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Who Was Helena Rubinstein?

L. Brooks
L. Brooks

Helena Rubinstein built a business empire selling cosmetics at a time when there were few employment opportunities for women and most women did not wear makeup. She was born in 1870 in Krakow, Poland, which at the time was part of Austria-Hungary, and was the eldest of eight children. Her father was a shopkeeper.

At 18, Helena Rubinstein moved to Australia and while she was there, Helena began treating women's sun-dried skin conditions with a face cream formula developed by Jacob Lykusky, a Hungarian chemist. She soon set up shop in Melbourne and by 1908 had amassed enough money to leave one of her sisters in charge of the shop so she could move to London to expand her business. This was accomplished at a time when women rarely, if ever, received bank loans.

Woman in breeze
Woman in breeze

Once in London, Rubinstein met and married her first husband, Edward William Titus, an American journalist, and had two sons. By 1912, the family had moved to Paris, France. Helena Rubinstein's businesses were thriving and her Paris establishment became a salon. Socialites and celebrities were invited to her home for extravagant dinner parties. Her contact with the rich, famous, and notorious raised her social status and the popularity of her beauty products followed suit. While in Paris, Titus ran a small publishing company, which published the infamous Lady Chatterly's Lover.

With the outbreak of World War I, the family moved to New York City for safety and business opportunities. American women represented a new frontier for her growing cosmetic line. Her beauty program began with twelve skin treatments. When the women became accustomed to buying her skin care products at her spa, it became easier to persuade them to also try her powders and rouges. She and Elizabeth Arden became fierce business rivals; both women were very savvy about what it took to sell beauty products.

By 1937, Helena Rubinstein and Edward Titus ended what had become a tempestuous marriage. Titus had often been guilty of infidelity. A year later Rubinstein married Artchil Gourielli-Tchkonia, who may or may not have been a prince of Georgia, which at that time was part of the Soviet Union. Gourielli-Tchkonia was more than twenty years younger than Rubinstein.

Helena Rubinstein was a study in contrasts. She had lavish tastes in art, furniture, fashion and jewelry; yet she would wear cheap nightgowns and pack her lunch in a brown bag. She could be very generous and became a renowned philanthropist, but did not help Marc Chagall get his daughter and son-in-law out of Nazi Germany. Perhaps that memory contributed to her decision to found the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion of Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv and other philanthropic causes in Israel. She died of natural causes in at the age 94 and is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Queens, New York.

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