock. The crash destroyed about ninety percent of the stock value. Now Helena showed true brilliance. She got a list of all those who had bought stock from Lehman brothers and she offered to buy it slightly above the post crash price. She soon had control of her company back and when the price rebounded she was all the richer. A girl from a Polish Shetl out smarted Wall Street. I loved it.
Her first marriage had ups and downs. He cheated on her. Every time he did, she bought herself expensive jewelry. She would divorce and marry a prince.
This is really an interesting book. I learned a lot from it. Recently I read two biographies of Coco Chanel, I see similarities between the two women but I see Helena as the better person.