From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. With wonderful attention to detail and real affection for her subjects, Brandon tells the story of Helena Rubinstein (1870–1965), a Polish Jew from a poor family with a small salon in Australia, who became the first woman tycoon and self-made millionaire. Her timing was excellent: she struck at the moment when decent women, for the first time, were allowing themselves makeup and were willing to shop for it publicly. At the same time, a young French chemist named Eugène Schueller (1881–1957) was making his name in hair dyes (and later collaborating with the Nazis); it was his company, L'Oreal, that swallowed Rubinstein's business. The descriptions of Schueller's political scandals are fascinating, but the story shines when Brandon returns to Rubinstein, a stubborn, spirited woman who responded to a luxury Park Avenue apartment's "No Jews" policy by buying the entire building, and who calmly thwarted robbers in her home at the age of 91. A clearheaded discussion of current beauty standards, vanity, and the gender politics of the modern cosmetic industry rounds out this lively history of the founding of the beauty business as we know it. (Feb.)
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Exposés of the beauty industry and its relatives, such as cosmetic surgery, are common these days, whether the chosen medium is film or print. In this particular instance, the link between L’Oréal (the acquirers of Helena Rubenstein’s brand) and Fascist collaborators, to mention just one scandal, is old news. Yet for undisclosed reasons, prolific London-based author Brandon (Being Divine, a biography of Sarah Bernhardt, 1991) deliberately selects the known, Helena Rubenstein, and unknown, Eugene Schueller, as appropriate counter-characters to profile. In a way, the two could not be more opposite. Flamboyant Polish Jew Rubenstein promoted everlasting female beauty through the mysterious workings of her creams and cosmetics, whereas chemist Schueller proudly publicized his invention of the first safe artificial hair dye. Brandon details their divergent philosophies (Eugene, for instance, was convinced that every woman belonged at home), their politics, their friendships, family, and passions—and the inextricable business and personal links to Nazi Germany and corporate lack of restitution for WWII wrongs. The story meanders, jumping back and forth chronologically, leaving some difficulty in following. --Barbara Jacobs