Not that many people know about Helena Rubinstein’s Australian connections.
Chaya Rubinstein was born in Kraców, Poland in 1870, the eldest of eight daughters of Horace Rubinstein, an egg merchant and his wife Augusta. 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’.
Her milky complexion, nurtured by face-cream brought from Poland was envied by Australian ladies with skins coarsened by sun and dust, and she sent home for supplies to sell.
After falling out with her uncle, and now calling herself Helena, she was funded by an admirer to launch her own cream – Crème Valaze which proved such a success, she was able to establish her own salon at 243 Collins Street, Melbourne in 1904. More sisters, Manka and Stella, came from Poland to help her set up a Valaze Massage Institute in Sydney and an agency in New Zealand.
Diminutive at 4 ft. 10 in. (147 cm), she rapidly expanded her operation. In 1908, her sister Ceska assumed the Melbourne shop’s operation, when, with £100,000, Rubinstein moved to London and began what was to become an international enterprise. (Women at this time could not obtain bank loans, so the money was her own.)
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.
In 1908, she married polish-american journalist Edward Titus in London and they had two sons, Roy and Horace, eventually moving to Paris.
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.
Helena Rubinstein enjoyed the cut and thrust of business, especially on Fifth Avenue where her feud with Elizabeth Arden and Charles Revson, founder of Revlon, reached extraordinary levels of bitterness and ingenuity.
In 1928 she sold her American business for $7.3 million, but bought it back cheaply when the Wall Street crash slashed the share price from $60 to $3, eventually turning the shares into values of multimillion dollars.
Divorced in 1937, in June 1938 she married Prince Artchil Gourielli-Tchkonia, a Russian emigré some twenty years her junior.
Enormously energetic, wilful, and by turns secretive and frank, Helena Rubinstein was the first self-made female millionaire. She was very generous to individuals and to causes and established several foundations, including 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. Her portrait was painted by many famous artists, including Laurencin, Dufy, Sutherland, Dali, and Dobell, painted after Rubinstein’s last visit to Australia in 1957.
Biography: “Helena Rubinstein – the woman who invented beauty” by Michèle Fitoussi
This is the extraordinary story of the woman who created a cosmetic empire and gave it her name, of an entrepreneur who started with nothing except a belief in the strength of women.
Author Michèle Fitoussi was born in Tunisia to French parents, and has lived in Paris since the age of five. She has worked for the past twenty-five years at Elle magazine and has interviewed many influential decision makers and world leaders in areas as varied as politics, human sciences, sports, literature and the media.
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