Urbanities

Stefan Kanfer
The Czarinas of Beauty
Summer 2004
  • We do everything alike. . . .
  • We walk alike
  • We talk alike
  • And what is more we hate each other very much. . . .
  • How I wish I had a gun,
  • A little gun.
  • It would be fun
  • To shoot the other two and be only one!
  • “Triplets,” from The Bandwagon, by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz

The founders of the beauty business were three self-styled czarinas who built their castles in New York City. Here, each professed to be very different from (and, of course, far superior to) her rivals. Actually, they bore such an extraordinary resemblance to one another that they might have emerged from a modern gothic novel, concocted by a singularly imaginative author.

The late Estée Lauder, who died this April at 97, was a short, hyper-ambitious, social-climbing saleswoman who loved wealth, invented her past, dumped her husband when he seemed a drag on her career, peddled emollients and powders that promised eternal youth, and dined out on her aphorisms. Among the most memorable: “Beauty is the will to be beautiful.”

Helena Rubinstein, who passed on in 1965 at 94, was a short, hyper-ambitious, social-climbing saleswoman who loved wealth, invented her past, dumped her husband when he seemed a drag on her career, peddled emollients and powders that promised eternal youth, and dined out on her aphorisms. Among the most memorable: “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.”

Elizabeth Arden, who died in 1966 at 85, was a short, hyper-ambitious saleswoman who loved wealth, invented her past, dumped her husband when he seemed a drag on her career, peddled emollients and powders that promised eternal youth, and dined out on her aphorisms. Among the most memorable: “Nothing that costs only a dollar is worth having.”

Arden’s greatest invention was herself. Born Florence Nightingale Graham in a rural Canadian village in 1881, she helped support her four siblings and widowed father by peddling household supplies to local farmers. In 1907, she emigrated to New York and got herself a job at a Fifth Avenue beauty salon, catering to wealthy clients.

Joining forces with an equally determined woman, Graham opened a salon on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, near Sherry’s and Delmonico’s restaurants, and not far from Bergdorf Goodman’s fashionable clothing emporium. Facials came at $2 per, with the bonus of “six treatments for $10.00.” Though the salon turned an impressive profit, the partnership lasted less than a year—Florence wasn’t cut out to share earnings with anyone. Once on her own, the first thing she did was change her moniker: Elizabeth sounded queenly, and Arden was the romantic forest in which Shakespearean lovers gamboled. The second thing she did was paint the door of her Fifth Avenue salon red. The color remains to this day.

Arden married Tommy Jenkins Lewis in 1915. He spent the next four years in Europe as an army officer in World War I. When he returned, he became part of Arden’s burgeoning company but had rather less success as a husband. His usefulness ended in the 1920s, when “Miss Arden,” as all employees were to address her, made her big move. She began to advertise her products with a WASP elegance, promising that the step-by-step process—cleanse, tone, and moisturize—was an entryway to wealth and a productive marriage, and a moat to keep age and time at bay.

Arden enjoyed a virtual monopoly on high-end cosmetics until the epochal day when she found an interloper treading on her turf. In War Paint, the diverting double biography of Arden and her closest rival, author Lindy Woodhead describes the clash of titans. “Elizabeth Arden was like the Queen of America. Then suddenly here comes Helena Rubinstein from Europe, making a big noise and—absolutely indisputable fact—Arden was good at promotion, but Rubinstein was even better.” She proved better still at markup. It hardly mattered that some of her cosmetics cost but pennies to make; it was the promise of glamour that put them across. Indeed, when Rubinstein launched a product called Ultra Feminine Face Cream, it bombed. Asked why it wasn’t moving off the shelves, she replied gloomily, “Not expensive enough.” She would not repeat the mistake.

Helena—the Madame, as employees were to call her—had started her long rise in Australia. She arrived there from Kraków with no money and less English. She did, however, possess a fine complexion, and this was the foundation of her fortune.

The young émigré began by packaging and peddling lanolin—sheep oil—disguising the odor with extracts of lavender, pine bark, and water lilies. That mixture was a hit around Melbourne, giving her the impetus to open a salon in 1903. Two years later, she moved to Western Europe, determined to dominate the continent. Settling in Paris, she sold her merchandise to the haut monde, and cultivated people who could do her some good. Helena became famous for lavish dinner parties, where she let loose some memorable statements. At one fete, a drunken French ambassador turned on Edith Sitwell and her brother Sacheverell: “Vos ancêtres ont brûlée Jeanne d’Arc!” For all her business intelligence, the hostess spoke almost no French. “What did he say?” she asked a guest. “He said, ‘Your ancestors burned Joan of Arc.’ ” Replied Rubinstein, “Well, somebody had to do it.” On another occasion, Marcel Proust, who had heard of the Madame’s connections, tried to consult her about the makeup that a duchess might wear. She blew him off. “He smelt of mothballs,” was her defense. “How was I to know he was going to be famous?”

The Madame first married Edward Titus, a sometime journalist and publisher, who turned out to be quite useful for writing publicity releases and for fathering her two sons. But after the Rubinstein cosmetic line caught on, she would no longer tolerate his once-overlooked infidelities. He was summarily let go, unmissed when the Madame relocated to New York to take on Arden in the glamour wars.

During that war, she flummoxed some savvy Wall Street speculators who thought to get the better of her. In 1928, she sold her American business to Lehman Brothers at a profit of $7.3 million, in the days when you could keep it. Came the Depression, she took the company off their hands, repurchasing the nearly worthless stock for a little over $1 million. She then rode the shares into the stratosphere, opening various beauty salons and outlets in Boston, Newark, Newport, Atlantic City, Chicago, San Francisco, Palm Beach, Miami, Southampton, and Detroit. She also acquired a second husband in 1938. Artchil Gourielli-Tchkonia, 23 years her junior, claimed to be a Russian prince. Whether he was or not, he became the raison d’être for the Madame’s men’s line of Gourielli aftershave balm and talc. Some called the marriage a marketing ploy.

All the while, Rubinstein and Arden kept up a public feud—an echo of the mock battle that Jack Benny and Fred Allen waged in their wildly popular radio comedies. Thanks to her marriage, Helena passed herself off as royalty, a move that galled the ultra-snobbish Arden. Elizabeth got some measure of revenge when Clare Boothe Luce’s malicious and witty The Women opened on Broadway and then became a hit movie in 1939. The opening scene takes place in a high-end beauty salon, clearly based on Arden’s flagship locale at 673 Fifth Avenue; the beautiful vixens in the film reminded insiders of Arden’s soignée clientele—and this despite the Madame’s new spa only a few blocks north at 715 Fifth Avenue, boasting a restaurant, a gymnasium, and rugs by Joan Miró. Nevertheless, Luce bypassed it in her drama, well aware that the best dish of the day was served behind Arden’s now-famous red door.

The battle of the cosmetic divas was good for business, but the ladies truly did loathe each other. Hardly a month went by when they didn’t engage in a duel by checkbook. If Rubinstein commissioned Salvador Dalí to design a compact, Arden would order a mural from Georgia O’Keeffe for one of her fitness studios. If the Madame acquired a new Picasso, Arden would buy a few more thoroughbreds for her Kentucky stable, demanding that handlers wash the stalls with her best-selling fragrance, Blue Grass. The steeds themselves benefited from daily massages with her skin-care sensation, Eight Hour Cream, though with what result the Racing Form does not say.

As the years went on, the battles intensified. Arden stole Rubinstein’s sales director; Rubinstein hired Arden’s ex. Reconciliation between these two egos became unthinkable.

As for Estée Lauder, she too was her own best invention. “Mine is hardly a rags-to-riches story,” she claimed. But that is precisely what it was. The daughter of Hungarian Jewish immigrants was born Josephine Esther Mentzer in Queens in 1907, though she liked to boast of a childhood surrounded by servants and allowed rumors to circulate that she was from an old Catholic family. Her father Abraham was the proprietor, in turn, of an agricultural supply shop, a cemetery, and a hardware store. Working in the hardware store, Esther learned how to wrap goods attractively; from her uncle John, she gained some insights about the science of cosmetics by watching him cook up face creams and toothache drops on the kitchen stove. Particularly fascinated by one of his skin lotions, she dubbed it “Super-Rich All-Purpose Crème” and helped him sell it to neighbors.

She reinvented herself in 1925 as Estella Mentzer, and again in 1930, when she married Joseph Lauder, himself the son of Austrian immigrants. Nine years and one son later, the marriage failed. Estée (by that time) had learned a lot about self-promotion by watching Arden and Rubinstein from afar. She concluded that the speediest way to rise in her chosen field was to marry a millionaire. Alas, the interested ones weren’t available, and the available ones weren’t interested. After a long, discouraging period, she asked a friend, “What am I knocking myself out for with guys? Joe’s a nice man.” And so in 1942, three years after the split, the couple remarried and had another son.

For 15 years the business remained small. There were Estée, her sons, a daughter-in-law, and a receptionist-secretary. “When people asked for the order department,” her son Leonard recently recalled, “my wife put them on hold, came back with a disguised voice and said, ‘This is the order department.’ ” He added, “Success perceived becomes simply success.”

True enough. Yet Lauder rose less on smoke than on mirrors. More attractive than her rivals—Arden possessed a pleasant but undistinguished face, while Rubinstein in her later years resembled a terrapin—Estée made her work a personal business. She dropped in at beauty parlors, showing off her perfect complexion, hawking her products away from the standard retail outlets, as if intended only for the privileged few. She was always glad to show potential clients how to apply cream and powders, and did free-of-charge makeovers for anyone with the patience to hear her spiel. These were ingenious tactics that created an atmosphere of intimacy—and produced an ultimate irony. The stuff she carried from salon to salon attracted the attention of retail stores, which soon wanted in on the Estée Lauder line. Bergdorf Goodman was her first big catch; other major emporia followed.

This triumph led her to think bigger. To push the products, she invented gift-with-purchase promotions that brought even more customers into the tent. Then she turned to Europe. Overseas markets were notoriously tough for Americans to crack; to Estée, this was just another pebble in the shoe. She went to the Galeries Lafayette in Paris, for example, and found herself promptly snubbed by the perfume buyer. No matter; she spoke to a salesgirl and, while showing her the fragrance, somehow managed to spill some. The buyer inhaled the scent as he passed the counter and heard customers asking about it. Whether those customers were plants or real buyers, the “accident” had its desired effect. “We opened in France soon afterward,” Lauder’s memoir drily recalls.

Like the other two czarinas, Estée became a woman of enormous wealth, with houses in Manhattan and overseas. But unlike them, she passed her holdings on to the next generations. Rubinstein’s business changed hands two decades ago, and even her famous art collection went on the auction block. Although the scarlet door still decorates the Fifth Avenue locale of Elizabeth Arden, the company was sold in 1988. By contrast, the Estée Lauder Company remains a family affair. Estée’s son Ronald, once a New York gubernatorial candidate, stayed with the company until his retirement. His brother, Leonard, who would deliver the cosmetics by bicycle in the early days, is the company’s chairman, but will give way to his son William this summer.

Even in this time of Botox and collagen, implants and liposuction, the cosmetics industry still grossed some $60 billion last year and shows no signs of letting up. The siren appeal of a product off the shelves, a concoction that can diminish wrinkles, revive the skin, lighten the smile, and banish the years, remains as irresistible now as it did when Miss Arden, the Madame, and Estée Lauder first worked their magic. Such conditions will probably not change much in the new millennium, because humanity is unlikely to abandon its desire for self-improvement at minimum risk. In their heyday, the three ladies in question would hear many a put-down for selling superficial allure. After all, critics reminded their readers, beauty is only skin-deep. Playwright Jean Kerr spoke for cosmeticians around the world when she retorted, “I’m tired of all this nonsense about beauty being only skin-deep. That’s deep enough. What do you want—an adorable pancreas?” That remains the deep-seated belief of most consumers, thanks to the efforts of those vanished pioneers, who still throw a long shadow across the city and the world, a trio with whims of iron and the talent for selling dreams in bottles and jars.

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