By Harriet P. Gross
The current Hadassah magazine touts an exhibit now at the Jewish Museum in New York, titled “Helena Rubinstein: Beauty Is Power.” I haven’t seen it, but I‘ve read the book with the same title, about the woman who inspired it.
Rubinstein was a feminist long before the word existed. Her fearless approach to life, tenacious work and love of art brought her from poverty to riches that no one of her time and place ever dreamed of. But Helena never just dreamed; she took action to make dreams come true.
When my late husband and I visited Poland, we walked on the cobbled streets of the old Krakow ghetto and saw the humble building in which Helena Rubinstein grew up. Born there in 1892, she was the oldest of eight daughters in a poor family with no sons. But before her life ended, she had brought all those sisters to work for her — and made them rich.
All the Rubinstein women had one thing in common: uncommonly beautiful skin. And if the family had one secret, it was the beautifying cream that made it so. A relative produced this “miracle,” regularly sending jars of it to Mrs. Rubinstein, and the girls lined up every night before bedtime for their mother to apply it. When Helena decided it was time to fly the Krakow coop, she took a dozen of those little jars with her.
After living briefly with an aunt in Vienna, she moved to the Australian bush, where there were family members who were sheep farmers. Helena kept receiving those little jars from home, and her smooth soft skin seemed miraculous to the local women who had to battle wind and dry weather every day. During those days, Helena worked with the animals, and at night worked on replicating the “magic” skin cream formula. She hated sheep herding, but took what was best from this experience: how to use lanolin!
Helena called her new cream “Valaze,” Hungarian for “a gift from heaven.” “It was cheap to make,” she said many years later, “but women won’t buy anything that’s cheap! When it comes to improving their appearance, they need to have the impression that they’re treating themselves to something exceptional.” Obviously, she was good in psychology as well as cosmetic chemistry. She often said “Beauty is power,” but she would also add, “The path to beauty is science.” In 1902 she opened her first salon, “Valaze House of Beauty.”
In those days, only actresses and prostitutes wore makeup. Helena changed that as she kept creating, going far beyond simple skin cream. Growing success inspired her to “import” a sister to head the Australian business so she could look for greener pastures — minus sheep! — in Europe.
The rest of Rubinstein’s life reads like a juicy novel. The only man she ever really loved was a womanizer. She married him because his marketing and publishing expertise helped advertise her business, but every time he had an affair, she bought herself a beautiful, expensive piece of jewelry. After divorce, she wed a much younger man who claimed descent from Russian royalty, mainly because she craved a title. When her archrival Elizabeth Arden introduced a perfume called “My Love,” Rubinstein countered with the iconic “Heaven Sent,” an English translation of “Valaze.”
Helena also “collected” a long list of artists and authors including Dali, Proust, Picasso and Hemingway, and amassed a fortune in pieces of primitive sculpture deemed worthless in her day. Chanel and Schiaparelli designed her clothes. When she died in 1965, her brand was selling in more than 30 countries, she had salons, laboratories and factories in 15 of them, and her personal estate exceeded $100 million.
“There are no ugly women,” she believed. “Only lazy ones.” Which Helena Rubinstein certainly never was! See for yourself if you’ll be in New York before March 22, when the Jewish Museum exhibit will close.