Christine Harland is director of Camdem Writers.
By Lindy Woodhead, Wiley
War Paint brings us two powerful characters whose rivalry was legendary and whose entrepreneurial talents were nothing short of brilliant. Florence Nightingale Graham and Chaja Rubinstein, better known as Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, became household names worldwide and their beauty brands dominated the market for more than half of the 20th century.
In 1895, 24-year old Rubinstein left her native Krakow for Australia, where she sowed the early seeds of her personal empire based on a skin cream containing pine bark extract and lanolin. By 1903, she had opened her first salon; by 1907 she had a successful shop in Melbourne, with branches in Sydney and New Zealand. Her first Paris salon opened in 1909. The subsequent rise to fame under her new name, Helena Rubinstein, was meteoric.
Halfway around the world, in 1907, Florence Nightingale Graham, who had left school at 17, migrated to New York from Toronto. Within two decades, this unsophisticated beauty parlour cashier had become one of the wealthiest women in the city. Despite humble beginnings, both women had an innate appreciation of luxury and showmanship. Inveterate image-makers, Florence and Chaja recast not only their names but also their backgrounds. Looking for respectability, Florence invented a husband, Mr Graham. Chaja erroneously laid claim to a stint at medical school, portraying herself as a "beauty scientist" in her "laboratories," dressed in a white coat.
The beauty business in the early part of the 20th century was "moving like lightning". The core element was skincare but the profitable icing on the cake was cosmetics. In 1912, one of America's major department stores had fired a salesgirl for wearing rouge, but the advent of the cinema and the outbreak of the first world war put an end to this way of thinking. Women were ready to experiment and Arden and Rubinstein gave them permission. "You owe it to yourself", was their watchword.
Rubinstein created an intimate link with the women who bought her products. Both Rubinstein and Arden inserted a message at the bottom of their advertisements inviting women to write in for personal advice on any beauty problem, no matter how small.
Their strengths, however, were also their weaknesses. Autocratic, incapable of delegation, over-confident and given to temper tantrums, both Rubinstein and Arden refused to listen to even the most trustworthy allies. In 1935, for example, Arden determined that nail polish was "inappropriate", and her staff were too nervous to contradict.
It is telling that when Arden invited her esteemed Canadian manager to take up a position in New York, he wrote back, saying, "There is no hope of success for anyone in the position of manager in New York, because he can do no more than be a rubber stamp for any important decision you care to make". Ambitious, imperious and detail-oriented, both women maintained a stranglehold over every aspect of their business. Arden typically fired people for wearing the colour brown or using spectacles. She dismissed men for being short and women for being tall and woe betide any gentleman who sported a moustache or a beard.
Ironically, Rubinstein and Arden never met. Neither could bear to utter the other's name. Rubinstein died in 1965, aged 94, leaving five houses on three continents, an art collection, African pieces worth hundreds of thousands and fabulous jewellery. Arden died 18 months later, aged 86, the richest self-made woman in the world but woefully unprepared for the tax implications on her $30m estate. Her horses, her homes and most of her business were sold to pay taxes.
Rubinstein's son and her nephew had worked for her all their lives, but she had done little to instil confidence, harmony or solid fundamentals and they were unprepared to pick up the pieces when she died. Quick with the withering comment, she demeaned and isolated; constructive criticism was not her forte. Large conglomerates swallowed up the Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden empires within a few years.
War Paint is more than the story of two fabulous characters. The evolution of the beauty industry emerges in colourful stories and quirky detail and Woodhead manages a very balanced portrait of these two complicated and brilliant women. You have to admire them; sometimes you almost like them; and you certainly breathe a sigh of relief that you never had to work for them.