Born into a Polish-Jewish family with eight daughters and a tight budget, by the time Helena Rubinstein (1872−1965) died, she had built an empire worth over $100 million dollars. Not only a path breaker in the beauty industry, but a remarkably astute businesswoman, her fortune wasn’t built by marrying wealth— she actually subsidized the men she married. The story of how Rubinstein accomplished so much, against such odds, is fascinating. Fitoussi draws on Rubinstein’s accounts of her life and work, as well as those of her late-life assistant, Patrick O’Higgins, to craft her story. While occasionally acknowledging Rubinstein’s flaws — her tendency to fabricate tales about herself, her obsession with work at the expense of personal relationships, her inability to parent her sons, her obsessive frugality — Fitoussi is clearly so awed by “Madame” (as Rubinstein preferred to be called) that her account veers into hagiography. Again and again, Fitoussi strains credibility by imagining boudoir conversations and intimate thoughts. Readers looking for a Jewish angle may be disappointed; apart from evading social anti-Semitism, Madame had little to do with Jewish culture after leaving Poland as a young woman. Late in life, she made a small deal in Israel, offering to build a factory in exchange for having an art museum named for her. It was just a business transaction, and not an entirely satisfactory one at that. Although this is biography-lite, it may entertain and inspire many readers. Bibliography, endnotes, index, photographs.
Read Michèle Fitoussi’s Posts for the Visiting Scribe
On Writing a Biography of Helena Rubinstein
On Trailing the Life of Helena Rubinstein
Michèle Fitoussi’s Favorite Episodes in Helena Rubinstein’s Biography
Bettina Berch, author of the recent biography, From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezierska, teaches part-time at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.