Saturday, September 9, 2023

Books: "A Beautiful Rival" On Battle Of Cosmetic Industry Titans


A Beautiful Rival: A Novel of Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden

By Gill Paul

William Morrow Paperbacks; paperback, 384 pages; $18.99

Gill Paul is an author of historical fiction, specializing in history from recent times. She has written two novels about the Russian royal family, The Secret Wife, published in 2016, about cavalry officer Dmitri Malama and Grand Duchess Tatiana, the second daughter of Russia's last tsar; and The Lost Daughter, released in October 2018, that tells of the attachment Grand Duchess Maria formed with a guard in the house in Ekaterinsburg where the family was held from April to July 1918. Gill's other novels include Another Woman's Husband, about links you may not have been aware of between Wallis Simpson, later Duchess of Windsor, and Diana, Princess of Wales; Women and Children First, about a young steward who works on the Titanic; and The Affair, set in 1961-62 as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton fall in love while making "Cleopatra."

A Beautiful Rival is Paul's newest novel, and it reveals the unknown history of cosmetic titans Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, whose rivalry spanned decades and included broken marriages, personal tragedies, and a world that was changing drastically for women.

Elizabeth Arden was Canadian-born and brought up in poverty, but she changed popular opinion, as she persuaded women from all walks of life to buy skincare products that promised them youth and beauty. Helena Rubinstein left her native Poland, and launched her company using scientific claims about her miracle creams composed of anti-aging herbs.

Arden and Rubinstein each founded their empires and became self-made millionaires who invented a global industry, in an era when being a wife and mother were supposed to be the highest goals for their sex. Instead, their feud spanned three continents, two world wars, and the Great Depression. 

Nothing was off-limits when it came to business, as they poached each other's employees, copied each other's products, planting spies, hiring ex-husbands, and one-upping each other every chance they had. They both were determined to succeed, no matter the personal cost. The passion, bitterness, and ambition of these larger-than-life fashion icons come alive as they seek out the American Dream.

Elizabeth and Helena changed the beauty industry forever with their groundbreaking products and marketing tactics, which set the path for female business owners everywhere. A Beautiful Rival tells each of their stories simultaneously in alternating chapters.

This excerpt chronicles Elizabeth in January 1915: "Elizabeth Arden held her first meeting of the day in her yoga routine, dressed in a loose pink gym top and matching bloomers. Irene Delaney, her personal assistant - known to all as Laney - perched on the window seat, legs crossed and spectacles balanced on her nose. She began reading out messages from a notebook, then scribbling Elizabeth's instructions with a pencil sharpened to a point.

Outside, snow was drifting past the tall picture windows but a brisk fire kept the room cozy. A pot of English tea was brewing on a side table, alongside two rose-patterned gilt-edged cups and saucers and a tiny milk jug.

Elizabeth bent forward into Downward Dog pose, feeling the stretch in her calves. She had broken her hip as a teenager after falling badly while trying to high-kick a chandelier on a dare. She'd spent months bedridden while it healed, and ever since, her joints got painfully stiff without the morning yoga, which had been recommended by a progressive Toronto doctor. It had the added benefit of helping to keep her figure trim. She was in good shape for a woman of thirty-six - an age she would never admit, as she hoped to pass for a decade younger.

'Mr. Pease rang yesterday,' Laney said. 'From Pease and Elliman. He wanted to tell you they've found a tenant for 673 Fifth Avenue.'

Elizabeth hoisted herself into a neat headstand, proud of the strength in her arms. She'd been looking for a new Fifth Avenue salon, one with a street entrance. Her current New York beauty salon was on the third floor at number 509, so it didn't attract passing customers. She had viewed the premises at 673 but felt they weren't spacious enough for her plans.

'Do we know who the new tenant is, dear?' she asked, feeling her skin tingle as blood rushed to her head.

'She's another beauty salon owner,' Laney said. 'Name of Helena Rubinstein.'

Elizabeth wobbled, lost her balance, and let her feet topple to the carpet with a thump. 'You're not serious.' She sat up, adjusting her top, which had ridden up, exposing her flat stomach.

Laney consulted her notes, and nodded. 'That's what he said. Why? Do you know her?'

Elizabeth wrinkled her nose as if at a bad smell. 'I visited her Paris salon in 1912 during my trip to Europe, and can't say I was impressed. She calls herself the 'Queen of Beauty Science' and blathers on about 'magical antiaging herbs' she's discovered' - she chortled dismissively - 'but the facial I had in her salon was run of the mill. I'm sure her Valaze cream brought me out in a rash. What's she doing coming to New York?'

She was thinking out loud. She knew Madame Rubinstein already had salons in Australia and London as well as Paris. Wasn't that enough for her? She had no place in America; this was her territory.

'If she's a charlatan, she won't have a chance of succeeding in Manhattan,' Laney said. 'New York women are very discerning.'

'Last time I saw her she didn't even speak English fluently,' Elizabeth scorned, remembering the woman's peculiar vowel sounds and the way she placed emphasis on the wrong syllable of words like 'astringent' and 'complexion.'

She was worried, though. All things Parisian were in vogue. There was a lot of sympathy for the French because of the war in Europe and, from what she had seen in Paris, Madame Rubinstein didn't hesitate to promote herself. But she, Elizabeth Arden, was founder and sole owner of the most successful beauty brand in America, having outstripped all the other pretenders with her upmarket packaging, her clever advertising, and her stylishly decorated salons. She was well connected in this city. Women knew and trusted her."

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