Hele­na Rubin­stein: The Woman Who Invent­ed Beauty

Michèle Fitous­si; Kate Big­nold and Lak­sh­mi Ramakr­ish­nan Iyer, trans.
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By – July 11, 2014

Born into a Pol­ish-Jew­ish fam­i­ly with eight daugh­ters and a tight bud­get, by the time Hele­na Rubin­stein (18721965) died, she had built an empire worth over $100 mil­lion dol­lars. Not only a path break­er in the beau­ty indus­try, but a remark­ably astute busi­ness­woman, her for­tune wasn’t built by mar­ry­ing wealth— she actu­al­ly sub­si­dized the men she mar­ried. The sto­ry of how Rubin­stein accom­plished so much, against such odds, is fas­ci­nat­ing. Fitous­si draws on Rubinstein’s accounts of her life and work, as well as those of her late-life assis­tant, Patrick O’Higgins, to craft her sto­ry. While occa­sion­al­ly acknowledg­ing Rubinstein’s flaws — her ten­den­cy to fab­ri­cate tales about her­self, her obses­sion with work at the expense of per­son­al rela­tion­ships, her inabil­i­ty to par­ent her sons, her obses­sive fru­gal­i­ty — Fitous­si is clear­ly so awed by Madame” (as Rubin­stein pre­ferred to be called) that her account veers into hagiog­ra­phy. Again and again, Fitous­si strains cred­ibility by imag­in­ing boudoir con­ver­sa­tions and inti­mate thoughts. Read­ers look­ing for a Jew­ish angle may be dis­ap­point­ed; apart from evad­ing social anti-Semi­tism, Madame had lit­tle to do with Jew­ish cul­ture after leav­ing Poland as a young woman. Late in life, she made a small deal in Israel, offer­ing to build a fac­to­ry in exchange for hav­ing an art muse­um named for her. It was just a busi­ness trans­ac­tion, and not an entire­ly sat­is­fac­to­ry one at that. Although this is biog­ra­phy-lite, it may enter­tain and inspire many read­ers. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, end­notes, index, photographs.

Read Michèle Fitous­si’s Posts for the Vis­it­ing Scribe

On Writ­ing a Biog­ra­phy of Hele­na Rubinstein

On Trail­ing the Life of Hele­na Rubinstein

Michèle Fitous­si’s Favorite Episodes in Hele­na Rubin­stein’s Biography

Hele­na Rubin­stein and the Women’s Lib­er­a­tion Movement

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

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