Ugly Beauty – Book Review

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by Edith Cody-Rice 

The book  Ugly Beauty: Helena Rubinstein, L’Oreal, and The Blemished History of Looking Good by Ruth Brandon has somehow flown under the radar in Canadian book reviews. Published in 2011, Ugly Beauty tells the tale of two beauty product icons: Helena Rubinstein and L’Oreal. It is a relatively compact history of two individuals, Rubinstein and Eugene Scheuller, both from modest circumstances, who caught the emerging wave of female independence in the early 20th century and rode it to enormous wealth and power.

Both Helena Rubinstein, the founder of her eponymous company and Eugene Scheuller, founder of L’Oreal, came from extremely modest circumstances in the late 19th century. Helena Rubinstein was the poor Jewish daughter of a Polish kerosene merchant who, one of eight sisters, was sent to Australia to help out a married sister and her children living in the outback. Helena arrived in Australia at the age of 16 and hated every minute of her life in that family. She began to sell face creams and the rest is history.

Rubinstein progressed from Australia, where women were largely liberated in terms of work, to Europe and finally to America. Although uneducated, she liked to think of herself as a scientist. She was, in fact, an accomplished marketer, which earned her the position of the first female tycoon. She raked in money by the millions, and even during the second world war, when the access to raw material for the beauty industry was restricted, she managed to land a contract to supply the U.S. army with kits for its male soldiers – a brillant strategic coup.

Rubinstein’s marriage to an artist and  bibliophile was doomed, but she financially supported her estranged husband who had his own successes with a book shop in Paris. In fact, she supported all the men in her life as well as her extended family of sisters, cousins, nephews and nieces. Hers was considered an unfeminine career, although in her own view she liberated women who, in 19th century Europe, were considered “bad women” if they wore makeup. Rubinstein’s ultimate badge of liberation was the bright red lipstick she promoted.

Eugene Scheuller, founder of L’Oreal, was a highly educated scientist. Son of a baker’s family of modest means who worked extremely hard, he was a prodigious scholar and worker, but rejected the dusty halls of scientific academia to take up the challenge of a Parisian  hairdresser to create a safe hair dye. He succeeded and grew the hair dye business until he became the wealthiest man in France, a wealth, still stunning today,  which he passed to his daughter and granddaughter. He was on the wrong side of history, however. Referencing his own rise to wealth and power, he believed in a society of elites who would rule Europe, a vision that fit well with the Nazi rise to power. The profits of his company soared during France’s occupation by the Nazis in the second world war, and he was tried twice for collaboration after the war, although acquitted through the intercession of powerful colleagues. L’Oreal continued to hire ex anti-semites and Nazi sympathizers into the company for years after the war, a move which sparked public relations nightmares.

At the end of the book the author appears to wander off somewhat from pure story telling into musing on the position of women today. She notes that Helena Rubinstein was brash, crass, but master of her fate while Scheuller’s daughter, Liliane Bettencourt, was raised to inhabit the subservient position of the traditional wife. She supported the men in her life with her enormous wealth, from her husband to her banker to much younger artist protegé who is now in litigation with her daughter over the enormous sums Liliane Bettencourt signed over to him. Reputed to be brilliant, Liliane never ran L’Oreal, although she sat on its board as a major shareholder. Author Brandon clearly sees Liliane as a victim of her upbringing.

Although it wanders somewhat, this book is a fascinating look at the beauty industry and the people who recognized the emerging market for beauty products as women entered the 20th century and began to assert their independence.

 Ugly Beauty is available from Mill Street Books in Almonte and Read’s Book Shop in Carleton Place