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Helena Rubinstein and the Women’s Liberation Movement

Thursday, July 17, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week Michèle Fitoussi wrote about her fascination, her research materials, and her favorite episodes from Helena Rubinstein's life. Her biography on Helena, Helena Rubinstein: The Woman Who Invented Beauty, is now available. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Helena Rubinstein's career took off at a time when, at least in terms of beauty and hygiene, emancipation was there for the taking, and women were choosing to emancipate themselves. Helena’s intuition, as well as lucky timing, and of course her extraordinary talent, certainly helped her succeed. She understood that beauty was seen as a ‘new power’, she managed to bring make-up out of the theatres and brothels for ‘honest’ women to appropriate. She taught women how to look after themselves, she democratized access to beauty products and anticipated the importance of science and hygiene in the industry.

For the emancipation of women was not merely the right to vote, work, and achieve financial independence - fashion and beauty also played a great role. Thanks to Poiret and Chanel, women were free of restraining corsets, allowing them the freedom to move, take part in sports, walk, drive, and ride horses just like men. Thanks to Helena Rubinstein, they learnt to apply makeup or improve their skin – she had no intention of creating mere dolls, but rather women capable of looking after themselves. In 1912 in New York, the suffragettes protesting for the right to vote all wore bright red lipstick; challenging the societal norms of the time by wearing ‘taboo’ make-up. When Helena Rubinstein arrived in the United States three years later, women were ready to follow her advice. Ironically, she rarely used any skin creams herself – but she had a beautiful complexion around which she built her brand.

So in a way, Helena played an important role in the women’s liberation movement, but perhaps unconsciously so, or in her own – non-political – way. I don’t believe this ruthless businesswoman and ingenious entrepreneur was much of a feminist.

Michèle Fitoussi was born in Tunisia to French parents, and has lived in Paris since the age of five. She worked as a journalist at Elle magazine for years, interviewing world leaders in areas as varied as politics, human sciences, sports, literature and the media. She is the author of screenplays, fiction and non-fiction, including the international bestsellers Superwoman’s had Enough and The Prisoner. She also co-wrote Stolen Lives with Malika Oufkir, which sold more than a million copies throughout the world and remained on the New York Times best-seller list for 25 weeks after being stamped as an “Oprah Book” by Oprah Winfrey. Her newest book, Helena Rubinstein: The Woman Who Invented Beauty, is now available. Her forthcoming book about the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai will be published in France this September.

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Michèle Fitoussi's Favorite Episodes in Helena Rubinstein's Biography

Wednesday, July 16, 2014 | Permalink

When writing a biography, a biographer comes across a wealth of information about their subject. While one tries their best to be objective while they write, it's difficult not to have a preference for certain episodes of the subject's life. When Michèle Fitoussi poured over the details of Helena Rubinstein's life for her biography, Helena Rubinstein: The Woman Who Invented Beauty, there were a few moments in particular that struck a chord. Read about them below!

It’s difficult to choose only one – she led such an amazing life! The first that springs to mind, though, is the way in which she played the Lehman brothers – all-powerful businessmen at the time – who had purchased her company for an astronomical amount in 1928, selling it back to her for next to nothing in 1930. The crash had been and gone, and Helena Rubinstein had understood how to profit from it...

I also love her exile in Australia, sent away on a boat at the age of 24. Leaving Europe alone, without a chaperone, was extremely brave for any woman, let alone one so young.

And then there’s her purchase of the entire apartment block on Park Avenue in 1941, because the landlords refused to house a Jewish tenant.

And simply that way of rolling up her sleeves after the war, when she was more than 70 years old, in order to re-build her beauty salon and laboratory in France, both of which had been heavily bombed by the Germans. She was a millionaire, she could have delegated the work, instead she preferred to deal with it herself.

And, of course, her great intelligence and long-term vision, this woman lacked neither courage nor panache, which is why I liked her straightaway.

Michèle Fitoussi was born in Tunisia to French parents, and has lived in Paris since the age of five. She worked as a journalist at Elle magazine for years, interviewing world leaders in areas as varied as politics, human sciences, sports, literature and the media. She is the author of screenplays, fiction and non-fiction, including the international bestsellers Superwoman’s had Enough and The Prisoner. She also co-wrote Stolen Lives with Malika Oufkir, which sold more than a million copies throughout the world and remained on the New York Times best-seller list for 25 weeks after being stamped as an “Oprah Book” by Oprah Winfrey. Her newest book, Helena Rubinstein: The Woman Who Invented Beauty, is now available. Her forthcoming book about the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai will be published in France this September.

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On Trailing the Life of Helena Rubinstein

Tuesday, July 15, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Michèle Fitoussi wrote about her fascination with Helena Rubinstein and her decision to write the biography Helena Rubinstein: The Woman Who Invented Beauty. Today she discusses the sources she used to write the biography. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Helena Rubinstein wrote – or rather commissioned – two autobiographies that merely serve to perpetuate her legend, and therefore cannot really be trusted... But they are enough to get a good idea of his extraordinary woman. There are also a couple of biographies written about her, as well as the memoir of Patrick O’Higgins, her secretary during the last 20 years of her life. His words are at times rather biting – it must be said she didn’t treat him especially well – but he remains affectionate, which make this account worthwhile.

In Paris, I had access to the numerous archives of the Rubinstein company; I was able to sift through 14 boxes of memories – Dora Maar’s photos of Helena’s apartment in Paris by the Quai de Béthune, newspaper clippings, press files, transcriptions of radio interviews, reports of the branding strategy in the 1950s, and hundreds of photos.

Once in New York, I had the opportunity to visit the Foundation before it closed its doors and auctioned off its collection of paintings. She had had her portraits done by Salvador Dali, Marie Laurencin, Jacques Helleu, Christian Bérard. Helena’s son’s daughter-in-law Suzanne Slesin also had a great collection of archives which she has compiled in a beautiful book entitled Helena Rubinstein: Over the Top. I met her on several occasions and she told me about her fascinating encounter with Madame Rubinstein in the '60s, when she was only 16 years old, and how dazzled she was upon her visit to Helena’s apartment on Park Avenue. It was at once baroque and a complete mess – a little ‘over the top’ at times – but her style was unbelievably audacious, as she combined for example "Negro art" with contemporary furniture in a way no one would ever dreamed of doing at the time.

I spoke with some of her rare family members who are still alive, including a young cousin who escaped the Shoah with her mother and whom Madame took in after the war and the son of her director in France, Emmanuel Ameisen, who was also her first husband’s nephew.

Trawling through the genealogy sites online I managed to find identity papers, passports, and many newspapers of the time, both American and Australian. Her career truly began in Australia, that’s where her first interviews were conducted, her first adverts placed. One of which I found was dated back to 1903, featuring an actress praising Helena’s ‘Valaze’ cream – the true precursor to ‘Because I’m worth it.’

I would have liked to learn more about her first husband Arthur Ameisen, who went under the alias of Edward Titus, an intellectual, journalist, and art lover, who set up the bookshop on Delambre street in Montparnasse and published Kiki’s Memoirs by Kiki de Montparnasse as well as the French translation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. He too was a fascinating character. He was a prominent member of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ crowd, and influenced his wife’s artistic taste to a great extent. But what was he up to before they met in Australia and then got married in London? I had the opportunity to meet his second wife in Cannes, Erica, who was 38 years his junior, but sadly she was suffering from Alzheimer’s, and I was unable to glean much information from her.

Michèle Fitoussi was born in Tunisia to French parents, and has lived in Paris since the age of five. She worked as a journalist at Elle magazine for years, interviewing world leaders in areas as varied as politics, human sciences, sports, literature and the media. She is the author of screenplays, fiction and non-fiction, including the international bestsellersSuperwoman’s had Enough and The Prisoner. She also co-wrote Stolen Liveswith Malika Oufkir, which sold more than a million copies throughout the world and remained on the New York Times best-seller list for 25 weeks after being stamped as an “Oprah Book” by Oprah Winfrey. Her newest book, Helena Rubinstein: The Woman Who Invented Beauty, is now available. Her forthcoming book about the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai will be published in France this September.

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On Writing a Biography of Helena Rubinstein

Monday, July 14, 2014 | Permalink

Michèle Fitoussi is the author of screenplays, fiction and non-fiction, including the international bestsellers Superwoman’s had Enough and The Prisoner. She also co-wrote Stolen Lives with Malika Oufkir, which sold more than a million copies throughout the world and remained on the New York Times best-seller list for 25 weeks after being stamped as an “Oprah Book” by Oprah Winfrey. Her newest book, Helena Rubinstein: The Woman Who Invented Beauty, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

People always ask me the same question: ‘What made you want to write about Helena Rubinstein?’ And the answer is always the same. When I began to read her autobiography – in which she does nothing but lie – it made me want to know more, and I became passionate about the romantic yet modern story of this petite ( 4’8”) woman of Polish descent, always perched on sky-high heels, who passed away 48 years ago.

I immediately understood the potential of her story, and all there was to tell. Not least starting with her solo departure to Australia; her two-month boat journey, twelve pots of cream from her mother in her suitcase. It was 1896, she was 24 years old, spoke no English, had never met her Australian family – and she was heading into the unknown with a certain amount of bravery and determination which fascinated me. She was an adventurer, and I loved that about her.

I was, and remain, fascinated by her enthusiasm, her curiosity, her bravery and her youthfulness. She was afraid of nothing and had an endless amount of energy, passion, and intelligence. She was a real heroine and, as she used to say, all the things she’d experienced could easily have filled half a dozen lives. She remains a role model and an inspiration for women all over the world.

With her we travel across the twentieth century through the medium of beauty and art, we witness the empowerment of women, the birth of consumerism, marketing and publicity. We spend time in Krakow, Paris, New York, Melbourne and London... She has lived a thousand lives, and I thought it was worth shedding more light on them.

Michèle Fitoussi was born in Tunisia to French parents, and has lived in Paris since the age of five. She worked as a journalist at Elle magazine for years, interviewing world leaders in areas as varied as politics, human sciences, sports, literature and the media.

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