This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988
Helena Rubinstein (1870?-1965), cosmetics manufacturer, was born probably on Christmas Day 1870 (possibly 1871 or 1872) at Cracow, Austria (Poland). Her early life is sparsely documented. By her own account she was the eldest of eight daughters (a son died in infancy) of Horace Rubinstein, an egg merchant of mediocre business abilities, and his wife Augusta, née Silberfeld. She claimed to have begun a medical course, abandoning it because she fainted in the wards. When her father suggested marriage to a wealthy widower she escaped by visiting her uncle Louis Silberfeld, a storekeeper and part-time oculist, at Coleraine in western Victoria. She arrived in summer, probably in 1894. Stylishly dressed and already 'haughty and difficult', she took English lessons at a small school at Coleraine, shocking her teachers by asking 'what does “bugger” mean? My uncle calls me that'.
Although Helena later complained of being hungry, lonely and poor in 'that awful place', she found her vocation there. Her milky complexion, nurtured by face-cream brought from Poland—allegedly made by her mother's friend Jacob Lykusky, a Hungarian chemist—was envied by Australian ladies with skins coarsened by sun and dust, and she sent home for supplies to sell. She later claimed, outrageously, that she had only gone to Australia to prove the cream effective in a 'tropical' climate; and also, implausibly, that she might have remained a small-town trader had she not fallen out with Uncle Louis.
In Helena's own account, she established herself in Melbourne with the help of two shipboard acquaintances, one of whom, the wife of a governor's aide, introduced her to society, while the other lent her £250, to establish her first beauty salon, in Elizabeth Street. In reality she was governess to the sons of Steve Fairbairn at Meltham, near Geelong, before working as a waitress in Melbourne at the Café Doré, and later at the Winter Garden tea room, an artists' haunt. There, one day in 1902, she discussed her plans with J. T. Thompson, manager of the Robur Tea Co. (and an admirer), a young artist, a printer, and her sister Ceska, recently arrived from Cracow. Thompson provided £100, the printer produced a label designed by the artist, and Helena opened her salon. Launched as Crème Valaze, costing tenpence and sold at six shillings, the cream earned Helena £12,000 in two years, enabling a move to 243 Collins Street. Success was aided by the patronage of Nellie Stewart, whose friend Nellie Melba sang Aida in the salon while tiny Helena—4 ft 10 ins (147 cm) tall—stood on a chair to examine the diva's complexion.
There was little to distinguish Crème Valaze, with its recipe allegedly including 'rare herbs from the Carpathian mountains', from the dubious patent medicines advertised in the Argus. Rubinstein's claims for the restorative powers of her products were questioned later by health authorities, but the products were of high quality, and the energy and imagination which eventually made her, according to the New York Times 'probably the greatest female American entrepreneur of all', were remarkable. Her quasi-scientific doctrine of beauty-care, allied with the quasi-medical practices of consultation, prescription and treatment, became the basis of one of the great growth industries of the twentieth century. With remarkable speed she established an empire 'built on cold cream and dreams' and was Napoleonic in making her siblings her satraps.
In 1905 Rubinstein went to Europe to study skin treatment with 'the foremost European specialists'. By November she had moved into the Valaze Institute at 274 Collins Street, with gilded wicker chairs, 'art green walls' and a European 'certificate'. The large 'operating theatre' treated flushed skin and blotches, double chins, warts and superfluous hair. More sisters, Manka and Stella, came from Poland to help her, and also, briefly, Dr Lykusky although most of her products were probably made by Helena herself. With her sisters she set up a Valaze Massage Institute in Sydney and an agency in New Zealand.
In 1908 Rubinstein left for London with £100,000 to invest. Within a year she opened 'Helena Rubinstein's Salon de Beauté Valaze'; within another year, she claimed, a thousand society ladies were paying her special subscription of £200 a year for weekly beauty treatments. Manka and Ceska joined her; and when she acquired a Paris salon, her sister Pauline managed it. By this time Helena had come passionately and incongruously under the sway of a Polish-American littérateur, Edward William Titus, whom she had met in Melbourne and married at Strand Register Office, London, on 28 July 1908. He introduced her to modernism in art and literature, and her salons thereafter echoed the style of the Ballet Russe, of Bakst and Benois. She briefly withdrew from business to bear two sons. When the family fled Paris after the outbreak of World War I, Rubinstein opened her New York salon in 1916, and brought Manka from London to help to establish salons in San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and Toronto. She also permitted selected department stores to stock her products, while retaining the right of training and inspection.
After the war Rubinstein and Titus, partially estranged by his infidelities and her intransigence, returned to Paris. He opened a libraire on the Left Bank; she, on the Île St Louis, established a salon for artists and writers, and indulged a voracious appetite for collecting, among other things, jewellery, antique miniature furniture, modern art, and—under (Sir Jacob) Epstein's influence—African sculpture. 'I am a business woman, I am used to buying in bulk', she remarked when admitting the uneven quality of her acquisitions.
Helena Rubinstein enjoyed the cut and thrust of business, especially on Fifth Avenue where her feud with Florence Nightingale Graham (Elizabeth Arden) and Charles Revson, founder of Revlon, reached extraordinary levels of bitterness and ingenuity. In 1928 she sold her American business, but bought it back cheaply when the Wall Street crash slashed the share price from $60 to $3. Divorced in 1937, in June 1938 she married Prince Artchil Gourielli-Tchkonia (d.1955), a Russian emigré some twenty years her junior.
Enormously energetic, wilful, and by turns secretive and frank, Madame Rubinstein roved the world, almost concealing her detailed mastery of the business behind a display of eccentricity. Parsimonious enough to carry her lunch around in a paper bag, she was very generous to individuals and to causes, especially in Israel. In 1953 she established the Helena Rubinstein Foundation, with a controlling interest in her business in Britain and South Africa (she had given Australia to Ceska and Manka). Through the foundation she funded the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art at Tel Aviv, and established in 1957 the Helena Rubinstein travelling art scholarship in Australia. She never retired, but conducted business in her last years largely from her spectacular lucite bed with its built-in fluorescent lights. In 1964 she published her memoirs, My Life for Beauty, a romance undermined by flashes of candour. She died in New York City on 1 April 1965, claiming—perhaps honestly at last—to be 94. One son survived her. The bulk of her personal estate of US$1 million was left to be administered by the foundation; the total value of the business was estimated at more than $60 million.
Her portrait was painted by many famous artists, including Laurencin, Dufy, Sutherland, Dali, and Dobell whose series, painted after Rubinstein's last visit to Australia in 1957, successfully captured the fluidity of her moods.
J. R. Poynter, 'Rubinstein, Helena (1870–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/rubinstein-helena-8293/text14535, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 11 March 2014.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988