Helena Rubenstein, the world’s first self-made female millionaire, was born in Kraków, Poland, in 1872. She emigrated to Australia in 1902. With no money and little English, she packed a great complexion and jars of face cream in her luggage. When her supply ran out, she started making her own. With all the sheep in Australia, lanolin was in good supply.
By 1908, she was raking it in. She had plans for expansion. Again, on her own dime, in an era where women in business were not financed by banks, she moved to London. She married and had two sons.
In 1912, they all moved to Paris and she opened a salon. She set up a publishing company, too, the one that published Lady Chatterley’s Lover. All sorts of names and notables attended her salon, many of whose notoriety was still in the making. She was known for her dinner parties and her wit.
When WWI broke out, the family moved to New York where she opened her salon in 1915. This would mark the beginning of a lifelong rivalry with Elizabeth Arden, captured on film in The Powder and the Glory. She sold her US business to Lehman Brothers in 1928 for just over $7 million and bought it all back for less than $1 million when the Great Depression hit. From there, it was onwards and upwards.
Her second marriage was to a Georgian aristocrat 23 years her junior. [That must have been some face cream!] She spent money on art and clothes but took her own lunch to work. She set up foundations, gave scholarships, and employed most of her relatives in the business. She was some woman.
In Kraków last week, I stood outside the house in which she was born. It’s in the Jewish District of Kazimierz and is now a restaurant. Or so I was told. There seems to be a little confusion about exactly where. Earlier in the week, I’d seen the Oscar-nominated Hungarian movie Saul és fia (Son of Saul) so senses were particularly heightened. But Helena Rubenstein escaped before the madness descended on this part of the world. Her reasons for emigrating were most likely economic. And it made me think of the millions of souls of potential who perished – not just Jews, but Catholics, Roma, artists, intellectuals – millions of lives wasted because of one man’s ideal.
And this made me think about abortion and the screening tests for unborn children and the parents who for better or worse decide whether or not to carry to term babies who are less than perfect. I wonder what Hitler’s mum might have done with the benefit of hindsight. But then the same might be said for Henry Ford – given the number of lives lost to automobile accidents. And my mind took another leap and bounced to risk aversity and how many of us live our lives in fear of things that never happen. And that led to potential and the fulfilling thereof. Parents reliving their own failed sports careers through their children? Is that right? And then I started on emancipation and the movie My Sister’s Keeper that I’d heard about. A story of a young girl of 12 who’d sued her parents for medical emancipation. They’d had her so that she could be a donor for her sibling. And from there to movies and how they no longer seem to imitate life but take on a life of their own. And what about our constant need to be entertained, and our low boredom thresholds. And why don’t we read any more? Surely a beautiful mind is light years again of a beautiful face – but then beautiful faces are there for the taking – as Rubenstein said – there are no ugly women; just lazy ones. I wonder what she’d have made of me ….
PS – Son of Saul – worth seeing – a whole new take on life in concentration camps. Playing in Toldi with subtitles 8.45 Mondays and Tuesdays.