Saturday 25 November 2017

Review: Ugly Beauty By Ruth Brandon


Craig Seligman

HELENA Rubinstein, the cosmetics entrepreneur, was "the world's first self-made female tycoon".

Eugene Schueller, the founder of the French hair-colour company L'Oreal, thought women had no business in the workplace. In 1988, after their deaths, his firm acquired hers.

In 'Ugly Beauty: Helena Rubinstein, L'Oreal and the Blemished History of Looking Good', Ruth Brandon plays the two companies and their founders off each other. She admires Rubinstein and hates Schueller whom she blames for the misery of his daughter and heir, Liliane Bettencourt.

"Rubinstein's New York living room, like everything else about her, was tasteless but full of gusto," Brandon writes, citing the gold floor lamps, the purple and magenta velvet chairs, and the acid-green carpet. For her, Rubinstein epitomises the vulgar Jew, and her Jewishness is central to the story. The ghetto-raised daughter of a Krakow fuel merchant, Rubinstein more or less ignored her roots until -- following her second marriage, in 1938 -- she was turned down when she tried to buy a 26-room Park Avenue apartment.

"The building had a no-Jews policy. Enraged, Madame bought the building," Brandon says.

That was her first real encounter with anti-Semitism. In the war that followed, one of her sisters refused to leave Poland and died in the camps. In France, meanwhile, Eugene Schueller was busy taking advantage of the German occupation: L'Oreal's profits quadrupled between 1940 and 1944. Schueller was later tried twice for collaboration and acquitted both times. But not by Brandon.

After the war, L'Oreal hired Jacques Correze, a war criminal who'd been sentenced to 10 years hard labour for leading a fascist gang that confiscated Jewish property. It was Correze who, after Madame's death, snapped up Helena Rubinstein for L'Oreal, and Brandon is convinced he did it out of spite.


"Given his past, and his defiant arrogance, it is hard to believe that Helena Rubinstein's Jewishness played no part in Correze's absolute determination to acquire her business. He never showed any interest in the very comparable Elizabeth Arden."

For Brandon, Rubinstein isn't just a paragon of female independence but one of the founders of an industry that championed it. Cosmetics were frowned on in precisely those societies, like Victorian England and Nazi Germany, where women were subjugated most severely. A major reason for Rubinstein's initial success was that she started her business in Australia, where 40pc of working-age women were wage earners and could buy her products without worrying about male disapproval.

Rubinstein died at 92, an exuberant spender and a holy terror to the end. Schueller's daughter and heir, Liliane Bettencourt, now 88, is one of the richest women in the world and, as Brandon sees her, a living corpse.

Rubinstein rebelled against her father to become a career woman. "Work was, as she said, the best beauty treatment," Brandon writes.

Bettencourt (who in recent years has been the focus of a pathetic, headline-grabbing scandal involving millions she shelled out to a much younger man, Francois-Marie Banier) never rebelled against her own authoritarian father or his insistence that women should "stay home, devoting their lives to their families," Brandon says.

Brandon argues, credibly, though of course it can't be proved, that Bettencourt remains unfulfilled because she never had a career.

And she does something more in this unshapely but incisively written and fascinating history. She puts morality at the centre, which makes 'Ugly Beauty' a very unusual business book for the 21st century.

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