Polish-born beauty expert Helena Rubenstein (1870-1965) was among the first to establish cosmetics as essential to a woman's toilette. Rubenstein's business acumen enabled her to build a multi-million dollar empire based on the sale of beauty products.
Helena Rubenstein was born on December 25, 1870, in Cracow, Poland. The oldest of eight girls, she was raised in an upper middle class family. Her father favored Helena's intellect, her mother emphasized beauty and charm. Together, Rubenstein's parents shaped her career as the creator and financial genius of what was to become a multi-million dollar beauty empire.
In 1888, after rejecting both medical school and a suitor, Rubenstein travelled to Coleraine, Australia, to live with relatives. Elegant and fastidious, she introduced the neighbors to a special facial creme, the product of Hungarian chemist Jacob Lykusky. She soon moved to Melbourne and established a small beauty salon to which Australian women came to offset the drying effects of sun and wind. Within two years Rubenstein's reputation was assured. She had repaid an original $1,500 loan and was lured by the thought of greater financial success.
Returning to Europe, Rubenstein settled in London. She purchased Lord Salisbury's former residence on Grafton Street, a four-story house with 26 rooms. She redecorated in lavish color schemes influenced by theater designers Leon Bakst and Alexandre Benois. Shortly after her marriage to American newspaperman Edward William Titus, Rubenstein opened the "Salon de Beaute Valaze."
Rubenstein launched her salon at a time when makeup was worn only on stage. But society women once entertained by Lord Salisbury were curious about the Grafton Street establishment. Gradually, Rubenstein found them willing to pay ten guineas (about $50) for 12 beauty treatments. Her special product was a facial creme based on Lykusky's product, but she had developed other items, including face powder and rouge. Rubenstein planned for the time when conservative attitudes toward facial makeup relaxed and ladies considered it part of their daily toilette.
Rubenstein's treatments relied on her understanding of diet, skin anatomy, and body metabolism, all of which she had learned from French chemist Marcellin Berthlot of the University of Paris. One of Rubenstein's earliest staff members was Viennese doctor Emmie List, who introduced a skin peeling treatment for severely blemished complexions. But Rubenstein was not content to remain in the laboratory. She and her husband entered a social circle that included Margot Asquith, Baroness d'Erlanger, sculptor Jacob Epstein, and young pianist Artur Rubenstein.
In 1909 Rubenstein was expecting a child. She and Edward moved out of the Grafton Street apartment where they lived above the salon and purchased a separate residence. Simultaneously, Rubenstein opened a shop in the rue St. Honore in Paris, France. By now several of her sisters had joined the business—Ceska was in the Melbourne salon, Manka was part of the London establishment, and Pauline had responsibility for the Paris salon. Rubenstein's son Roy was born in late 1909 and another son, Horace, in 1912.
In 1914 they all moved to Paris, where Rubenstein threw herself into running the salon. Her ambition was rewarded, and soon society leaders and art and stage personalities crowded the appointment book. Rubenstein was an unqualified success.
World War I caused an abrupt, unanticipated change in the business. Due to her husband's nationality the family moved to the United States in January 1915. There Rubenstein discovered a new market. Most American women were just as reluctant to adopt facial make-up as their European counterparts had been. This untapped clientele represented a potential gold mine.
Greenwich, Connecticut, became home for the Titus family. Here Rubenstein planned new products based on the beauty needs of American women. Little more than a year after her arrival Rubenstein opened the first Maison de Beaute in New York City, located in a West 49th Street brownstone. She decorated the interior in dark blue velvet. The single salon soon proved inadequate and she rapidly opened salons in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington DC, and Toronto, Canada.
In 1928, hoping to concentrate on her European business, Rubenstein sold controlling interest in her United States holdings to Lehman Brothers. They paid $7.3 million. One year later, deciding that Lehman could not maintain the quality she had established for her business, Rubenstein purchased back the controlling stock for $1.5 million.
Despite the Depression years, Rubenstein's beauty empire grew. An avid collector, she became famous for her collections of paintings, sculpture, and jewelry. In 1938 she and Edward Titus divorced, and later that same year Rubenstein married a Russian, Prince Artchil Gourielli-Tchkonia. Under his tutelage she met and mingled with the world's rich and titled. Together they established a gentlemen's product line through the House of Gourielli in New York City. In 1953 the Helena Rubenstein Foundation was established to help fund research and education and to support the America-Israel Foundation.
Widowed in 1955, Rubenstein maintained a demanding schedule. An early riser, she often conducted business meetings in her New York bedroom ensconced in a lucite bed with fluorescent head and footboard. Several times annually Rubenstein travelled to key cities throughout the world, alternately chiding and praising her agents there.
Rubenstein reportedly knew all the ingredients of every one of her beauty products. Her personal style was at once dictatorial and generous. At times parsimonius to the point of obsession, she reveled in her million-dollar jewelry collection while wearing $4.99 nightgowns. (She kept her jewelry in a dress box under her bed.)
In 1964 Rubenstein was burglarized in her Park Avenue apartment. Several servants were bound and gagged and Rubenstein was tied to a chair and threatened. She refused to reveal the location of a key to her safe, and the robbers left empty-handed as she shrieked for help.
Princess Gourielli—Madame Helena Rubenstein— died of natural causes in a New York hospital on April 1, 1965. She was 94 years old.
Patrick O'Higgins wrote a lively, impressionistic biography of Helena Rubenstein in MADAME, an Intimate Biography (1971). For a glimpse of Rubenstein's early years, a good source is her autobiography, My Life for Beauty (1964). Both volumes include extensive photographs showing Rubenstein in various settings throughout the world. □