Helena Rubinstein, L'Oréal, and the Blemished History of Looking Good
By Ruth Brandon
Harper, Hardcover, 9780061740404, 304pp.
Publication Date: February 1, 2011
The gripping story of Helena Rubinstein, Eugene Schueller, and the dark side of the beauty business they helped to create
Helena Rubinstein and L'Oreal's Eugene Schueller both started out in the beauty business during the first years of the twentieth century, and, by the time World War II broke out, had come to dominate it. However, their motivations could not have been more different. Rubinstein, a Polish Jew, claimed the world of paid work for women, and working women's enthusiasm for her products made her the first self-made female millionaire. Schueller, a French conservative in the Henry Ford mold, thought women belonged in the home, and during the Nazi Occupation he used his company as a source of cash to buy economic and political influence.
Schueller eventually won the long fight for supremacy: in 1988 his company swallowed Rubinstein's. But the victory cost him his reputation when, in the wake of the takeover, he was exposed as a Nazi collaborator. Deepening the scandal, his wartime activities were shown to have been abetted and condoned by a cadre of young men who, by the time the news broke, had scaled the peaks of wealth and power in postwar France.
By then Schueller and Rubinstein were both long dead. But cultural historian and biographer Ruth Brandon argues that the battle they began continues to this day. She examines their conflict to ask important contemporary questions about beauty standards and the often murky intersection of individual political aims and the role of business. Filled with remarkable twists, turns, and larger-than-life characters, Ugly Beauty is a riveting true story about what lies beneath the flawless exterior of the cosmetics industry.
“A deep, probing account...This engaging book should appeal not only to beauty enthusiasts but also to students of corporate histories who will relish the compelling aspects of the unlikely crossing of paths of two hugely successful entrepreneurs.”
“With wonderful attention to detail and real affection for her subjects, Brandon tells the story of Helena Rubinstein, a Polish Jew from a poor family who became the first woman tycoon and self-made millionaire. [A] lively history of the founding of the beauty business as we know it.”
-Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A rich chronicle of two entrepreneurs working in what was then a startling new industry, as well as a sharp examination of the interplay between individual, business, and political morality.”
“Ugly Beauty is wonderfully panoramic in scope and reveals how long the shadow of fascism and the Second World War remains in French cultural politics and the billion-dollar world of the beauty industry. Ruth Brandon tells a fascinating story about the price of smoothing over history’s still-raw blemishes.”
-Tilar J. Mazzeo, author of The Widow Clicquot and The Secret of Chanel No. 5
“The book is loaded with juicy details about Schueller and Rubenstein...But Brandon’s bigger argument is that the modern beauty industry can be explained by the politics and practices of these two originally divergent companies. And she’s convincing.”
-New York magazine
“Brandon’s book is most successful when she writes about the yin and yang of her two protagonists...definitely worth reading.”
-Sunday Times (London)
“[Ugly Beauty] is a fantastic account of the scandalous history behind L’Oreal, the world’s largest beauty company. Brandon uses the conflict to question the standards of beauty and the role politics and business play in that arena. A good read.”
“Ruth Brandon is one of our most wide-ranging and accomplished cultural historians.”
“[Ugly Beauty] is a fascinating read…a richly rewarding social and cultural history.”
-Dallas Morning News
“Ugly Beauty is a cut above...Brandon offers sharp, certain and concise writing, with few wasted words or tangents.”
-New York Times Book Review
“An incisive history of cosmetics tycoon Helena Rubinstein and Eugene Schueller, the founder of L’Oreal.”
“Equal parts cultural history and journalistic exposé, Ugly Beauty is compulsively readable and intentionally disturbing. Pretty on the outside, as Brandon shows us, does not necessarily mean pretty on the inside.”
“Ruth Brandon is that rarest of historians who make a sophisticated and surprising argument and tell a great yarn at the same time.”
-Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker
-New York Post
“The life of Rubinstein is an astounding tale of invention and sheer drive.”
“Ugly Beauty includes moments of engrossing liveliness.”
-Wall Street Journal