• U.S.

Cosmetics: The Beauty Merchant

4 minute read

Even after half a century in the U.S., Helena Rubinstein could clearly recall her first impression upon landing in New York in 1914. “It was a cold day,” she would say in speech still heavily accented from her Polish girlhood. “All the American women had purple noses and grey lips, and their faces were chalk white from terrible powder. I recognized that the U.S. could be my life’s work.”

Her life’s work, in the U.S. and elsewhere, became one long pursuit of profitable ways in which to make women more attractive — or to make them think they were. Starting in an era when cosmetics were not quite respectable, she helped win millions of women over to them, emphasizing their therapeutic power and billing herself as “The First Lady of Beauty Science.” She was a hardheaded eccentric who became one of the world’s wealthiest women. When she died last week in Manhattan at 94, elfin (4 ft. 10 in.) Helena Rubinstein left behind a $60 million business that stretches from New York to London, Paris and Rio de Janeiro, and sells her preparations in more than 100 countries.

Shrewd Merchant. It began quite by accident. One of eight daughters of a Cracow merchant, Helena gave up studying medicine and emigrated to Australia in 1890 in hopes of finding a husband. She eventually found two, becoming once divorced and once widowed. Before that, however, she found success. As appalled by the dry, flaky skin of Australia’s hardy pioneer women as she later was by American complexions, Helena began selling a potion made of almonds and tree bark. The formula made her $100,000 within three years, and she set sail for Europe, where she opened a Mayfair salon. By World War I she was the reigning beauty adviser to British and French society. She decided to move to New York to take up the same role, but there she ran into opposition from Elizabeth Arden, a rival with whom she was to wage a famous 50-year feud — without once meeting her.

Helena Rubinstein proved to have the better business head. “I am a merchant,” she liked to boast. To give her products a scientific cast, she climbed into a laboratory smock, hired a doctor for each of her salons. She pioneered department-store cosmetic sales in 1926 at San Francisco’s City of Paris, then grandly turned down orders for less than $25,000 when other stores clamored for her products. She introduced medicated face creams and waterproof mascara, was the first to send saleswomen on the road to demonstrate proper makeup for ordinary women. She was also wise enough to keep prices high. “Some women,” she once said, “won’t buy anything unless they can pay a lot.” Today more than 100 Helena Rubinstein products are sold in the U.S., and sales have increased 500% since World War II.

Rings & Rubies. Helena Rubinstein’s personal wealth was estimated at $100 million, but her enjoyment of it was erratic. Her dark-dyed hair gathered back into a familiar bun, her fingers dripping rings and ruby polish, she held business conferences in her 26-room Park Avenue triplex, propped up in a garish bed whose Incite head-and footboard glowed under fluorescent light. Yet she vastly appreciated art, and acquired an extensive collection that included Renoir, Renault, Modigliani and Dali. Her jewelry was valued at $1,000,000, but she liked to mix dime-store baubles with antique pieces that once belonged to Catherine the Great.

She could be stingy or generous by turn. She contributed regularly to colleges and sent $10,000 to a convent of nuns who wrote to compliment her on her courage in facing down three jewel robbers last year. She also padded around her apartment turning off lights, fretted mightily if a maid broke so much as a teacup, and carried her lunch to her office in a paper bag. Until the end, though, she kept a sharp eye on her business and a relentless devotion to her personal grooming. “It doesn’t matter how shaky a woman’s hand is,” she insisted. “She can still apply eye makeup.” At 94 Helena Rubinstein still did.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com