This Day in Jewish History

1938: Makeup Mogul Max Factor Dies

Not yet 18, Maksymilian Faktorowicz had already held all the jobs he'd need to become a master cosmetician.

Wikimedia Commons

On August 30, 1938, Max Factor, whose skill and intuition served him in becoming a pioneer in the field of makeup for the constantly changing needs of the early film industry, which he then channeled into a cosmetics empire for an insatiable consumer market, died, in his home in Beverly Hills, California.

Maksymilian Faktorowicz was born on September 15, 1872, in the Polish town of Zduńska Wola, west of Lodz. His father, Abraham Faktorowicz, was probably a Lodz textile worker (sources vary); his mother, the former Cecylia Tandowska, died two years later.

Max was one of 10 children and had a limited formal education. As early as age 7 he was selling oranges in the lobby of the Czarina Theater in Lodz. Later, according to his biographer Fred E. Basten, he referred to this as his “introduction to the world of make-believe.”

A job at age 8 with a pharmacist was his introduction to chemistry, and it was followed – as if he was serving apprenticeships in all the fields he would later need to conquer the realm of cosmetics – by an entry-level position with a Lodz wig-maker.

At 13, he was working for the Berlin hair stylist Anton, before moving, at age 14, to Moscow, where he worked for Korpo, the wig-maker and cosmetician to the Imperial Russian Grand Opera.

All of those positions came before the age of 18, when Factor was obligated to begin his four years of military service in the czar’s army. There, he served in the medical corps as a nurse.

It was the next stage in Max Factor’s movie-like biography that was the one that changed his life. Following release from the army, he opened a shop in a Moscow suburb, where he sold cosmetics, wigs and perfumes. One day, a member of a theatrical troupe on its way to perform at the summer court of the imperial family stopped in at the shop. The service he provided led to his being virtually adopted by the court.

Aside from its obvious advantages, this development meant that he was constantly on call by a possessive class of client. Not only did Factor end up neglecting his private business, but when he married Esther Roza, he felt compelled to keep it a secret, as did he also conceal the fact that they had three children in rapid succession. To this personal pressure could be added the rising tide of anti-Semitism in the empire of the early 20th century.

Helped by a general, he sidled out of Russia

Finally, Factor decided the time was ripe for him to join a brother in St. Louis, which was in the final stages of preparing for a World’s Fair. Using subterfuge to escape the surveillance of the czar’s agents, and helped by a sympathetic general, he and the family boarded a ship for the New World, arriving at Ellis Island on February 25, 1904. That’s where the family name “Faktorowicz” became “Factor.”

Factor had left Russia with the $40,000 he had squirreled away during his employment at the court. This enabled him to open a stall for rouges and creams at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Unfortunately, his business partner stole his stock and the revenues.

In March 1906, Esther Factor died, leaving him with four children, and he and the woman who became his next wife, a few months later, divorced after only a year of marriage – and the birth of another child. Max maintained the custody of the children.

In January 1908, Max married Jennie Cook, a neighbor, and they soon moved to Los Angeles. He already anticipated the opportunities that awaited a wigmaker and cosmetician in the nascent film industry. He first opened a wig shop, Max Factor’s Antiseptic Hair Store, but soon began distributing cosmetics widely – from which he quickly understood the need for improvement.

Over the next three decades, Max Factor created an empire, largely by coming up with solutions for each of the challenges posed by the new technologies that kept improving motion pictures. Each technical advance created adjustments in other existing technologies, and there were inevitably implications for the way skin color and texture were photographed. The recording of sound, for example, picked up the hissing of the carbon arc lamps, necessitating the switch to tungsten lighting. According to Fred Basten, these lamps were quieter, but their light was softer, and “the old Orthochromatic film, which had been used since the birth of the film industry, was not sensitive enough to properly record faces under the new lighting.” The new super-sensitive Panchromatic film that replaced it made faces appear much darker, requiring the retooling of the entire Max Factor line of movie cosmetics.

Working with his son Frank, Max came up with solutions for each new situation, and in so doing, found that he had become indispensable to the stars whom he helped to look their best on the screen – Gloria Swanson, Pola Negri, Jean Harlow, all became clients. Factor’s answer to Technicolor was the Pan-Cake line of facial make-up, which was more porous than its predecessors, and prevented colors of the surroundings from being reflected by the face. So successful was Pan-Cake that women kept stealing it from studio sets for use at home.

When Frank (who when his father died, in 1938, legally changed his name to “Max Factor, Jr.) came up with a line of consumer Pan-Cake cosmetics, it quickly became the best-selling product in the history of the field. But it was shortly after this that Max, Sr., traveling in Europe, received a death threat demanding money for his life. This unnerved him, and he returned home to California, where took to his bed. A short time later, on August 30, 1938, he died, at the age of 65.

Under the leadership of Max, Jr. (nee Frank), the company continued developing in the consumer field, while also offering make-up appropriate for the television industry that burgeoned after World War II. The company, in which many family members were involved, went public in the early 1960s. In 1973, it merged with the Norton Simon holding company.

In 1986, Revlon purchased the parent company of Max Factor, and in turn sold the cosmetics firm to Procter & Gamble five years later, for $1.5 billion. In 2010, P&G announced that it would no longer market Max Factor products in the United States, except through one online site. The company continued to sell Max Factor’s lines overseas, particularly in the United Kingdom and in Russia, where it had its start more than a century ago, and where it remains popular.