Polish Heroines: Helena Rubinstein

Krakow never disappoints those who have a keen ear for its tales and an inquisitive eye for its lesser-known sites. Take a walk down Szeroka Street in the heart of Kazimierz and stop for a minute at #12 amid the leisurely crowds of tourists, diners and passers-by. Do you hear it – the stern, categorical voice of a woman, born here over 140 years ago? Then listen closely,for in some respects her story is no less impressive than that of the Wawel Castle.

Little Chaja Rubinstein always was a rebel. So much fire packed inside such a petite – a mere 4’ 10” – doll-like figure! The eldest of eight daughters she was supposed to be the rock for her aging Orthodox Jewish parents, but alas, she had another path in mind. At the age of 16, the pros-pect of an arranged marriage trig-gered the inevitable transforma-tion: little Chaja gave way to the ambitious, driven Helena. Her family, her lifestyle, her home, her identity were forever left behind as Ms. Rubinstein breathed in the salty oceanic breeze en route to Australia. But perhaps a fraction of her broken heart remained in Krakow, for this is where she also left her first, secret love: young Stanislaw, who chose to continue his studies at the Jagellonian University rather than follow Helena into the great unknown.

In Australia Ms. Rubinstein worked hard in a variety of odd jobs, and even harder – at rein-venting herself as a budding entrepreneur. Ironically, what launched her career as a self-made beauty industry tycoon was a souvenir from Krakow that she brought with her on the spur of the moment. A few jars of beauty cream – a present from her moth-er’s friend, the famous Krakow actress Helena Modjeska, – turned out to be a huge hit with local women. Ms. Rubinstein saw no other way to quench the growing demand but to try and recreate the highly sought-after cream herself. She had no medical training, no knowledge of the pharmaceuti-cal business or manufacturing of cosmetics, but she had the key ingredient: determination. By trial and error (and thanks to copious amounts of lanolin and various agents Helena used to disguise lanolin’s odor) the miracle face cream Valaze was born. And then: Ms. Rubinstein’s highly success-ful salon in Melbourne, the even more profitable salon in London five years later and then, – her triumph in New York.

Those were the times when makeup and cosmetics were primarily the domain of the demimonde (kept women, prosti-tutes, performers). But the dawn of feminism gave rise to beauty care as a means of women’s self-empowerment, and Helena Rubinstein was there to capitalize on that. She positioned herself as a “beauty scientist” and the treat-ments she offered in her widely popular salons were rather elab-orate. Helena Rubinstein cham-pioned the idea that each woman should find a beauty treatment and personal style that worked just for her and not simply follow the status quo notions of beauty. She invented the concept of ‘problem’ skin types: any beauty care reg-iment in her salons started with a comprehensive individual diag-nostic assessment. Her motto was: “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones”. Back then the individ-ualistic approach to beauty was a revolutionary concept, and one that brought Helena instant fame. Soon her empire extended to 30 cities all over the world.

Helena Rubinstein had many breakthroughs in cosmet-ics industry. She was the first advocate of sunscreens and UV-protection (in Australia she witnessed firsthand what exces-sive exposure to the sun did to women’s skin). She championed chemical peels – now a popular but then unheard-of procedure. She was the first to introduce the day spa concept. The common opinion is that Helena Rubinstein invented the profession of estheticians, or at least elevated it to a prestigious status. But perhaps her greatest gift to beauty industry and women all over the world was the inven-tion of waterproof mascara in 1939 and the launch of Mascara Matic, the first pre-moistened mascara tube with a wand inside in 1958. Mascara-Matic sold nearly three million units in the first year alone. Numerous Helena’s competitors, most noteworthy her “arch-neme-sis” Elizabeth Arden, tried to copy the game-changing technique. To complicate their endeavors Ms. Rubinstein also developed Long Lash, a mascara formula that lengthened and separated the lashes.

Helena Rubinstein’s many achievements were somewhat marred by tribulations in her per-sonal life. She was so focused on building her beauty empire that family and marriage always came last, the fact she seemed to regret later in life (based on her memoirs). Helena first got married at the age of 38, mostly for busi-ness purposes. Her husband, American writer Edward Titus, helped her advance by introducing her to members of European high society, who then quickly became her clients. Edward eventually left her for a younger woman, and, having recognized the love she felt for him, Helena sold her American business to get him back. But with women like Ms. Rubinstein, you can only break their heart once, and it had already been done many years ago in Krakow. She eventu-ally bought her American branch back and turned it into a multimil-lion affair. Oh, and in the process she married a real true Prince 23 years younger than herself, which further boosted her social status. But then again, one would expect nothing less from a woman who, when rejected an apartment in a prestigious building on Park Avenue on the basis that she was a Jew, solved the problem by buying the entire building.

Helena Rubinstein died at the age of 92, and she kept working well into her 90s, even from her sick bed. Her journey as a self-made woman and a visionary started with a single tough choice, that still gnawed at her heart years later. She never visited Krakow again. She didn’t like to admit to her roots and spun apocryphal tales about her life here. But Krakow remem-bers her. Nothing gets lost in this ages-old city, and every life story it launched is another piece of a col-orful mosaic that is its image.

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