The Color of Money

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THECRITICS

asked her, “Who’s your goy?” Rubinstein replied, “That’s Patrick! And . . . and, yes, he is my goy.”

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BOOKS

THECOLOROFMONEY
Sometimes beauty is just business.
BYMALCOLMGLADWELL

H

elena Rubinstein was born in 1872 in Krakow’s Jewish ghetto, the eldest of eight daughters of a kerosene dealer. By her late teens, she had abandoned Poland for Australia, where she began cooking up vats of face cream. She called it Valaze, and claimed that it was the creation of an eminent European skin specialist named Dr. Lykuski and had been “compounded from rare herbs which only grow in the Carpathian mountains.” She rented a storefront in downtown Melbourne, and peddled her concoction at a staggering markup. In just over a decade, she had become a millionaire. She expanded to London, then to Paris, then to New York— and from there to almost every other major city in the world. She added one product after another, until Helena Rubinstein Inc. comprised sixty-two creams; seventy-eight powders; forty-six perfumes, colognes, and eaux de toilette; sixty-nine lotions; and a hundred and fifteen lipsticks, plus soaps, rouges, and eyeshadows. In December of 1928, she sold her business to Lehman Brothers for the equivalent of eighty-four million dollars in today’s money—and, when Lehman’s mismanagement and the Depression brought the stock price down from sixty dollars to three dollars, she bought her firm back for a pittance and took it to even greater success. She was four feet ten and spoke an odd combination of Polish, Yiddish, French, and English. She insisted on being referred to as Madame. At the time of her death, in 1965, she was one of the richest women in the world. THENEWYORKER,MARCH28,2011

The biographer Ruth Brandon spends the first part of “Ugly Beauty” (Harper; $26.99) describing Rubinstein’s rise, and the picture she paints of her subject is extraordinary. Rubinstein bought art by the truckload; a critic once said that she had “unimportant paintings by every important painter of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” In just one room in her Park Avenue triplex, she had seven Renoirs hung above a fireplace. Her legendary collection of jewels was kept in a filing cabinet, sorted alphabetically: “A” for amethysts, “B” for beryls, “D” for diamonds. “Rubinstein’s New York living room, like everything else about her, was tasteless but full of gusto,” Brandon writes. “It sported an acid-green carpet designed by Miró, twenty Victorian carved chairs covered in purple and magenta velvets, Chinese pearl-inlaid coffee tables, gold Turkish floor lamps, life-sized Easter Island sculptures, six-foot-tall blue opaline vases, African masks around the fireplace, and paintings covering every inch of wall space.” She once invited Edith Sitwell over for lunch and, upon hearing that Sitwell’s ancestors had burned Joan of Arc at the stake, exclaimed, “Somebody had to do it!” In the nineteen-fifties, she took as a companion a young man half a century her junior, wooing him on a date that began with an enormous lunch (“I need to keep up my energy!”) and a showing of “Ben-Hur” (“Most interesting! I’m glad the Jewish boy won!”). From then on, Rubinstein took the young man everywhere, even to a state dinner with the Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who

n the second part of “Ugly Beauty,” Brandon tells a parallel story, about one of Rubinstein’s contemporaries, a man named Eugène Schueller. He was born nine years after Rubinstein, in Paris. His parents ran a small pâtisserie on the Rue du Cherche-Midi in Montparnasse. He was an only child—his four brothers died in infancy—and his parents sacrificed to send him to a private school, subsidizing his tuition in cakes. After a successful academic career, he ended up teaching chemistry at the Sorbonne. But the leisurely pace of academic life bored him. “He would climb in and out though the window before and after hours, sometimes starting work at six a.m., sometimes staying...
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