This Day in Jewish History

1975: 'Madame' Helena (Born Chaya) Rubinstein Dies

Intuitively savvy about human psychology, Rubinstein had a tendency, when a cosmetic product was not selling well, to raise its price.

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On April 1, 1975, Helena Rubinstein, founder and driving force behind the international cosmetics firm bearing her name, died at the age of 94. Remembered for her classic maxim, “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones,” Rubinstein offered women who weren’t lazy a wide variety of products and treatments that could be used to make the best of whatever hand nature had dealt them.

She was born Chaya Rubinstein on December 25, 1870 in Krakow, then part of the Russian Empire, now in Poland. Her father, Naftoli Herz Rubinstein was, depending on what source you consult, either a shopkeeper or a dealer in kerosene or eggs. Her mother was the former Gittel Sheindel Silberfeld. Chaya was the eldest of eight surviving daughters.

In 1894, Rubinstein, wanting to escape a match proposed by her father with a wealthy widower, sailed to Australia, where her mother’s brother owned a shop in Coleraine, in western Victoria state. After quarreling with the uncle, she went off on her own, first taking a job as a governess and later working as a waitress in Melbourne.

Rubinstein had arrived in Australia, at least according to the legend, with 12 pots of “Krakow crème,” as she called the face cream concocted by a chemist friend of her mother’s. In 1902, with the help and encouragement of a sister who had arrived from Krakow and a friend, she opened a salon in Melbourne, where she began selling what she now called Crème Valaze. Her cost was tenpence, and she sold it for six shillings – a markup of more than 700 percent. The Melbourne shop was followed by the Valaze Massage Institute in Sydney.

Legend also said that Crème Valaze contained “rare herbs from the Carpathian mountains,” and that Rubinstein’s expertise in skin care derived in part from her time spent in medical school in Zurich – which she had left only because sick people made her squeamish. Rubinstein liked referring to herself as a “beauty scientist,” and being photographed in a white lab coat.

Success in Australia was followed by expansion, first to New Zealand, then to London, where she moved in 1908, and Paris. That same year, Rubinstein married Edward William Titus, a Polish Jewish journalist whom she had met in Melbourne. He wrote her advertising copy and was the father of her two sons. (Titus later opened a small publishing company in Paris, one of whose titles was “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” Many years later, according to biographer Lindy Woodhead, Rubinstein complained to her assistant about her husband’s clients: ‘’How was I to know all those writers were worth a sou? I never had a moment to read their books. To me, they were meshuga -- and I always had to pay for their meals!’’)

Rubinstein divorced Titus in 1937, and the next year married the self-styled Prince Artchil Gourielli-Tchkonia, of Georgia.

Having expanded to the United States during World War I, Rubinstein – all of whose employees referred to her as “Madame” — sold the American business to Lehman Brothers in 1928 for $7.3 million, and a short time later, after the onset of the Depression, bought it back for under $1 million. Intuitively savvy about human psychology, Rubinstein had a tendency, when a product was not selling well, to raise its price.

Helena Rubinstein was a great friend of Israel. Her foundation provided the money for what is now the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art, a branch of the Tel Aviv Museum, and for a variety of art scholarships (in Australia as well as Israel) and medical and scientific research.

When she died on April 1, 1975, the value of her business was estimated at $60 million. Since 1988, it has been owned by the French cosmetics giant L’Oreal.