Madame Helena Rubinstien, 1870-1965
The catalogue cover for the Jewish Museum's new special exhibition, shows Helena Rubinstein in 1939 , dressed by Chanel in a dark dress with straw cuffs and wearing a trompe l'oeil braided straw hat, mimicking a coil of hair, by milliner Suzanne Talbot
Much like Iris Apfel today, exemplary of the originality and daring that is exceptional style, Helena Rubinstein is the subject of a small but carefully conceived and beautifully mounted retrospective exhibition. “Beauty Is Power,” will be on view at the Jewish Museum through March 22, 2015. With portraits, sculpture, photographs, cosmetic designs and packaging, clothing and jewels, it explores a life well lived, in which art and refinement were strategically applied to every aspect.
Irrepressible superstar of personal style, 94-year-old Iris Apfel, the subject of Albert Maysles' outstanding documentary, "Iris"
If only great faith makes it possible to fully appreciate George Herbert’s devotional verse, at least one observation of the 17th-century English metaphysical poet is quite easily grasped by any New Yorker: “Living well,” he wrote, “ is the best revenge.”
Bust by Elie Nadelman from the remarkable Rubinstein collection
A lifetime of portraits of Helena Rubinstein by various artists
The only rub then is all that is required for most who are not born to affluence, to carry on an enviable existence of elegant ease. How striking, in our highly unequal society, that outsiders born in rather modest circumstances sometimes, best pull-off this ultimate objective of doing well as they live and work in the Big City. Indeed the progress of those who start with little or nothing, occasionally exhibits far greater panache and verve than that of those equipped with a legacy of auspicious connections and prodigious means.
Tuesday October 28, 2014: Mr. Mason Klein, curator at the Jewish Museum, discuss portraits of cosmetics empress Helena Rubinstein, the subject of his special exhibition, "Helena Rubinstein: Beauty is Power"
Red Brocade Balenciaga suit
An elegant compact spplied by Helena Rubinstein
1938: Helena Rubinstein portrayed in her New York apartment by Vogue Magazine
Lovely Sheila Stone, who started her advertising career interfacing sometimes with Ogelvy & Mather while working for the "demanding but incredible" Helena Rubinstein, a"role model like no other". How fortunate it was to meet Ms. Stone and her husband at the members' preview of "Beauty is Power"
Helena Rubinstein epitomizes this notion. A Jew from the shtetl she fled Krakow and an arranged marriage in 1902. Migrating from Melbourne, Australia, to London to Paris, drawn inevitably to the land of opportunity, she was safely in America by 1915. Here Helena Rubinstein was at the apex of a group of beauty entrepreneurs dominated by just three women. With Canadian Elizabeth Arden and African American Madam C. J. Walker, Helena Rubenstein both transformed the beauty industry and helped to formulate the very conception of all that American beauty entails.
Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein and Madam C. J. Walker's daughter, partner and heir, A'Lelia Walker. A trio of beauty queens who helped to improve their world, offering countless women hope and enhanced self-esteem
Her adult life of supreme stylishness, its glamorous splendor, a corollary to imaginative vision, great ambition and hard work, was ever like a biblical banquet perfectly prepared for her, as if by providence. Day in and out, it was served lavishly up before all those who had stood in her way. This life unlike that of most, quite closely mirrored the experiences of Elizabeth Arden and Madam C. J. Walker. All three found their way from obscurity to New York City. Through their own efforts, largely unaided, they made there way, living large, as both an advertisement of success and as an affront to oppression. Each held aloft an anointed head, bejeweled and arrayed in haute couture‘s ‘fine linen’, their golden goblets overflowing.
Circa 1909, Helena Rubinstein dressed by Worth
Circa 1911: Rubinstein by Paul Helleu
1924: Rubinstein wears a 1923 Paul Poiret dress
Circa 1936: Rubinstein dressed by Captain Edward Molyneux
Circa 1939: Madame Rubinstein wearing an elephant emblazoned bolero from Elsa Schiaparelli's sensational 1938 'Circus collection'
Helena Rubinstein wears a sequin and bead embroidered Chantilly lace Christian Dior gown and a starfish-shaped, Ecalle-designed ornament dominated by a splendid 84-carat sapphire
1938: Rubinstein by Cecil Beaton, wearing Schiaparelli's sari dress and cape with a massive jeweled cross and a mass of charm bracelets
Selections from a collector's treasure trove, whose vast jewel casket is a small filing cabinet, in which D-stands for diamonds, E-is for emerald, P-is for pearls and R-is for rubies!
An Edwardian diamond and baroque pearl necklace Helena Rubinstein stated was the first of many trinkets she purchased to assuage her rage following spats with her first husband, her "quarrel jewelery "
Renowned Mexican silversmith, William Spratling referred to this necklace as the "Rubinstein necklace" because it was initially designed for Helena Rubinstein. It appeared in Spratling's wholesale catalogues from 1942 until 1945 although the example above was made about 1939
Circa 1912: The second Paris beauty salon of Madame Edward Titus, who was soon to emerge professionally as Madame Helena Rubinstein
Circa 1936: Helena Runinstein's emporium designed by Harold Sterner at 715 Fifth Avenue. Contrasting with severely modern architecture, neo-Baroque and Victorian flourishes of the decor were at the vanguard of taste. The 1830's alabaster vases across from a neo-Classical work by de Chirico, inspired couturier Charles James, who used similar urns with a 'boquet' of a length of silk in his own atelier
Wiener Werkstätte silver flatware designed by Josef Hoffmann for the newly wed Mrs. Edward Titus in 1908
Self-made, reborn, each woman’s carefully crafted self-invention was rooted in an ability to enhance and amplify her own appearance. Elizabeth Arden came from Ontario. Born Florence Nightingale Graham, her mother had died of tuberculosis when Arden was just four years old. Her widower Scottish immigrant father supported his five children by peddling household supplies to farmers. Becoming a nurse after school, luckily, Arden came close to approximating the conventional ideal white Anglo Saxon standard of attractiveness. Scornfully declaring, “Nothing that costs only a dollar is not worth having.”, Elizabeth Arden focused her attentions on helping the elite to achieve the beauty that she believed to be their birth-right. Imperiously she quipped, only half jokingly, “There's only one Elizabeth like me and that's the Queen.” Alternately, she was never smiling when telling employees at her luxurious establishments, “Dear, never forget one little point. It's my business. You just work here.”
Circa 1905: Elizabeth Arden, 1884-1966
673 Fifth Avenue: The oval room of Elizabeth Arden's first New York beauty salon
Circa 1934: TheLos Angeles Elizabeth Arden beauty salon
Yearning for beauty with as much fervent wistfulness as any Astor or Vanderbilt, ignored, “tempest tossed” and formerly enslaved masses were left to Walker and Rubinstein. Workers were hardly their only clientele however. Such was the desire of all women to appeal to others and be admired, that ultimately, the promising nostrums this trio purveyed, found some adherents irrespective of class, age or race. Just as housemaids who lived in Harlem might splurge and buy an Elizabeth Arden lipstick, they had first tried out at work, so too certain dowagers on Park Avenue came to swear by Madam Walker’s preparations that allowed them, at last, to manage their unruly hair.
As though they were indeed royalty, all three beauty queens lived in gracious opulence, conveyed in fine cars, traveling widely and occupying more than one residence throughout the year. Each took care too, that their business premises be appointed to provide well-off customers with surroundings of reassuring refinement, commensurate to their dignity. Those who were less fortunate, they were also treated in such a way as to make them feel welcome, worthy and special. Much as movie theaters were devised as picture palaces, places that flattered even poor moviegoers with deluxe surroundings, the beauty salons of Rubinstein, Walker and Arden were calculated to help momentarily transport customers into a realm beyond the ordinary. For every bit as much as any specific potion, powder or polish, through a hospitable atmosphere, with solicitous and well-trained staffs, eager to please and pamper, they were selling fantasy and wish fulfilment too.
Circa 1908: Madam C. J. Walker, 1867-1919
Circa 1909 and 1928: Madam C. J. Walker and her daughter, partner and heir, A'Lelia Walker
Born Sarah Breedlove, the only member of her family not born a slave, MadamWalker adopted the name of the second, of three husbands. Her daughter married three times and both died young. Yet whether with architecture or through generous philanthropy to black causes, paying as much attention to projecting as regal an image as any sovereign, the Walkers utilized a saga as poignant and compelling as Lincoln's trek from a back-woods cabin to the White House. This was how they distinguished their brand from every other similar product on the market. For the Walkers, as for Helena Rubinstein, the concept that beauty and success were synonymous was espoused as an alluring doctrine of faith
Madam Walker's log cabin birthplace at Delta, Louisiana
1918: The Walker residence-beauty salon, 108-110 West 136th Strret.
How adroit, for architect Vertner Tandy, Madam C. J. Walker and her daughter, A'Lelia Walker Robinson, to do just what whites would have maintained they were incapable of. Employing what a century ago was regarded as the epitome of "good taste", they took their cue from the Park Avenue townhouse of Percy Rivington Pyne, II, Esquire, a picture of WASP decorum and rectitude, planned by McKim, Mead & White and completed in 1911. Devising a hybrid Walker-townhouse-salon, they combined home and business, in one imposing structure in 1917, well before the idea was adapted by Helena Rubenstein in Paris, or at Bergdorf-Goodman and by Elizabeth Arden on Fifth Avenue
1918: The Reception and tea rooms of the Walker Beauty Parlor, College and Spa
1915: Light filled, with painted furniture, Helena Rubinstein's first New York beauty salon was designed by the Viennese modernist furniture designer, architect, painter, and writer, Paul T. Frankl. How reminiscent of this cheerful space the Walker's somewhat later beauty salon was
In his newest movie “Iris” the celebrated documentarian, Albert Maysles who first gained acclaim with “Gray Gardens”, follows the 94-year-old New York personality Iris Apfel. An interior designer and businesswoman of considerable ability, her remarkably personal fashion-sense has become far more famous than anything she has ever done professionally. Speaking of her budding courtship in the late 1940’s, Mrs. Apfel recalls how Carl Apfel, before they decided to marry, had confessed to a mutual friend, how although he was much taken with her considerable glamour, he felt that she ought to get a nose job. Unwilling to do what so many others did in order to fit in, that confidence might have been the end of things. Only, not long afterward, Apfel called to admire what Iris had been wearing that day, as he’d passed her on the bus. Even from a great distance, the dissimilarity of Iris’ alluring style had reached out to grab him
1918: A'Lelia Walker's 136th Street bedroom.
Although the old original mantelpiece and architraves were kept here, decorators Righter & Kolb, much like Stanford White at the Ogden Mills' estate, or Paul Frankl at the Rubinstein beauty salon, made them 'modern', with cream colored paint, matching new painted Louis XVI-style furniture
Madam Walker and Helena Rubinstein’s approach similarly was to encourage women to be their best selves by embracing and accentuating what made them unique. Early in the 20th-century, as now, promoted by modeling agencies, espoused by advertisers and disseminated by Hollywood, great effort was exerted to achieve a universal aesthetic. Not everyone was born with the much praised ’peaches-in-cream’ completion, or flowing, gently waving golden tresses, bright blue eyes, an aquiline or retroussé nose, a cupid’s bow mouth, and an athletic but curvaceous figure. None-the-less, incredulously, many sought through artifice, the very attributes they otherwise lacked. Certainly, neither Walker nor Rubinstein eschewed or ignored their epoch’s ‘ideal’ look. Rubinstein sold blond hair dye just as walker offered skin bleaching ointments. But by incorporating their own distinctive images in advertisements, images with an unambiguously ethnic identity, portrayals of women otherwise largely absent from mainstream media, both downplayed the importance of assimilation. Each emphasized instead, that through diligent grooming, one could cultivate beauty; not by aspiring to look like some iconic film star, but by perfecting who it was that you are.
1928: The Dark Tower, photographed by James Vanderzee
Already living at her 80 Edgecombe Avenue apartment by the mid-1920's, to better utilize the living space at 110 West 136th Street, A'Lelia Walker rented several rooms for private social and civic events, calling this enterprise, "The Walker Studio". Supposedly inaugurated as a gathering place for artists, another part of the house was also rented for gatherings and called the "Dark Tower", in reference to Countee Cullen's evocative poem. The Walker's former drawingroom was dominated in the redecoration by by Paul T. Frankl, Skyscraper bookcase, first produced in 1924. A Viennese furniture designer and maker, an architect, painter, and writer, Frankl was one of Walker's numerous acquaintances from Greenwich Village parties. The gold-stenciled light shade, also represent his smart handiwork
Circa 1928: 8 East 57th Street
Starting with her very first location in New York, Paul T. Frankl, who was also befriended and patronized by A'Lelia Walker, design several Helena Rubinstein salons. Here his famous Skyscraper bookcase dominates the minimalist modern interior he devised for Rubinstein in an elaborate old former town house
Skyscraper bookcase, by Paul T. Frankl
Habitually wearing pink was as close as Elizabeth Arden, a stable owner, whoes horse once won the Kentucky Derby, ever came to developing a notable personal style-sense. Some sources suggest that her two marriages were quite calculating. The first, in 1918, between Elizabeth Arden and Thomas Lewis, gained her American citizenship. Lewis served as Arden’s business manager until their divorce in 1935. His wife never permitted her husband to own company stock. Tellingly, after their split, Lewis went to work for Helena Rubinstein.
Circa 1927: The Walker's incomperable country retreat, Villa Lewaro
Courtesy of Ms. A'Lelia Bundles/aleliabundles.com
Aurora: Apollo in his chariot proceeded by Dawn, after Guido Reni, 1613-1614.
The glory that was Villa Lewaro.
The Walker's estate was realized in 1918 at a cost of $350,000.00. Although Helena Rubinstein boasted more dwellings and more resplendent collections, at a time when the average black New Yorker earned just $800.00 annually, Villa Lewaro was seen by African Americans as an otherworldly palace and a singular accomplishment. Disparity based on race in America, meant that Rubinstein at her peak of operation, took in more in a year, than the Walkers earned over a lifetime, yet how prodigiously they expended their wealth
Helena Rubenstein’s initial marriage was also to an American. Only she met publisher and bibliophile Edward Titus, in Paris. This alliance brought Rubinstein two sons and invaluable acquaintance with her intellectual husband’s literary and artists friends. Noted couturier Paul Poiret, for one, became a close friend of Helena Rubinstein. She admired the designer’s innate talent and taste. Both relished his festive bohemian parties alive with good talk and loud laughter, fueled by delicious food and wine. Many of Helena Rubinstein's discoveries, including Chanel and Picasso were made possible thanks to Paul Poiret, who most interestingly would also befriend and design clothes for Madame Walker’s daughter, partner and heir, the exuberant A’Lelia Walker, dubbed the ’Joy Goddess of the Harlem Renaissance’.
Circa 1912: A'Lelia Walker in a toque by her friend Paul Poiret
Courtesy of Ms. A'Lelia Bundles/aleliabundles.com
1926: A'Lelia Walker is shown in a cassock's uniform she purchased for a costume party
Villa Lewaro's grand clock was a copy of the celebrated model made circa 1785 and attributed to Jean-Henri Riesener, now in the Louvre
Well in advance of the Crash, late in the 1920s, Madame Rubinstein sold her company to Lehman Brothers. Shrewdly she retained a sizable block of company stocks. With the Great Depression, it’s value plummeting, she reacquired the outstanding shares to make this suffering enterprise more successful than ever before, After 30, years shedding her first husband, the father of her children, on taking a new mate, when past 60, she asked for and got a prenuptial agreement. Through this union with, still dashing Prince Artchil Gourielli-Tchkonia, Madame Rubinstein was styled H H Princess Gourielli. Oddly enough, by coincidence, ‘That Woman’, as Madame referred to Elizabeth Arden, responded by wedding another Russian aristocrat, Prince Michael Evlanoff. Alas, where Prince and Princess Gourielli remained together happily until his highness’ death, the Evlanoff’s were rent asunder in less than a year.
For all of Elizabeth Arden’s prowess as the top supplier of beauty potions to the carriage trade, there was a way in which she remained every bit as much an outsider as Rubinstein and even Madam Walker. The relationship she shared with the notable, but notorious, liberal and lesbian literary agent Elizabeth Marbury, is said to have been quite chaste, by some. These same ’historians’ make the same pronouncement about Marbury’s earlier ‘close friendship’ with decorating pioneer Elsie de Wolfe. A well-born friend of mine, whose much older late life-partner had been a member of these women’s circle, refutes such claims. “These girls were human too. Oh yes, Miss Elsie might well to have feigned her utter distaste for being pawed and other earthy and pedestrian pleasures, But Bessie, she was a pistol. There’s no way that she would have countenanced or forborne such unfeeling behavior. None!…” In all events, it was this ‘friendship’ that in the full season of time, brought to Elizabeth Arden, Elizabeth Marbury’s diamond bracelet and her waterfront country place in Maine, which became the first of Arden’s Maine Chance spas for the super rich.
Elizabeth Arden and liberal and lesbian literary agent Elizabeth Marbury, depicted by the great gay artist Arthur Rankin
Drive and the pursuit of opportunity were half of what had motivated Madame Walker. Her only child, Lelia was the other part of this equation. The woman who became famous as A'Lelia Walker always came first where her mother was concerned. Neither possessing the requisite fragility, fair skin, or delicate features deemed necessary to be regarded as a beauty in her day, tall and statuesquely handsome Lelia made an impressive, even a striking appearance. Always the bright lights and good times of the big city beckoned alluringly to Madame Walker's child. In 1913 she had bade her mother to relocate with her from Indianapolis to the new Negro 'promised land' of Harlem, a quarter with as many dance halls, cabarets and saloons as churches, hundreds! The women attending church and bars mightn't be the same women, but Lelia pointed out, that all hundred thousand wanted to get their hair done before they went there.
So off to Harlem they ventured. According to historian Christopher Gray, in 1913 and 1915 Madam Walker bought two old-style brownstones at 108 and 110 West 136th Street. In 1915 she filed plans to completely rebuild the two houses as one with a new facade. This was the same way that many midtown and East Side row houses were being reconstructed. Walker created a hybrid Walker townhouse-salon, that combined home and business long before this idea was ever considered by Helena Rubinstein in Paris, at Bergdorf-Goodman or by Elizabeth Arden on Fifth Avenue.
Circa 1956: Above her famous red-doored beauty salon-day spa Elizabeth Arden had a penthouse apartment
Most of her life Madame maintained flats in London, Paris and New York. She additionally enjoyed two country houses in France and another, in America. It should go without saying, that in accordance with so impetuous a mistress, each residence was kept in perpetual readiness. Obtained on the eve of war, in 1938, her large flat at 24, quai de Béthune, llocated on the historic Île St.-Louis, was perhaps her favorite home. Not infrequently she exclaimed how, "I got it for a song, but the renovations cost me a fortune." Madame, the Princess Gourielli, was of course prevented from inhabiting her enchanting art-filled aerie during the Second World War. Nazis occupying it are said to have used sculptures for target practice, but the marvelous apartment survived.
24, quai de Béthune
Located on the historic Île St.-Louis, designed by architect Louis Süe and crowned with a vast roof garden with arresting panoramic views and an enormous reflecting pool, making it an ideal adjunct to entertaining in warm weather, stood Helena Rubinstein's final apartment in Paris
In Helena Rubinstein’s colonnaded grand salon, Louis Süe contrasted architectural restraint with furnishings fit for a queen. These included a magnificent gout grec Louis XVI center table and gilt chairs, designed by Georges Jacob. Madame’s suite of chairs were exceptional for retaining their still-vivid pictorial tapestry covers
Madame's dining room was graced by a Monet seascape and spiraling wall sconces
As often happened with Helena Rubinstein, her passion for the simplicity of Jean-Michel Frank's modernism, ultimately gave way to her enthusiasm for antique grandeur, supplied by the addition of an exuberant Napoleon III carpet and rocco-revival Belter furniture, reflecting the influence of the antiques dealer and decorator Madeleine Castaing
Rubinstein's African art was both of the highest quality and reflected her innovatory couinisureship
In Madame's bedroom Louis Süe covered the alcove walls and doors with pale yellow satin, diapered with gold cord. This was meant to suggest the surfaces of a suite of Charles X, mother-of-pearl veneered furniture, upholstered in white and silver damask
Following Helena Rubinstein's death, in the late 1960's socialite Doris Duke bought her mother-of-pearl clad furniture, for the very different sort of bedroom she occupied, at "Rough Point", in Newport
Madame's winter garden
The view from the center of the universe!
Over the 40-odd years Helena Rubinstein lived a part of each year in New York, she occupied four extraordinary, much-photographed, apartments. By far the most spectacular was her last, 625 Park Avenue, a mammoth 27-room penthouse triplex with 7 wood-burning fireplaces and a series of servants’ rooms on a hidden mezzanine between the 12th and 13th floors. Here she resided and entertained memorably for thirty years. Built in 1931, the decorous building was designed by one of New York’s most adept luxury-apartment-house specialists, architect James E. R. Carpenter.
James E. R. Carpenter's 625 Park Avenue
Informed the management did not lease to Jews, Princess Gouurielli bought the building
The oak wainscoated, art-filled drawing room
A commodious pine-paneled dining room
A beautifully laid table
A Russian Easter buffet with roast suckeling pig
A rental when the recently remarried Princess Gourielli first investigated apartment suites there, like the majority of the East Side’s most fashionable buildings in 1941, number 625 Park Avenue refused to lease units to African Americans or Jews. Many, fearful of encountering such biases, avoided the embarrassment of rejection by self-segregating, in enclaves like the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. It comes as little surprise to learn that Helena Rubinstein had little interest in being relegated to anyone’s ghetto. Without hesitation, she bought the entire building and hired architect Max Wechsler of Wechsler & Schimenti to combined three apartments as her new abode, for $500,000.
Drinks on the terrace
A birthday buffet with shrimp, ham, turkey and champagne punch
Madame Walker, anxious to take her place among America’s ‘best society’, at least geographically, was thwarted in acquiring “Bishop’s Court”, a small estate in Queens, in 1917. When next she made a bid to live where the action and richest Americans were, aided by a white attorney, she succeeded. For nearly a century now, Walker’s now threatened “Villa Lewaro”, close to Jay Gould’s “Lyndhurst” and John D. Rockefellers “Kykuit”, has been one of the most conspicuous landmarks of Irvington, New York.
Featuring a 68-foot long oak-paneled living room, Helena Rubinstein’s last New York home brought together much of what she’d collected over a lifetime. One space was devoted to displaying dioramas with miniature rooms filled with diminutive furniture. An anteroom contained a set of Venetian shell-shaped grotto furniture that complimented murals painted by Salvador Dali. Breakfasting in her custom-made illuminated Lucite bed, a regal Madame, like a latter-day queen at her levée, enjoyed presiding over advertising presentations and other business meetings.
A morning conference. Madame's custom lucite bed cost just over $800.00 to make
The suite of lucite furniture included chairs
Madame was not above moving things around when a change suited her
Suzanne Slesin, Rubinstein’s journalist step-granddaughter, called the apartment “unforgettable!”, enthusing over it’s Aladdin’s cave-like treasures: a rare Matisse landscape, early Picassos, powerful Rouault tapestries, dozens of candy-colored Mexican primitive paintings, works by Miro, Chagall, Derain and Modigliani, Chagall, Utrillo and de Chirico; African and Oceanic figures. Indonesian, Louis XIV and American Victorian Belter furniture; Russian icons, opaline glass; hundreds of drawings and prints by Degas, Dufy and Leger, and everywhere, she recalled with nostalgia, smooth, unblemished classical marble heads by Elie Nadelman, purchased from the Polish émigré’s first London showing en bloc, in 1915!
A rare wooden bust by Nadelman on view in the display of "Beauty is Power"
Sadly, after Madame's death, when the building was converted into cooperative apartments, rival cosmetics tycoon, Charles Revson, bought the famous apartment and had McMillen redecorate, reducing all Rubinstein’s technicolor magnificence into a tastefully taupe backdrop not worth remembering. The sister of the Shah of Iran was the next owner. In the mid-1990’s Henry Kravis succeeded her, paying a then newsworthy price of $15-million.
Doing up a new Knightsbridge flat in 1960, Madame engaged the services of the young David Hicks, soon to become the jet set's darling
With one’s curiosity piqued by the Jewish Museum’s masterful exhibition "Helena Rubinstein: Beauty is Power", it’s good to know her eventful and improbable life has been otherwise amply documented. An early most entertaining effort was written by her charming, calm and capable gay secretary-factotum, Patrick O’Higgins. Madame, his bittersweet memoir, among the finest biographies ever written, deftly captures so much of the nuance, style, wry wit, and mad resourcefulness of a woman who reflected on how at 90, she still carried her lunch to work in a brown paper sack, saying, “as a teenager, it embarrassed me. But now I can do what I want. So it seems chic to me to take my lunch to work in a paper bag…”
Helena Rubinstein's charming, stylish, calm and capable gay secretary-factotum, Patrick O’Higgins. who imortalized her with his memoir "Madame", which narrowly missed being made into a film. On her death he was bequeathed $5,000.00 outright and $2,000.00 yearly for life
In Lindy Woodhead’s War Paint, Madame is paired in an amusing mud-slinging match with her archrival beauty queen Elizabeth Arden. Over the Top by Rubenstein’s kinswoman by marriage, journalist Suzanne Slesin, produced by Slesin’s Pointed Leaf Press, is a lavishly illustrated chronicle which has been critically accessed as ‘magnificent. The legacy Rubinstein’s son Roy Titus bequeath to his fourth wife’s children, certainly was munificent, and how fitting it is that it should have provided for the publishing house that produced this worthy tribute.
A more problematic appraisal of the mighty Madame comes from a new book, Ugly Beauty: Helena Rubinstein, L'Oreal, and the Blemished History of Looking Good, by Ruth Brandon. It juxtaposes the rise of self-promoting, assertive, self-taught Polish Jew, Helena Rubenstein with that of social climbing, Nazi collaborator, French chemist, Eugene Schueller, of L'Oreal. The ultimate irony is how notwithstanding Hitler’s defeat and the demise of the National Socialists, it’s been L'Oreal that’s triumphed, both as the owners of Rubenstein’s firm and name and as an iniquitous force sullying everything in its wake. Some scandals associated with the company’s taint are profound, such as corrupt and covert contributions made to former President Mitterrand. Others, like lightening Beyonce's skin tone in a photograph, or engaging a white-only sale force at Macy's are almost farcical.
Yet the point of the book seems to be, two-fold: That even dead, Eugene Schueller‘s malevolence persists. While on the other hand, however heroic a role model Rubinstein might seem, making a place for women in the corporate world, and repeatedly battling misogyny and anti-Semitism, that she was no angle either. She is said to have failed Marc Chagall’s appeal for assistance to flee the Nazis and to have even failed to denounce the Germans before they murdered one her sisters.
Patron of inumerable groundbreaking artists and craftsmen, the benefactress of hundreds of individuals and numerous cultural intuitions around the world, what do even the worst failings of this imperfect but eternally fascinating woman, someone who improbably managed to change the world as she’d found it, matter?