The Business of Beauty

Helena Rubenstein’s Jewish roots

In Ugly Beauty: Helena Rubinstein, L’Oreal and the Blemished History of Looking Good (Harper, $26.99), Ruth Brandon masterfully blends her expertise as a cultural historian and biographer with her talent for writing detective stories and literary novels to produce a page-turning, insightful sprawl of a book. The mys- tery is this: how is Jewish entrepreneur Helena Rubinstein (1870 – 1965) connected to L’Oreal’s founder, the fascist Eugene Schueller (1881 – 1957), and what does the beauty business have to do with Nazi collaboration in Vichy and political scandals of modern-day France?

Brandon conducts a thorough investigation of both protagonists’ lives. She juxtaposes Helena Rubinstein’s story as the eldest of eight girls from a poor, Polish Jewish family with that of Schueller, an only child born into a poor French conservative family who, through a bit of luck and a lot of hard work, managed to obtain an education as a chemist, inventing the first harmless hair dye and founding L’Oreal in 1909. Helena (née Chaja) also defied fate; instead of marrying the widower her father had picked out, she ran off to family in Australia, where she quickly capitalized on the weather-worn Australian women’s reactions to her own smooth skin by selling them pots of her “special” cream.

Rubinstein and Schueller’s lives and careers spanned both world wars, though they never met, and when L’Oreal took over Rubinstein’s company in 1988, three past scandals emerged. All were related to the not-so-distant Nazi-collaborator past of Schueller and some of his employees, one of whom was a vicious anti-Semite who befriended Helena Rubinstein in her old age and spearheaded L’Oreal’s takeover of her company. Ugly Beauty is an apt title, implying a multitude of paradoxes, including the attractive and not-so-attractive qualities of many of the people it depicts. But most paradoxical is the beauty business itself. At the turn of the 20th century, Rubinstein and Schueller were selling women tools that would improve their selfconfidence, something that the prevailing Victorian culture wanted to deny women. Today, the beauty business might well be perceived not as emancipating women from the strictures of what “nice” women are supposed to do, but as enslaving women to their appearance for the sake of conforming, again, to what others expect of them. Brandon does a fine job of trying to get to the bottom of the beauty business, no simple task given that the industry’s purpose is to cover up blemishes, hide flaws, and color over the truth to look good. 

Angela Himsel is an award-winning writer whose column, “Angetevka”, appears in