‘Some women won’t buy anything unless they can pay a lot.’
When Helena Rubinstein stepped off a cruise ship in New York in the winter of 1914, she saw opportunity all around her. ‘It was a cold day,’ she recalled. ‘All the American women had purple noses and grey lips, and their faces were chalk white from terrible powder. I recognized that the US could be my life’s work.’
The quote resurfaced in Time magazine’s obituary of ‘Madame’ Rubinstein, as she styled herself, on 9 April 1965. She had died nine days earlier, leaving behind a US$60 million beauty empire. It was founded not just on pots of cream, but also on brilliant, ground-breaking marketing.
Back in Australia, Rubinstein had given her first product, Crème Valaze, a name that evoked Paris, the eternal symbol of luxury and sophistication. But she had also wound her Central European origins into the tale, advertising that the cream’s recipe included ‘rare herbs from the Carpathian mountains’.
Along with her assertion that the lotion had been invented by Doctor Lykusky in Krakow, recent probes into her life – notably Lindy Woodhead’s excellent 2003 book War Paint – have cast serious doubt on this claim. While she may have arrived in Coleraine clutching a few pots of cream, these would not have lasted long, and in the early years she did not have enough capital to ship crates of product from her homeland. Similarly, research has failed to turn up any trace of a Dr Jacob Lykusky operating in Krakow at the time. It is far more likely that Rubinstein created the cream herself. A key ingredient lay close at hand: lanolin, or wool grease, a natural moisturizer secreted by the sebaceous glands of sheep. Helena devised her own formula, disguising the unpleasant odour with lavender.
One might ask where a young woman from Krakow acquired such skills. But Rubinstein was a natural networker, and she met a number of influential figures thanks to the childminding posts she was obliged to take up when she fled Coleraine for the more desirable Melbourne. One of her acquaintances was a Mr Frederick Sheppard Grimwade, of pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors Felton, Grimwade & Co.
Lindy Woodhead proposes Grimwade as the mentor who showed Rubinstein how to formulate her cream, and specifically how to distil a crucial ingredient from Australian pine bark. Often sold under the brand name Pycnogenol, pine bark extract is a flavonoid – an antioxidant. Writes Woodhead: ‘Flavonoids work to repair the connective tissue and boost the immune system – thus to slow the ageing process visible in the face by “plumping out” collagen and improving the overall appearance of the skin.’
Crème Valaze, then, was lanolin, soft paraffin, distilled water and pine bark extract. Here’s how Rubinstein advertised it in 1903: ‘VALAZE BY DR LYKUSKY, the most celebrated European Skin Specialist, is the best nourisher of the skin. VALAZE will improve the worst of skin in one month… Available from Helena Rubinstein & Company, 138 Elizabeth Street.’
It’s amusing to note that Dr Lykusky later mysteriously disappeared from ads for Valaze. Rubinstein herself assumed his role, positioning herself as beauty scientist forever toiling to invent products that would help women hold back the years.
Rubinstein’s real life was so tangled in mythology that it’s often difficult to separate the two. For example, she once claimed that her first backers were a wealthy couple she met on a cruise ship, and that they provided the funding that enabled her to open a salon. But other sources suggest that her starting capital came from a successful tea merchant named John T Thompson, an ‘admirer’ she’d met while waitressing at the Winter Garden tea room in Melbourne.
Thompson was a brilliant salesman, whose Robur Tea Company had a hefty advertising budget. He helped Rubinstein perfect her advertising copy and promotional tricks, at which she became an absolute expert. For example, she quickly understood that, if she spent heavily on advertising, she could expect – or demand – reciprocal editorial coverage. Hence, glowing press reports about Helena and her cream began to appear almost as soon as her salon opened its doors.
Most beauty specialists agree that they are in the anti-ageing game, but Helena was one of the first to bluntly – some might say cynically – exploit this paranoia. War Paint cites a 1904 ad headlined ‘BEAUTY IS POWER’. It promises that ‘Dr Lykusky’s celebrated Valaze Skin Food makes a poor complexion good and good skin beautiful… Valaze gives the skin the soft, clear, transparent appearance of a little child.’
Woodhead writes: ‘Helena was always one step ahead in offering something new. She was the first beauty specialist to classify skin as “dry”, “normal” and “oily”… The single pot of Valaze was the first of a whole raft of treatment creams the beauty-conscious – and presumably now terrified – consumer had to purchase.’ Almost for the first time, women began to feel that their skin conditions – wrinkles, blemishes or shininess – were an indication that something was wrong ‘and that buying creams would put it right’.
Within two years, the success of Crème Valaze had enabled Rubinstein to move from her small salon in Melbourne’s Elizabeth Street to swanky new premises in the more fashionable Collins Street. One of her customers was an opera singer named Nellie Melba, who apparently liked to belt out Aida in the salon. The diminutive Helena – who was only 4 feet 10 inches tall – had to stand on a stool in order to scrutinize the statuesque diva’s complexion.
Later, after an inspiring trip to Europe, Rubinstein kitted out her salon with little gilt chairs in the manner of a Paris couture house. Donning a white lab coat, she renamed her establishment the ‘Institute Valaze’ and offered an ‘operating theatre’ that treated dry skin, wrinkles, blemishes and unwanted hair. Facials, depilation and massages were all available. The treatments were conducted by ‘two Viennese specialists’. These were, in fact, Helena’s sister Ceska and her cousin Lola, whom she had brought over from Poland to join her flourishing business. Thus, Rubinstein combined the key ingredients of modern beauty marketing: glossy packaging, celebrity endorsement and pseudo-science.
But she never made the mistake of believing her own publicity. ‘I am a merchant,’ she stated. And she kept prices high. ‘Some women won’t buy anything unless they can pay a lot.’
Even Australia was too small for an ambition like Rubinstein’s, and in 1908 she set sail for Europe. She established ‘Helena Rubinstein’s Salon de Beauté Valaze’ in London’s Mayfair. A Paris branch soon followed. Around this time, she married a Polish-American journalist named Edward William Titus, who further polished her advertising copy as well as encouraging her interest in art and the theatre. Now she added another ingredient to the marketing mix: culture. The decor of her salons began to resemble sets for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, ensuring that her well-heeled clients felt at ease. Over the following years she became a prominent art collector. So began her transformation from Australian upstart to the Madame Rubinstein of legend.
It was probably Titus who suggested to Helena that, when she opened her European salons, she should offer free treatments to a selected number of aristocrats and socialites. This would stimulate word of mouth while creating the required upmarket image for her establishment.
An enthusiastic womanizer, Titus later separated from Helena, but he remained a consultant to her company and a valuable link to the bohemian fringe of Parisian society, which he had entered thanks to his growing publishing business. Rubinstein and her estranged husband were well aware of the influence of art on trends in fashion and beauty.
The war in Europe persuaded Rubinstein to expand her operations to North America. A New York salon in 1915 was followed by outlets in San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and Toronto. She became one of the first cosmetics manufacturers to place her brand in department stores; but she insisted on training her own sales staff and advising on the setting in which her products would be sold.
‘The hawk-eyed Helena personally vetted each store, insisting that each one carrying her line not only put up the cash for a hefty minimum order, but sent sales staff back to New York for intensive training,’ writes Woodhead. ‘She also insisted on prominent, branded counter-space, provided smart uniforms for sales staff, and backed each store with initial local advertising.’
‘Face painting’ was looked down upon in the early years of the 20th century, as it had once again become associated with women of dubious morals. This began to change with the rise of Hollywood, which successfully translated sex appeal into glamour. Rubinstein soon added make-up to her range of creams, starting with tinted face powders and then expanding into lipsticks and the first waterproof mascara. But skincare remained her primary concern. Throughout her life she warned her customers about the dangers of sunshine, and promoted sunscreen even when tans were at their most fashionable.
Rubinstein seemed invincible. She beat the Wall Street Crash by briefly selling the American arm of her business to Lehman Brothers in 1928 and then buying it back when the share price fell from 60 dollars to just 3. Following her divorce from Titus, in 1937 she married the Russian émigré Prince Artchil Gourielli-Tchkonia. As if to support her claims that a woman over the age of 35 could still be seductive, he was 20 years her junior. Madame outlived him by 10 years.
Even when her health declined, Rubinstein continued running her business from her bed. She died in New York City at the age of 94, perhaps comforted at the end by the knowledge that sales of her products had increased by 500 per cent since the Second World War.
Yet her work in the United States had been marked by an intense rivalry with another brand: Elizabeth Arden.
In just over two decades, from the turn of the century to the years after the Great War, the image of women changed dramatically. Although the Gibson Girl was a fantasy figure, women genuinely became more active. Sea bathing had been rising in popularity since 1753, when Dr Charles Russell published The Uses of Sea Water, insisting that it could be as salubrious as taking spa waters. Swimming costumes evolved from cumbersome all-concealing garments to svelte one-pieces, which were considered acceptable by the end of the 1900s. Georges Vigarello notes that gymnastics classes became obligatory in schools in many European countries and several American states from 1880.
The revelation and acceptance of the body were encouraged by the industrial fabrication of full-length mirrors, which were produced in ever-greater numbers throughout the late 19th century, becoming a fixture of fashionable bedrooms. In addition, corsets and crinolines began to feel distinctly cage-like at a time when women in many countries were demanding the right to vote. Couturiers, always skilled at spotting trends, refined the female silhouette: dresses designed by Paul Poiret followed the natural line of the body; under Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel they became short and definitively liberating.
Chanel had started out as a milliner, establishing a small Paris hat shop in 1909 with the backing of her wealthy lover, a rakish Englishman named Boy Capel. The pair vacationed in Deauville and Biarritz, where Chanel found inspiration as well as a target market. Soon she had opened a boutique in Deauville selling resort wear inspired by Boy’s polo outfits and yachting apparel. This unfussy clothing took on a new utility during the war years, when women required freedom of movement as they adopted roles previously held by men, now at the front. Cheap material like jersey, which would have fallen from the contemptuous fingers of more snobbish designers, worked perfectly for Chanel’s pared-down designs. By the time the Great War was over, she had practically rewritten women’s dress codes.
The Chanel-clad woman of the 1920s was long-limbed, bob-haired and toned from swimming, riding and tennis. She was also, for the first time, sun-tanned. Leisure was no longer equated with domesticity: the wealthy flocked to the coast. Women’s bodies were out in the open.
The emergence of a more liberated form of femininity coincided with a media revolution akin to the rise of the internet in the early 21st century. Magazines and newspapers were becoming ever cheaper and more plentiful. In fashion publications and advertising, illustration was making way for photography, transforming hairdressers and make-up artists into stars. Commercial radio broadcasts began in the United States in 1922, adding to the clamour of voices that were calling out to consumers.
Creams that had begun life as pharmaceutical products were now the vectors of a new language of self-improvement and aspiration. A classic example was that of Theron T Pond, a New York pharmacist who had developed a range of creams, soaps and balms containing witch hazel, which soothed irritated skin. He began working with the great New York advertising agency J Walter Thompson at the end of the 19th century. In 1916, when the agency’s founder – known as ‘The Commodore’ thanks to his naval background and trim beard – retired owing to ill-health, it was taken over by his protégé, Stanley Resor. Working closely with Resor was his wife, Helen Lansdowne Resor, a brilliant copywriter who brought her sharp wordplay and consumer insights to many beauty products.
When she was handed the accounts for Pond’s Vanishing Cream and Pond’s Cold Cream, she sought endorsements from celebrities, socialites, even the Queen of Romania. Skin creams emerged from the chemist and took on the allure of luxury goods.
This was the period in which Elizabeth Arden carved out her name.
The Arden touch
In fact it was more of a brand than a name: she was born Florence Nightingale Graham in 1881 and grew up on a farm not far from Toronto. As with the biography of Helena Rubinstein, the dissembling and misdirection begin from that moment on: both women retrofitted their lives with elegant features that sat better with the images they had created for themselves. For instance, it has been suggested that Florence’s father, William Graham, was a British jockey. But he met and married her mother, Susan, in Canada. And whatever he’d done before, at that time he was a door-to-door salesman.
Florence certainly came from a rural background and maintained a lifelong love of horses, as well as a somewhat outdoorsy image that contrasted with Helena Rubinstein’s jewel-heavy cosmopolitanism. But her childhood sounds awful: her mother died of TB when she was very young, and her father struggled to support the large family of four girls and a boy. Florence shivered in the cold, fretted about her health and escaped into romantic novels, gossip magazines and ‘nickelodeons’: early cinemas showing short films accompanied by a tinny piano or melodramatic organ. Primitive these entertainments might have been, but they set her dreaming of better things. It’s notable that many people in the glamour profession come from modest backgrounds. They dream – and they sell their dreams to us.
A college education was not on the cards given the parlous state of the family’s finances. Like Rubinstein, and perhaps inspired by her namesake, Florence initially tried her hand at nursing – but she appears not to have had the stomach for it. Her ears still ringing with the piano of the nickelodeon, she was inevitably drawn to New York, with its notionally gold-paved streets. Finally, in 1907, we find her sitting behind the cash register at Eleanor Adair’s beauty salon on Fifth Avenue.
Mrs Adair specialized not so much in skincare as in skin manipulation. She was an advocate of ‘strapping’, a technique that involved artificially lifting the skin with rubber straps or braces, attached under the chin and across the forehead, which if left in place for a certain period would smooth out wrinkles – until it was time for the next treatment, of course. Adair’s advertisements from the mid-1900s promised to ‘restore youthful beauty’ with chin straps that ‘remove double chin and restore lost contour’ and forehead straps that cure ‘deep lines between brows, corners of eyes and over forehead’. The salon also offered electrolysis for ‘superfluous hair’ and facial massages that restored ‘lined, withered skins to velvety smoothness’.
Supporting all this was a range of creams and oils marketed under the brand name Ganesh: Adair attributed their efficacy to Indian beauty secrets that she’d picked up on her travels. One product, Ganesh Diable Skin Tonic, appears to have had the dual aim of evoking Eastern exoticism and French sophistication.
Florence Graham learned a great deal from Adair: we see traces of her apprenticeship in her enthusiasm for massage, her early adoption of yoga and her gift for the emotionally charged language of beauty advertising.
The next rung on the ladder was a partnership with one Elizabeth Hubbard, who had created a small range of skincare creams. Possibly they met at Adair’s salon. In any case, Florence set to work deploying some of the strategies she had picked up from her previous employer. The creams had an exotic name – Grecian – attractive packaging and advertising aimed squarely at the premium market, as was the pair’s salon on Fifth Avenue. For unknown reasons, the partnership fell apart after six months, but Florence kept the salon. (‘The landlord preferred me,’ she explained cheekily.
The scene was now set for her transformation. She took the name Elizabeth – still visible in gold lettering outside the salon – and completed it with Arden. This is sometimes held to be a reference to Tennyson’s poem Enoch Arden, but it is more likely to have been inspired by an article about the recent death of a prominent railroad baron and racehorse owner, who called his country estate ‘Arden’. That kind of scene was very much to the newly minted Elizabeth Arden’s taste.
Her name would soon join that of Helena Rubinstein on the list of the earliest global beauty brands.
Tinkering with the line she’d created with Hubbard, she launched a new product range called Venetian, paying particular attention to the gold, white and pink packaging. Over the years packaging proved to be her particular forte – she was more skilled at it than Helena Rubinstein – although she could also turn a beguiling phrase. She renamed her salon the ‘Salon d’Oro’, which lent it the requisite European touch, and advertised that its ‘spirit of youth is so all-pervading that you cannot leave without catching some of it’. The salon featured a lustrous red door that was to become an integral part of the brand’s identity.
Arden entered the beauty business at exactly the right moment. The idea that cosmetics were somehow ‘sinful’ was beginning to seem outmoded – or, worse, oppressive. Elizabeth noted that, during a suffrage march in New York on 6 May 1912, the women wore bright red lipstick as a symbol of liberty. That same year, during a fact-finding tour of Europe, she saw beautifully made-up women on the streets of Paris. Very soon, the former devotee of the nickelodeon was drawn to the silvery light of the cinema screen, where actresses in full make-up were the new embodiments of sophistication. ‘Face paint’ was becoming desirable again. Like Rubinstein, Arden used her socially acceptable skin creams as outriders for a full range of beauty products.
Three men aided her ascension. The first was A Fabian Swanson, who worked at the pharmaceutical supplier Stillwell & Gladding – until Arden lured him away to become her personal product formulator. Swanson devised the formula for one of her first hits, a light and fluffy face cream called Venetian Cream Amoretta. To this faintly risible name was added the patently false advertising claim that the product had been devised ‘from a famous French formula’.
Arden began to suspect that consumers would buy into almost any hokum in the quest for beauty. Lindy Woodhead points out that Mr Swanson’s next concoction – a gentle astringent called Ardena Skin Tonic – sold at 85 cents a bottle when it cost only 5 cents to make, including the bottle and the label.
The biggest cost centre for the Arden organization was, of course, advertising. In the early 1920s the Elizabeth Arden account was awarded to the Blaker Agency, run by the appropriately named Henry Sell, a former journalist who had edited Harper’s Bazaar. Copywriters, art directors and even agencies came and went, but over the years Sell remained Arden’s favourite adman. The 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act put a break on some of their most outrageous claims; but mostly they worked around it, with luxurious product pamphlets sent by request to loyal customers, and lifestyle advertising that evoked a world of privilege and romance.
Arden’s husband, Tommy Lewis, a former salesman she’d met on a cruise ship during one of her voyages to Europe, was a third and vital pillar of her growing empire. He ran the firm’s wholesale division, recruiting agents around the world and deciding which department stores were in line with the brand’s premium image. Elizabeth herself did her bit, travelling to stores with a posse of pink ribbon-adorned ‘treatment girls’ for week-long promotional appearances.
Meanwhile, the unmistakable red doors of her salons had begun opening all over the world: by the late 1930s the Elizabeth Arden brand was as global as Coca-Cola. Keeping prices high and refusing to dilute her luxury positioning enabled her to ride out the Depression. Mr Swanson helped by devising one of her most successful products, still popular today – a skin-repairing emollient called Eight Hour Cream. Despite the legend, it is unlikely that Arden ever rubbed the cream into the bruised legs of the racehorses she had begun to invest in.
Arden’s wealth enabled her to fulfil her youthful dreams by acquiring several countryside properties, including a horse ranch in Kentucky and a beautiful summer home in Maine. In 1934, the latter was opened to the public in the new guise of a health resort called Maine Chance. It combined beauty and massage treatments with diet and exercise regimes – fencing, riding and tennis were among the activities available. Naturally, formal dress was required at dinner.
This unusual mixture of the sporty and the sophisticated stood Elizabeth in good stead throughout her career. She loved the world of horses and racing, but was equally drawn to the urban sophistication of Hollywood. She provided cosmetics to movie studios and ran a 20-minute cinema advertisement, called ‘Young and beautiful’, in 1940. She was a perceptive manipulator of the media and did not hesitate to send free gifts to beauty journalists. She also knew exactly how to expand her brand, launching a ‘couture lingerie’ collection that was not quite a line of underwear, but rather a range of vaporous garments, metaphorically located somewhere between boudoir and dressing room, that women could waft around in looking divine.
By the 1950s, the use of make-up was free of any lingering suggestion of impropriety – indeed, the world of cosmetics had grown into a vast, international and highly competitive industry. Accusations of copying, industrial espionage and even wire-tapping began to surface. Right up until their deaths in 1966, a few months apart from one another, Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden remained fierce rivals, despite the fact that they never actually met.
Between them, Rubinstein and Arden unquestionably laid the foundations of the modern beauty business. As personalities they are hard to like: snobbish, vain and manipulative, regularly stooping to barefaced lies to sell their products, the proceeds of which made them two of the richest businesswomen the world has ever seen. On the one hand, their products pleased, pampered and, yes, beautified millions of women. On the other, their advertising copy contrived to persuade their customers that ageing was not only undesirable, but somehow shameful. They were both admirable and detestable in equal measure.
Like many sworn enemies, they had much in common. For example, they loathed Charles Revson, the creator of Revlon.