Book Extract: Helena Rubinstein, The Woman Who Invented Beauty by Michele Fitoussi


Extract from Helena Rubinstein, The Woman Who Invented Beauty by Michele Fitoussi, published by HarperCollins April 2012.

Princess Gourielli-Tchkonia opened her eyes, stretched slowly and glanced at the travel clock on her bedside table. It showed 6.30 a.m., as it did every morning. She sat up in bed, leaning back against the pillows. A uniformed maid entered the room, carrying a silver tray with half a grapefruit on it. She placed the tray on the cream-coloured satin sheets and murmured, ‘Good morning, princess,’ before moving to the windows to draw open the heavy curtains blocking out the daylight.

Early sunshine flooded the room on that July 1941 morning, lighting the antique rugs and the paintings covering the walls of Helena’s luxurious country house bedroom. Princess Gourielli finished her grapefruit, read her letters and skimmed The New York Times, perusing the society pages and stock market listings in detail. The maid returned with a marginally more substantial breakfast — a cup of black coffee and a slice of wholewheat toast. Madame eyed the frugal meal unenthusiastically, even though she knew it was being served on her orders. She was eating light meals out of necessity, not through choice. What with business lunches and society dinners, over the past couple of weeks she had regained all the weight she had so painstakingly lost during her latest stay at Dr Bircher-Benner’s clinic in Zurich where, as usual, she had stuck to a strict diet of fruit, raw vegetables and muesli.

Helena’s book Food for Beauty was continuing to sell well.Women appreciated her diet tips and low-calorie recipes. But she herself constantly felt hungry. And she was finding it increasingly hard to lose weight at her age. Although she frowned on other women’s dietary transgressions, she forgave her own lapses quite easily. She would inevitably tire of depriving herself and ditch her diet, only to start another one some time later.

Having polished off every last crumb of her toast, the princess got out of bed, slipped an ivory silk dressing gown over her matching nightgown and walked into the bathroom. The shelves were filled with creams, lotions and fragrances, and she could see herself reflected in the huge Venetian mirrors on the walls. She went over the day’s schedule as she luxuriated in a warm Apple Blossom foam bath, part of a bath and body collection scented with her latest fragrance.

She had back-to-back meetings all day: packaging and marketing meetings followed by a visit to the Long Island factory for discussions with her chemists, then more meetings back at the office, as well as cables to be sent to Australia, Argentina and Britain. Boris Forter had doubled UK sales since arriving in London four years previously, but the outbreak of war had slowed market expansion. Lipstick tubes couldn’t be manufactured anymore because the British Government had requisitioned the country’s entire stock of metal to supply arms factories. So alternative materials had to be found: wood replaced metal, paper was used for packaging, and rouge was presented the old-fashioned way, in little jars.

The UK Government’s introduction of a quota policy had also led to a sharp drop in turnover. To get around sales restrictions, Boris Forter hit upon the brilliant idea of buying up the sales quotas of companies that had been bombed or gone out of business. He also bought their stocks of packaging, as paper and cardboard too were in short supply. Things went awry when Forter was taken to court for filing false sales records. Fortunately his glib patter amused the judge and he was let off, although he had to pay a hefty £3000 fine. Forter was under a lot of pressure and the incessant bombing of London did nothing for his nerves, though he assured Helena he had everything under control.

He had had the presence of mind to send Ceska to the United States, booking her passage on the Washington, the last ship to sail out of England after the war started. Ceska had been suffering from depression since the death of her husband a short time earlier and wouldn’t have been able to cope with the stress of living during wartime.1 At least she was safe in New York.

Madame’s stomach rumbled as she lay amid the bubbles. She was still hungry. She picked up the hand bell on the edge of the bathtub and rang it insistently. The maid appeared immediately. Helena asked her to bring her a slice of bread and butter with some honey on top. Oh, and could she switch off any unnecessary lights on the way? People were so wasteful, she thought disapprovingly. When she was in Greenwich at the weekend, she did her own shopping on Saturday mornings. She always went to the market at closing time, when the vendors were packing up and willing to bargain. People said she was tight-fisted because she always exclaimed ‘Too much!’ when she was told the price of anything. They also made fun of her rough and ready manners. She hated to see people leave food on their plates at her dinner parties, so would finish it off for them, paying no attention to the guests’ murmured asides. Let them laugh. What did they know about being poor? She never wanted to experience poverty again — though by this stage there was little chance she would ever have to.

She wondered whether she could make it to the charity event the Rockefellers were hosting that evening to raise funds to help European war refugees. Artchil would certainly be there. The dear man never passed up an opportunity to enjoy himself. He would be sleeping like a baby in their New York apartment at this hour, having probably got in late the previous night. Helena had decided to go to Tall Trees after her visit to the Long Island factory. A stay at her country house always recharged her batteries. She loved the garden and the surrounding woods, even if she rarely had time to go for a walk in them.

Still lost in thought, she got out of the bathtub and dried off with a towel bearing Edward’s initials. She had dozens of these monogrammed towels left over from her first marriage, still in their original packaging, and several white coats bearing the initials HRT, which she occasionally wore. She carefully applied some of her moisturising body lotion and dusted herself with Apple Blossom talc, studying her face in a silver mirror bearing the Gourielli coat of arms. She was looking well for a woman pushing seventy. Artchil was a quarter of a century younger than her, but surely no one could mistake her for his mother: he looked older than his years because he drank far too much. She was always telling him to go easy on the alcohol, but Russian, Georgian and Polish men seemed to have a hard time staying away from drink. It ruined their teeth and their complexion. Men could be so much more attractive if only they paid attention to their appearance, she mused. In fact, Helena was seriously thinking about launching a line of skincare products for men. No one had ever done it before. Elizabeth Arden’s ex-husband Thomas Lewis had come up with the concept during a marketing meeting. Perhaps he was worth the exorbitant salary she was paying him after all.

She seized on the idea and swung into action with her customary verve. She had often seen women buying two jars of moisturiser: one for themselves and one for their husbands. The men’s skincare market was practically non-existent. It was up to her to develop it. She decided to set up a boutique to sell her products for men. The House of Gourielli opened shortly afterwards on East 55th Street, just around the corner from the Rubinstein salon.

Madame’s marketing team designed stylish grey product packaging embossed with the Gourielli coat of arms. The creams were sold in old-fashioned glass apothecary jars, like the ones Helena had used to mix up preparations in elderly Henderson’s Sandford shop all those years ago in Australia. Madame hired an
in-house pharmacist to advise clients and their wives, for whom she had created a Gourielli women’s line.

Horace had meanwhile set up his own advertising agency, with Helena Rubinstein as practically his only client. He was so taken with the idea of men’s cosmetics that he fired off enthusiastic marketing memos to his mother every single day. He could really be quite tiring, Helena thought. Artchil, on the other hand, seemed in no hurry to start working. Yet one of the main reasons Helena had set up the new business was to keep him occupied, otherwise he spent his days so unproductively.

By this time, a mind-boggling Rubinstein products were being sold in beauty salons and retail outlets across the world — far too many for Madame’s liking. She herself used barely an eighth of the products that came out of her factories, although she had recently got into the habit of putting on more make-up: Aquacade foundation, Town and Country face powder, black waterproof mascara, blue-green eye shadow and lipstick, which she also used in place of blush.

Helena went over to her walk-in closet stuffed with expensive clothes, a smaller version of her New York and Paris wardrobes.She chose an embroidered Schiaparelli dress and rang for the maid to come and help her dress. Teetering in a pair of perilously high heels, she rummaged behind a pile of clothes to pull out a jewellery box. She kept her best jewellery in the New York apartment, but also had quite an impressive collection in Greenwich.

She put on an emerald necklace that had once belonged to Catherine of Russia, a pair of large diamond earrings, a pearl bracelet and two heavy ruby rings, a present from a grateful maharajah whose wife’s looks she had greatly improved in the early 1920s. Resplendent in all her finery, she wolfed down her slice of bread and honey. She waited on the front steps, carrying the lunch bag her cook filled every morning with chicken wings and an apple, for the maid’s husband, who doubled as chauffeur and gardener, to bring her Pierce Arrow round. Fifty minutes later the driver dropped her in front of her Fifth Avenue headquarters, an unpretentious white building. The doorman held the door open, greeting her with a smile. The princess smiled back and marched into the lobby.

Extract from Helena Rubinstein, The Woman Who Invented Beauty by Michele Fitoussi, published by HarperCollins April 2012.

Published with the permission of the publisher

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  1. Wendy Darling says

    Powerful reading slice,Wonderful extract,Helena Rubinstein the makeup on everyones face’s ,I love seeing Helena Rubinstein products for that absolutely flawless look.