Helena Rubinstein: A Self-Made Woman

Helena Rubinstein

Rubinstein, with some of the portraits she commissioned over the years. Courtesy of Helena Rubinstein Foundation archive, Fashion Institute of Technology, State University of New York Special Collections.

Four-foot-ten and squat—“built like an icebox,” in the words of one acquaintance—with a strong nose and an iron jaw, Helena Rubinstein was an unlikely ambassador for beauty. Which may have worked to her advantage: If she could transform herself by force of will into a paragon of good taste and high style, so could her clients. In clothes by the finest Paris couturiers and jewelry fit for a maharani, she cut a striking figure. Her dark hair pulled into a tight chignon, her eyes traced in black, her mouth accentuated by lipstick, she proved that it wasn’t what you were born with that counted but what you did with it.

The idea that “Beauty Is Power,” the title of a new exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York bringing together art and objects from Rubinstein’s vast collection, might seem self-evident in this age of Beyoncé, Angelina, and Gisele. But at a time when the 20th century was just beginning to emerge from its Victorian cocoon, the notion of beauty as a means to economic independence and cultural influence was a bold one.

Rubinstein arrived in New York in her early 40s in 1915, in the wake of the Armory Show art fair (the exhibition that unleashed what Mason Klein, the curator of “Beauty Is Power,” describes as “a tsunami of modernism”) and the suffragettes’ marches down Fifth Avenue. Women were casting aside their corsets and their crinolines, and taking charge of their lives; Rubinstein urged them to take charge of their appearance as well. The industry of self-improvement was poised for liftoff as a vehicle for women’s aspirations. Elizabeth Arden, Rubinstein’s archrival, would build a twin empire based on upper-class trappings and thoroughbred pastimes, as if looking attractive were a birthright, a luxury, or a privilege. “Chic is Episcopalian,” Arden declared. Rubinstein’s domain, by contrast, was a democracy, where allure was within every woman’s reach, challenging what Klein calls “the myth that beauty or taste is inborn.” There were no ugly women, Rubinstein contended, “only lazy ones.”

She grew up in Kraków, Poland, in a middle-class Jewish family, the oldest of eight daughters. When she refused to go through with the marriage her father had arranged, she left for Australia, where relatives had settled, and established herself in Melbourne, opening a shop featuring a face cream that she formulated with a local chemist and sold under a French-sounding name of her own invention: Valaze. If her customers assumed that her own flawless complexion, which she came by naturally, was the result of the product she was selling, she did not disabuse them. Once she’d perfected her formula, she returned to Europe and opened salons in Paris and London.

It wasn’t long before she scrapped the faux French and christened the company Helena Rubinstein, underscoring the notion that she personally vouched for the products. There was no daylight between her and her brand. Her wardrobe, her homes, her collections became advertisements, projecting her oversize success and establishing her credentials. When, in 1938, Rubinstein married into royalty—a Georgian prince named Artchil Gourielli-Tchkonia, her second husband—Madame, as she was known, became a princess, in an apotheosis that would have been the climax of most women’s stories. In her case, however, it seemed a footnote to the glamorous life she had already made for herself.

It was her first husband, Edward Titus, whom she married in Paris in 1908, who assisted Rubinstein in casting herself as a cultivated woman of the world, moving among the writers and artists whose work was defining the time. Her friend Misia Sert, a pianist and muse, renowned as a hostess, was a role model. In a preview of the new century’s audacity in dismantling social barriers, Sert’s guest list mixed talent and status, artists and aristocrats: Sergei Diaghilev, Claude Debussy, Erik Satie, Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Pierre Bonnard, and others orbited around her. It was at one of her soirees that Rubinstein met Marcel Proust, whom she recalled as “nebbishy-looking” and smelling of mothballs.

Rubinstein’s money helped to bankroll Titus’s rare-book shop, a literary magazine he edited, and his small avant-garde press, which published D.H. Lawrence, young American writers, and literature in translation. Ernest Hemingway impressed her; James Joyce offered to write her advertisements—in the style of Ulysses.

For the design of her stores and her homes, Rubinstein turned to architects and designers whose work embraced new ideas and materials: Louis Süe (for the apartment building she bought in Paris, on the Quai de Béthune), Süe and Emilio Terry (for her Paris salon, in the Faubourg Saint-Honoré), Donald Deskey (for her apartment in New York), and, late in life, a young David Hicks (for her London flat). Her New York bedroom was furnished with a set of Lucite furniture, including a sleigh bed illuminated with concealed fluorescent tubes. Her longtime personal assistant and biographer, Patrick O’Higgins, described the effect as “both airy and eerie.”

The exhibition, bringing together about 200 items, encompasses furniture, clothing, jewelry, paintings, and seven of her miniature rooms, an obsession she traced back to her childhood, when she would visit her grandparents in the suburbs and the gardener would carve furniture for her tiny dolls. At the time of writing her memoirs, published in 1964, she had acquired some 20,000 pieces, including iron pots, mahogany furniture, parquet floors, crystal chandeliers—all made from authentic materials to perfect scale, housed in 17 three-sided models recessed into the wall of a special room in her Manhattan apartment. Among them: an 18th-century Austrian kitchen, a London curiosity shop, a 19th-century Spanish dining room, and a replica of the Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani’s studio in Montmartre as she knew it after World War I.

Even as a collector, Rubinstein ventured far out in front of the field, recognizing the merits of things that others came around to appreciate only later. She championed elaborately carved and tufted Belter furniture decades before its revival became fashionable, set her table with opaline glass at a time when it was considered inferior to crystal, amassed African art when it hadn’t yet found an audience. She bought what she liked, without the benefit of an adviser, and learned as she went along. There were those who disparaged her choices, alleging that her collection consisted of second-rate paintings by first-rate artists of the 20th century. “I like my own taste, good or bad,” she declared. Collecting was fun—it was just like shopping! She bought in bulk, visiting a London gallery where new work by Elie Nadelman was on view and writing a check for all of it. “Quality’s nice,” Rubinstein said. “But quantity makes a show.” Nadelman’s stylized neoclassical figures proved to be the perfect addition to the decor of her salons, where they presided like goddesses for the 20th century.

Decades before the advent of postmodernism, she blithely threw together art and objects from disparate periods, with nothing to unify them but her idiosyncratic eye. These juxtapositions seemed to create a kind of call-and-response, with new affinities spanning borders and centuries, and a visual bravado, which the architecture critic Martin Filler defined as “a sense of mise en scène unimpeded by mere connoisseurship.”

Rubinstein was ahead of her era, not only “the first self-made woman magnate of modern times,” as Klein contends (in 1928 she sold her business to Lehmann Brothers for more than $7 million, then, after the stock market crashed, bought it back at a fraction of the price) but also a visionary who understood the power of what is now known as “building a brand” long before business schools taught marketing. She had a seemingly infallible instinct for what women would buy and how to present it to them. “I could have made a fortune selling paper clips!” she claimed, and one suspects that she was right, though the self-aggrandizement that worked to her benefit as a high priestess of beauty might not have dovetailed so conveniently with her business interests had she gone into office supplies.

She was ingenious when it came to manipulating the press. Colette was among the first women to take advantage of Rubinstein’s offer of a complimentary massage at her Paris salon; Rubinstein saw to it that a journalist was there to get a quote when the writer emerged, rhapsodizing about massage as “a woman’s sacred duty.” For the launch of Heaven Sent, a fragrance Rubinstein introduced in the ’40s, she arranged for hundreds of pink and blue balloons to float down onto Fifth Avenue in New York, with a sample attached and a message (a gift for you from heaven! helena rubinstein’s new heaven sent). In preparation for a meeting with three newspaper columnists, she selected a ring, a bracelet, and a clip as gifts and put them on: During the course of the conversation, she took them off and bestowed them, because she understood that a gift she had worn and parted with on what seemed to be the spur of the moment carried more weight than one that came in a box.

When Rubinstein’s customers set foot in her salons, they entered a rarefied atmosphere. Klein credits her with creating “a feminized space defined by art.” Rubinstein’s uncanny alliance of high culture and makeup had the effect of legitimizing face paint, elevating it from the stage and the street corner, making it safe for ordinary, “respectable” women, whose resources had previously been confined to powder and a touch of rouge. “It was her brilliance to understand that both art and cosmetics require subjectivity,” he says. “To express oneself and how one wished to be in the world was no different from how an artist saw a landscape or a figure.” Cosmetics acquired an aura of elegance and culture, providing a woman with the means to interpret her own features and present herself as she wanted to be seen. Women, Klein says, became voyeurs, observing one another. At the movies, then in their infancy, faces could be scrutinized at a range closer and more intimate than photographs permitted. For the actress Theda Bara, Rubinstein used kohl and mascara to emphasize the eyes, which in silent films took on the burden of expression. These techniques, Rubinstein knew, could be exploited for the mass market, lending a sense of theatricality to a woman’s presence in public.

The disparity between the way a woman sees herself and the way others see her was, it seems, every bit as great for Rubinstein as it is for the rest of us. Over a span of some 50 years, she commissioned more than a dozen portraits, in what amounts to an extraordinary exercise in self-promotion. Not all of them were to her liking. A woman of many moods and expressions appears: imperious (Graham Sutherland), regal (Marie Laurencin), tender (Christian Bérard), lively (Raoul Dufy). Pavel Tchelitchew studded her face with sequins. Salvador Dalí depicted her as a siren, her impassive features emerging from a cliff, as if Mount Rushmore had been repurposed and moved to the coast of Spain, where men foundered on the rocks at its base. And Pablo Picasso, in a series of sketches for a portrait never executed, captured her mercurial personality and monster ego with his inimitable line, arriving at some deeper truth lurking under the surface forms and shadows.

In these visual impressions, in photographs, in O’Higgins’s frequently hilarious recollections that are the substance of his memoir, Rubinstein comes off as someone you would rather read about than know. A tyrant and a tightwad, she spent extravagantly and doled out money sparingly. She would walk from her Park Avenue apartment to her Fifth Avenue office wearing a fur coat and carrying her lunch in a brown paper bag. She frequented Paris couture houses with a copyist, disguised as a personal maid, in tow. An avid student of human nature, she could be compassionate when it suited her and heartless when it came to getting the most out of her employees. Warned that the president of her company in Paris, having tried and failed to win her approval, was threatening suicide, Rubinstein replied, “Stella won’t kill herself—she just ordered four new dresses.”

Still, you have to admire her ambition, her pugnacity, and what her generation might have called her gumption. In pictures, she leads with her chin, like a boxer entering the ring. When her bid for a Park Avenue apartment was rejected on anti-Semitic grounds, she retaliated by buying the entire building and living in the 26-room triplex penthouse. At 91, she foiled a burglary attempt by three intruders posing as flower deliverymen by declaring that since she was an old woman, they could kill her but she wouldn’t let them rob her.

Rubinstein died a year later, in 1965, with the same impeccable timing that had characterized her career. The world would soon change beyond her recognition. She lived to see cosmetics become commonplace, as women became emboldened in their choices. So successful was the revolution Rubinstein helped start that some 100 years later a naked face is not the norm but an anomaly—a statement in its own right, an opt-out, even a protest.

She exited before makeup became something women needed to boycott, which surely would have struck her as ridiculous. One wonders what she would have made of the so-called natural look, of the second wave of feminists and their disdain for cosmetics as a woman’s attempt to endear herself to the male gaze. Lipstick continued to be a political issue, and ultimately came full circle: from a badge of rebellion signifying the suffragettes’ solidarity to a taboo that stood for compliance with the existing power structure to a symbol of defiance once again, as “lipstick lesbians” asserted their right to be feminine, to—today—just one of many tools in a woman’s kit, devoid of any message, deployed on a whim.

Rubinstein made no provisions for preserving her collection as she had displayed it and lived with it. It was too unwieldy, scattered among five palatial residences and numerous salons on four continents. “She had an acquisitive gene that was unrivaled,” Klein says. “Even William Randolph Hearst wouldn’t have thought to buy as she did.” The catalog itemizing the contents of her enormous estate, auctioned at Sotheby’s in 1966, ran to six volumes. Her belongings were dispersed; the real estate put on the market. Only the business remained, but in less than a decade, that, too, was sold. The void Helena Rubinstein left proved too big for anyone else to fill.