Most of the great cosmetics pioneers of the 20th century were Jews, including Elizabeth Arden, Estee Lauder, Charles Revson, and Hazel Bishop, but the greatest of them all was arguably Helena Rubinstein (1870 – 1965), founder and eponym of Helena Rubinstein, Inc. She virtually created the cosmetics industry through her brilliant innovations, including a waterproof mascara; medicated face creams; inaugurating the wildly popular “Day of Beauty” at her salons; marketing cosmetics in department stores; and developing the home demonstration sales technique, for which she trained salespeople to teach women about skin care. During WWI, she created the first school for beauticians, who earned a diploma after six months of study, thus inventing “beautician” as a profession.
A key figure in the development of contemporary taste and style, she almost single-handedly reinvented the modern idea of beauty and, by combining medical training, an inherited formula, and shrewd business sense, she established herself as one of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs and one of its richest women. The first self-made American female multi-millionaire, the New York Times estimated her wealth after her death in 1965 at about $100 million (or over $800 million in today’s dollars) with broad international holdings, including laboratories, factories, and salons in fourteen countries.
In 1910, she became the first person to categorize the skin types that are still used today: dry, oily, combination, and sensitive. She maintained a lifelong bitter rivalry with Elizabeth Arden, whose aesthetic and business practices conflicted with hers; while Arden considered her beauty products as upper-class elite status symbols, Rubinstein marketed to “everywoman;” always maintained her belief in beauty for the masses; and underscored the importance of beauty and independence for all women of all classes. The play War Paint – a really clever title – which won the Tony Award in 2017, depicts the decades-long vicious rivalry between these two leading beauty entrepreneurs.
Ever the showman, her mastery of the art of publicity included introducing a waterproof mascara at a water ballet performance at the 1939 World’s Fair and launching what was arguably the first men’s salon, which featured colognes and facials, with a ticker tape down Wall Street. However, although she anticipated the popularity of such services and products half a century before its burgeoning popularity in the 1990s, she was way ahead of her time and the venture was one of her few failures. Although best known for her beauty cosmetics and salons, she originated the “total” approach to beauty and was at the forefront of advocating a healthy lifestyle, including not smoking, curtailing alcohol consumption, maintaining a healthy diet, avoiding overexposure to the sun, and devoting regular time to exercise.
Rubinstein was wholly non-observant, did not attend synagogue, generally sought to distance herself from her Jewish roots, and was known to make disparaging remarks about “Jewish taste.” Nonetheless, although she had little interest in Judaism and did not generally support Jewish causes, she always self-identified as a Jew, was sensitive to antisemitism, and helped to get Polish Jews out of Europe during the Holocaust and gave them jobs at her salons.
A pioneering spirit herself, she strongly identified with the Israeli spirit. She met Ben Gurion and Golda, both of whom very much impressed her, and she was close to her niece living on a kibbutz; all these factors shaped her as an active Zionist who made significant contributions to the Jewish state. She founded and financed the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion of Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv (see exhibit), where her collection of miniature rooms is housed (and where, as part of a reciprocal deal, she opened a factory); created the Helena Rubinstein Foundation (1953), which funded organizations concerned with health, medical research and rehabilitation in the Jewish State; and supported the American Israel Cultural Foundation which awarded scholarships to Israelis. Even to date, Helena Rubinstein products remain atop virtually all Israel-hating boycott lists.
Rubinstein’s immigrant background proved significant, as she allegedly started out in business with a product from the world of her European Jewish relatives. The oldest of eight daughters born to a strictly Orthodox family (and a cousin of noted Jewish philosopher Martin Buber), Chaja Rubinstein grew up in Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter in Krakow, where she attended the local Jewish school. She worked as a bookkeeper for her father, Naftali Hertz (Horace) Rubinstein, an unsuccessful wholesale food broker and, at his urging, studied medicine until he permitted her to quit because hospital odors sickened her. However, she was forced to leave home when Horace tried to force an arranged marriage upon his 18-year-old daughter to a 35-year-old wealthy Jewish widower. She brought home her own choice, a non-Jewish University of Cracow medical student, threatened to elope, and left for Australia, where she lived for a time with a maternal uncle.
According to Rubinstein’s account – the entire story is likely fictional, as she changed it several times throughout her life – a primary impetus critical to her cosmetics career was the moisturizing cream that her mother obtained for the family’s use. The principal story was that her family obtained it from a Dr. Jacob Lykusky, a Hungarian chemist who developed a face cream from ginger herbs in the Carpathian Mountains called Crème Valaze (“gift of heaven” in Hungarian), which was at once a soap, face powder, skin lotion, and hair tonic. Rubinstein says that she took twelve pots of Valaze with her, which quickly became popular in Australia’s dry climate, where woman were largely unfamiliar with European skin care methods.
Another version of the narrative was that her mother, Gitel, had obtained Valaze from her friend, Polish actress Helena Modjeska, who had obtained it from Dr. Lykusky, and yet another account has Lykusky traveling to Australia and giving her his “recipe” so that she could manufacture it herself in her kitchen. According to many analysts, however, the truth is most likely that Rubinstein’s cosmetics were all commercially manufactured in Melbourne by Felton, Grimwade & Co., a large chemical wholesale and manufacturing company – and, in fact, it was F. S. Grimwade who vouched for her on her application to become an Australian citizen in 1907 – and that Valaze was just a mixture of common garden raw materials and lanolin from sheep, which were abundant in Western Australia.
Unable to endure the frequent quarrels with her Australian uncle, she took off on her own, working first as a governess and then as a waitress before opening the Helena Rubinstein Beauty Salon in Melbourne (1902), where she not only marketed Valaze, but also provided consultations on skin care and beauty to women who were envious of her milky complexion, particularly when compared to their own skin roughened by dust and the harsh Australian sun. In the newspaper ad for Valaze (“The New Russian Skin Food”) exhibited here, and in many others, Rubinstein claimed that it eradicates “freckles, wrinkles, sallowness, sunburn, blackheads, acne, pimples, roughness, and all blemishes and eruptions of the skin” and that it is “guaranteed to improve the worst skin in one month.”
Rubinstein’s success was such that she was able to bring two of her sisters to Australia to run the salons while she spent a year in Europe, where she studied with various experts about skin treatments, facial surgery, and good dietary practices. Upon her return from Europe, she brought new equipment with her that she used to promote new skin treatments, including a “roller massage” which, she claimed, was uniquely effective for at home face massages, and a “Massage Electro-Vibratoire,” an electric massager which she hyped for body massage and for treating a variety of conditions, including circulation issues, sciatica, obesity, rheumatism, indigestion, lumbago, and fatigue. She also introduced a vacuum-suction treatment “to remove wrinkles” and a crème that, she claimed, prevents excessive perspiration on nights outdoors.
The vintage Hebrew advertising ad displayed here is an excellent example of Rubinstein’s marketing her products by touting their medicinal value and health benefits:
. . . a woman can maintain her youthful appearance despite her passing years, which weaken the activity of skin tissue cells, by treating them regularly and in a systematic way . . . It is incumbent upon her to eliminate the deepening of the small wrinkles in the face lest they turn into larger wrinkles. She must guard the lines of her face so that it remains smooth and youthful . . .
If a woman is 30 or older, the rate of metabolism and regeneration slows down. Tissue and muscle wrinkles begin to exhibit signs of looseness. The skin now needs external factors to assist in its proper function. To eliminate the slowing down of tissue regeneration, one must add to their fundamental life and youthfulness.
Rubinstein met Arthur Ameisen, a Jewish American journalist who had changed his name to Edward William Titus, and they married in London. Titus, who took over marketing and publicity for Rubinstein’s enterprises, played a key role in the expansion of her business in Australia and then to New Zealand (1906), London (1908) and Paris (1909). For many years, she had been looking to expand into the American market, advertising in the New York newspapers and Vogue and, with WWI raging in Europe, she fled for the safety of the Unites States in 1915 and launched her incredible fortune from the salon she opened in New York. When she sought to rent an apartment on Fifth Avenue in 1941 and was told that they didn’t rent to Jews, she purchased the entire building.
A year later, she expanded to Philadelphia and San Francisco, followed by others in Boston, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Toronto. She expanded the reach of her products by permitting select department stores to stock them, while carefully maintaining her right to train salespeople and to monitor and inspect the stores. Her success and popularity grew to the point that she was invited to Hollywood to personally instruct stars such as Theda Bara and Pola Negri on the use of makeup.
When Titus, frustrated by her involvement in her business to the exclusion of family, threatened to leave her, she sold her entire business to Lehman Brothers in an effort to hold on to him, but the marriage nonetheless failed, mostly due to Titus’ infidelities. With the new owners all but burning the monumentally successful business to the ground, she secretly began to buy company shares on the open market and, when the stock market crashed, she was able to repurchase the entire company on very favorable terms from a Lehman Brothers eager to dump the stock.
In the wake of the marketing of a coal tar-based eyelash dye (not Rubinstein’s) that caused great damage and even blindness, Congress enacted the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act of 1938 pursuant to which, among other things, false advertising by manufacturers was generally prohibited and, in particular, barred the use of names that implied that beauty products had any food or nutritional value. Consequently. Rubinstein ran into trouble with the FDA for two reasons: first, because her advertising claimed that her crème rebuilds skin cells and, second, because her original cream was called “Valaze Skin Food” (emphasis added). After remedying both violations, she continued her research on age retardants, which led to her “Ultrafeminine” becoming the first beauty product ever approved as a drug by the FDA.
In The Red Menace: How Lipstick Changed the Face of American History, Ilise S. Carter tells the intriguing story of Rubinstein’s major contribution to the American war effort during WWII. Although the use of lipstick goes back at least to Colonial America – for example, Martha Washington was a great aficionado – many saw beauty aids as narcissistic and fatuous, including particularly the Church, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and several state legislatures that tried, but failed, to make its use illegal.
All that began to change with the rise in popularity of glamorous Hollywood movie stars and continued apace during the Great Depression, when women entering the workforce for the first time began to pay more attention to their public appearance. As Carter writes, lipstick took on new significance during WWII, when Hitler claimed that Aryan women, who were naturally beautiful, had no need of this artificial beauty aid which, in any event was the tool of degenerate societies and, worse, depraved Jews. At the same time, the Defense Department asked Rubinstein to develop a grooming program for women in the armed services, in response to which she worked with the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and developed “Regimental Red,” a clear and vibrant lipstick for use by military women that accented their uniforms.
Rubinstein argued that the use of lipstick played an important role not only for military women. who would draw confidence, hope, and courage from being attractive, but also to help American women maintain their femininity while working to support the American war effort and improve their emotional state while their men were away at war. The government obviously agreed; at a time when products and resources were carefully rationed, lipstick conspicuously was not. President Roosevelt personally thanked her, saying that “Your war effort . . . is to help keep up the morale of our women. And you are doing it splendidly,” and she was invited to serve on many national committees, including the Committee to Commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the Bill of Rights.
…In this December 8, 1941 correspondence on her personal letterhead to O’Connor & Farber – ironically written the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor –Rubinstein writes:
Please excuse my delay in replying to your letter of November 26 as I have been away from the city and have just returned to New York.
I deem it an honor to accept your invitation to join the honorary committee which is being formed to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights.
With my best wishes for the tremendous success of this significant undertaking, . .
Basil O’Connor, senior partner in the law firm O’Connor & Farber, was FDR’s legal advisor and close friend who served as president of the March of Dimes for over three decades and as the director of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, an organization involved with the treatment and rehabilitation of polio victims. Special recognition of the Bill of Rights came on its 150th anniversary in 1941 when FDR proclaimed the first Bill of Rights Day and gave a radio address for the occasion. [Many people do not know that it was not until its 150th anniversary that the Bill of Rights was ratified by Connecticut, Georgia, and Massachusetts.] After WWII, Rubinstein turned to Europe and rebuilt her salons that had been destroyed by the Nazis.
Rubinstein’s autobiography, My Life for Beauty (1966), was published posthumously. In 1973, Helena Rubinstein, Inc. was sold to Colgate-Palmolive and its subsequent purchase by L’Oréal created an international scandal because its founder, Eugene Schueller, was a Nazi collaborator during WWII; he was active in expropriating Jewish property in Paris during the Holocaust and he aggressively employed ex-Nazis evading justice after the war, including Jacques Correze, the president of U.S. L’Oréal.