A sprawling exposé on how the blending of two cosmetics behemoths reopened a shameful era in French history.
After charting the life of self-made beauty entrepreneur Helena Rubinstein (1865–1970), cultural historian and novelist Brandon (Caravaggio’s Angel, 2008, etc.) examines the enormous ramifications of hair-dye industrialist Eugène Schueller’s collaboration with the Nazi occupation’s economy and the insidious reaches of today’s beauty industry—e.g., plastic surgery, of which the author herself inquired. The life of Rubinstein is an astounding tale of self-invention and sheer drive. The eldest of eight sisters born to a kerosene dealer in Krakow’s Jewish ghetto, Helena, then Chaja, refused to marry the suitor chosen for her and expelled herself from home for good, staying with relatives in Vienna then Australia, where she finally settled on Melbourne as the place from which to launch her own beauty-cream business in 1901. Cooking up her facial creams from her kitchen and marketing them for single working girls in pots labeled “Valaze by Dr. Lykuski,” she learned fast the seductive powers of advertising (“rare herbs which only grow in the Carpathian Mountains” was “pure snake oil,” the author assures us). By staffing her growing shops over the world with her family members, convincing women of all the different products they needed and employing huge markups, she made herself a wealthy woman in a few short years. Meanwhile, Schueller, a baker’s son turned research chemist, invented a safe hair dye that propelled his own business, L’Oréal, which became so popular during the 1920s and ’30s that he established his own magazine and theories of management and social responsibility. While not enamored of Hitler, Schueller was pragmatic, and believed that Europe needed a new “economic order.” The extent of his financial backing of the French fascist movement La Cagoule would emerge only in 1991, several years after L’Oréal’s buyout of Helena Rubinstein Inc.
A wildly convoluted tale as bizarre as it is intriguing.