The life story of Helena Rubinstein – the woman who built the cosmetic empire

There are no ugly women, only lazy ones!

She was barely 1.50 cm tall, she spoke English with a Polish accent and during her life no one knew exactly how old she was.

Her name stood on the facades of 14 factories and 32 beauty salons around the world, and her fortune was estimated at 100 million dollars. She achieved everything on her own, when she moved from her native Krakow to Melbourne, where she began to create her own cosmetic empire, at a time when women were not even entrepreneurs yet. Helena Rubinstein was a pioneer of beauty.

Many also call her the founder of modern cosmetics – she was the first to come up with the idea to color powder or make-up eyes, things that are self-evident today. At a time when beauty care was not a topic at all, and make-up was considered frivolous and socially taboo, she broke through with the idea that every woman can discover her individual beauty and that the best should be extracted from it. She believed that women would gain self-confidence that way. She succeeded in the business world, which was still dominated by men at the time, and devised an innovative market that was permanently established at the international level, and still exists today.

This is the life story of Helena Rubinstein – the woman who built the cosmetic empire!

Earlier years

Helena Rubinstein was born into a large family of orthodox Jews in Krakow, in the Jewish district of Kazimierz, in the center of which today is the somewhat kitschy hotel “Rubinstein”, built to attract tourists.

Her birthplace is a little further away. Real name Chaja, she was the oldest of eight sisters – after her, Pauline, Regina, Rosa, Stella, Ceska, Manka and Erna were born. Hertzel’s father was a merchant with no sense of business and forever in debt, and Gitel’s mother realized early on that she would never have a dowry for her daughters. Since for women at that time the only chance was to marry a well-to-do man, the mother taught Helena and her sisters every night how to maintain their hair and skin. No matter how tired she was at the end of the day, Helena never missed her mother’s advice: 100 brush strokes before bed to make her hair as shiny as possible, washing with cold water and applying a face cream that her mother hoped would. To make all her daughters beautiful enough to marry well and without a dowry.

But Helena didn’t want to get married early. She wanted to see the world, so at the age of 16, she left Krakow and went first to her aunt in Vienna, then to Australia, where her three uncles lived. She traveled on the ship “Prinzregent Luitpold” and bought the ticket under the name Helena Juliet, a name that will soon make her famous. She lived with relatives on a sheep farm for a short time, then moved to Toowoomba, Queensland, where she worked as a nanny, and then to Melbourne, where she got a job at a tea house.

And it was in Australia, then probably the smallest fashionable place in the world, that her career began. Namely, she took 12 boxes of skin cream from home, which was made in Krakow according to her recipe by the pharmacist Jacob Likuski for her mother. She noticed that the skin of Australian women, dry and rough due to the constant sun, is completely contrary to her white European skin.

The Australians then started borrowing cream from her, which became so popular that Helena ordered an additional shipment from Poland, and soon opened her first salon in Melbourne, where she quickly brought and hired a Polish pharmacist. She sold the cream under the name Valaze (from the Hungarian válasz = answer), and the salon was called “Maison de Beauté Valaze”. The business was going so well that she soon brought her sister Ceska and her sister Lola from Krakow, whom she presented to the immigration authorities as dermatology experts from Vienna.

Melbourne soon became too small for her, so in 1908, with an income of 100 thousand dollars, she moved to London, and left the salon to her sister. In the same year, she married journalist Edward William Titus in London. In the meantime, she received additional education in Vienna, Krakow, Berlin, Wiesbaden and Paris, but her wish to complete her medical studies with a specialization in dermatology never came true, but that is why she always appeared at work in a white coat to act as seriously as possible.

Waterproof mascara

The following year, she also opened a salon in Paris and was the first to classify four skin types: dry, normal, oily and combination, so she developed a special type of cream for each. While living in Paris, she conceived the so-called “crème gypsy”, for darker-skinned women, and she was also in charge of theatrical make-up of actress Josephine Baker.

In Vienna, in 1932, she opened a salon at Kohlmarkt 8. Her namesake, the Viennese Helena Winterstein-Kamberski, was responsible for the invention of waterproof mascara. The mascara, which did not spill during the rain and heat, was patented in 1935, and she intended to place it on the market with her own company “La Bella Nussy”, so she sold the license to Helena Rubinstein. Waterproof mascara was presented in 1939 at the world exhibition in New York, with water ballet, IE synchronized swimming.

At that time, mascara was still applied with paper sticks from aluminum tubes, and in 1958, Helena Rubinstein presented the first mascara with a brush, as we know it today.

In 1937, she bought a large house in the Parisian district of San Louis, and after divorcing her husband, with whom she had two children, she married 26 younger Georgian Prince Artchil Gurieli-Tchkoni, who earned his living as a “backgammon” player. A Persian game also called a board. A year after the “Anschluss of Austria”, Rubinstein closed her Viennese salon and headed to America. But, there, too, she was greeted by antisemitism: in New York, they refused to rent her an apartment because she was Jewish, but she then bought a nice 16-storey building on the corner of Park Avenue and 65th Street, in whose penthouse she lived for the rest of her life. . After the Nazis came to power, she managed to move almost her entire family to America and get a job in her companies, except for her sister Regina, who died in Auschwitz together with her husband.

It opened its branches in liberal cities: San Francisco, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Atlantic City, and left those that were traditionally known as WASP to its longtime competitor Elizabeth Arden, who served only a rich, white clientele. To this day, the rivalry of the two ladies is an inexhaustible source of literary works, that is, the motif of numerous musicals and theatrical performances. On Broadway, the musical “War Paint” is always sold out, and in London this summer was the current play “Madame Rubinstein” with Miriam Margolis in the lead role.

Arriving in America, Rubinstein was horrified by the white powdered faces of American women, so she designed a colored powder (she didn’t even understand why an adult woman would use white lipstick), and she would frame the eyes of Polish actress Polly Negri with black ink, thus creating what today we call it a “vamp look”. Very early on, it also offered creams with a protective UV factor, as well as the first self-tanning creams.

Her motto was: “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones”, and her clients were pianists and members of the Parisian avant-garde Misia Sert, actresses Sara Bernard, Mae West, and Jeanne Moreau, as well as Lady Diana and Jacqueline Kennedy.

Building an empire

Without anyone’s help, she built a world cosmetic empire and thus paved the way for other entrepreneurs in the cosmetics world, most of whom were also of Jewish descent: “Max Factor” (born Maksymilian Faktorowicz in Łódź), “Estée Lauder” (born Esther Mentzer) ), brothers Charles and Joseph Revson, Erno Laszlo and Irving Morse, founders of the Kiehl’s brand.

It was not only in cosmetics that she was always one spear ahead of the others. She moved in her husband’s intellectual circles during her life in Paris, so she began collecting cubists and works by African sculptors, which were exhibited at MoMA in 1935, and among the first to discover Coco Chanel and Sergei Diaghilev and his ballet troupe, which she was the inspiration for the purple, orange, gold and yellow color palettes. Her New York apartment was full of Picasso and Rouault tapestries, paintings by Matisse, Chagall, Miró and Modigliani, and the value of her collection is best illustrated by the story of how the then MoMA manager asked her to sell him the entire collection, which, of course, it did not occur to me.

In addition, she owned about 30 of her own portraits painted by some of the most famous artists at the time, including her good friend Salvador Dalí. Only Picasso, who is known not to have painted to order, refused her request for portraiture, although he made many of her sketches, but never a finished portrait. Their friendship was very strong, but it oscillated between extreme closeness and distance, although legend has it that she was the only person in the world to whom Picasso said: “You and I, we are both geniuses!”

The photo of Picasso, Helena and her sister Stella together, which can also be seen in the exhibition just like one of the sketches, clearly shows that there was even a certain physical resemblance between the two passionate artists.

In the summer of 1955, her second husband, Artchill, died of a heart attack.

Rubinstein mourned briefly and then worked even harder, and when her son Horace was killed in a car accident in 1958, a large portrait of Graham Sutherland pulled her out of depression, as well as trips to Australia, Japan, Hong Kong and Israel, where she opened new factory. In the Museum of Art in Tel Aviv, a pavilion for contemporary art was opened in her honor, which bears her name and for which she donated several works from her collection, as well as the entire collection of 20,000 miniature figurines in historical costumes.

Her image was very unconventional. She spent her entire fortune on works of art, real estate and their decoration, for which she hired the most innovative architects of her time. The designs for one of her salons were done by Adolf Luce, the cutlery was designed by a member of the Art Nouveau, Joseph Hoffman, and her London apartment was decorated by the then little-known Roy Lichtenstein. Her gorgeous dresses and jewelry were legendary. The whole world, including her family, called her Madame.

Regular schedule

She was very dedicated to her work and kept to a regular schedule: at 7 a.m. A Filipino servant, Albert, would appear in her room with breakfast. Madame always had breakfast in bed: hot lemon juice, tea, egg and toast. At 8 o’clock she held her first business meetings in her apartment, at 12 o’clock she would have lunch, sometimes together with the guests, and after lunch she would definitely sleep for an hour. At 4 p.m., she would show up at the office she rarely left before 7 p.m. In the evening, she had guests at least twice a week, and then she would cook and decorate the table herself. She was often visited by the family with whom she played bridge and she was very good at it.

Every year in January, she traveled to Paris to see a new “haute couture” collection, and her favorite designers were Yves Saint Laurent and Cristobal Balenciaga, to whom she was one of the first customers. In June, she did not miss the fashion events in London, and in the fall, those in New York. Once a week, she dyed her hair black in one of her salons, and while they were doing her manicure, she would dictate business letters.

She spoke English with an undisguised accent, and would often use German and Polish words in conversation. Legendary, her associates say, were her brown paper bags with snacks, in which she would bring hard-boiled eggs, chicken drumsticks and Krakow sausages to work, and she would stuff greasy dollar bills with which she paid a taxi into the same bag. In the office, she scolded employees who would not turn off the lights when leaving the room. She would know how to greet guests with a piece of sausage in her hand, and sometimes she ate leftovers from other people’s plates, arguing that it was almost intact anyway.

There is also an anecdote, that Picasso was the only one who dared to ask Helena Rubinstein for years. “I was in the next room at the time and, of course, I pricked up my ears,” told her longtime assistant Patrick O’Higgins in her memoir, simply called “Madame,” whom she loved very much and considered him her third son. “I’m older than you,” Helena replied slyly after a short pause, and Picasso, O’Higgins writes, did not question further.

Helena Rubinstein passed away on April 1, 1965. She is buried in her favorite Yves Saint Laurent dress at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Queens.

She was, reportedly, 94 years old.


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