War Paint by Lindy Woodhead

Diana Souhami finds that beauty is not necessarily truth in a saga of two self-created queens of cosmetics
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The Independent Culture

Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden each built and ruled an empire with a multi-million-dollar turnover. Beauty was their business and the deception that it was sustainable through artefact. "There is not an iota of an excuse for a woman of today to lose one bit of her youthful attractiveness," Arden wrote. Time was a reliable sales force. As it eroded life and encouraged decay, they promoted new, discreetly packaged products that promised to reverse the inevitable.

For a price – it was important to be expensive – they offered anti-wrinkle creams, rouges, lipsticks, fake tans and hair dyes to restore lost colour, perfumes and astringents to provoke allure. At its best, Lindy Woodhead's book defines the decades, from 1900 on, by Rubinstein's and Arden's potions and applications. Born in the late 1880s, each of these self-made tycoons progressed from marketing simple soaps and moisturisers to the production of face paints of ever-changing hue; salons that offered depilations, colonic irrigation, and diathermy for facial slack; health farms with steam rooms and dance studios; hormone skin creams; "cosmecuticals" with a quasi-scientific connection to beauty; hair parlours; cosmetics for men; restaurants that served weight-reducing food; lingerie that defied gravity.

Of their parallel lives, Rubinstein's was the more interesting. Draped in furs and jewellery, extravagant in appearance yet quirkily thrifty, she seemed occasionally to yearn for a reality beyond face cream and dollars. "Business," she told her dysfunctional sons, "was only a means of seeing that you were both well provided for."

But the hundred-million-dollar fortune she accrued went grossly beyond provision, and seemed to emphasise some paradox of loss. Born in Krakow, one of 12 children, she kept a vestigial yearning for her peasant roots. She liked cream cheese, bagels and lamb cutlets, served leftovers at dinner parties, and scoured the markets for cut-price bargains.

In 1908, when she was 38, she married Edward Titus, an impoverished bookseller. On their honeymoon he "carried on" with another woman. Rubinstein bought herself pearls as compensation and called them "quarrel jewels". She stayed more or less married to him for 25 years, hired private detectives to check on his infidelities, punished him by denying him money and divorced him when she suspected an affair with Anaïs Nin. She then married Prince Gourielli from Georgia, 25 years her junior, whose name looked good on her after-shave bottles.

Elizabeth Arden, for her part, worked to acquire a personality. She started as a cashier in a beauty parlour on Fifth Avenue, went to elocution classes, studied books on etiquette and founded her business on borrowed money. She had international success with her Blue Grass fragrance and her eight-hour cream.

Pink was the colour she favoured for her lipsticks and powders. She extended it to her sheets, lightbulbs and in time her diamonds. She was vain about wearing glasses, but focused enough to accrue a fortune. She too married an ersatz prince who on their honeymoon had sex with his boyfriend.

Such emotional success as she had was with her horses. She nurtured their health and winnings. They had music in their stables, were washed in Ardena skin tonic and fed on clover shipped from Maine. Her business, she said, was to make women beautiful and to raise beautiful horses.

Both Rubinstein and Arden were as ruthless as any male industrialist. Their common ground was ambition and tyranny. Neither was interested in sexual equality or generous business practice. "Beauty is power" was Rubinstein's slogan, as she exploited women's vulnerability about appearance.

At boardroom level, employees were all men. For Rubinstein, directors had to be relatives too. Working for Arden was said to be like "walking through a revolving door".

Secretaries had nervous breakdowns or developed strange rashes. Both women opposed unionised labour, acts that called for advertising standards, or government restraints on profits. In 1937 Arden factory workers in New York went on strike wanting $1,400 a year. The boss was netting $300,000 in the US alone.

This is Lindy Woodhead's first book. Her research is formidable. In the course of it, she travelled the world, explored every possible archive and employed two assistants. She has 50 pages of acknowledgements. Her writing is generous and lively but half as much of it might have been enough.

And there is a conceptual flaw in putting Arden and Rubinstein together in a double biography. They never met, there was no personal relationship between them, and their marketing rivalry was not enough to give dramatic drive to the narrative.

There are, though, riveting quirks and ironies at the book's heart. Rubinstein at 94 had bottle-black shiny hair but none of her potions worked for phlebitis or heart failure. At Arden's end, her memory failed, her carrot-coloured hair fell out and her billions disappeared in death duties. There is no evidence that she passed to a Blue Grass heaven, preserved by her eight-hour cream, despite the promise of regeneration on the label.

Diana Souhami's 'Selkirk's Island' is published in paperback by Phoenix