War Paint explores the infamous rivalry between Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden during the height of their careers in the early and mid-20th century. But how did these women, once known as Chaja and Florence, respectively, come to positions of such power? This article is a brief history of their lives before they became the influential women depicted on stage.
Born in the Kazimierz district of Krakow, Poland, at the end of 1872, Chaja Rubinstein grew up the eldest of eight daughters, all known by locals for their beautiful skin. Her several memoirs, which she wrote later in life, “creatively elaborated” on the facts of her upbringing, but research shows that her parents were poor or nearly so. Her father, a kerosene dealer, had Chaja help manage the books for his store. In her mid-teens, the story goes, Chaja fell in love with a fellow student and tried to elope with him, defying an arranged marriage planned by her father and creating a rift between her and her conservative parents. She was banished from the house and sent to live with relatives.
A decade later, Chaja traveled to Australia to live with other family members and listed the name “Helena Juliet Rubinstein” on her visa. Coleraine, Australia, was an unforgiving climate for skin, and Helena drew attention from the local ladies with the nourishing homemade skin creams she brought with her from Poland. Realizing that she had a nearly limitless source of lanolin (a product used in many creams) from the merino sheep nearby, the always-enterprising Chaja started making and selling her own brand of skin creams when she opened her first Melbourne beauty salon in 1903. She called the product Crème Valaze, a made-up but French-sounding name. The idea worked as the preparations practically flew off the shelves. She quickly opened branches in Sydney and New Zealand. Following a research trip to Europe, in which she studied treatments at spas and resorts throughout the continent, Helena recruited one of her sisters and a cousin to join her in Australia. Helena always had a flair for fantasy and revision, and her new companions acted (as advertised) as her “two Viennese assistants,” trained in massage therapy.
In 1908, Helena’s first European branch opened, the Salon de Beauté Valaze on Grafton Street in London, followed the next year by the Maison de Beauté Valaze in Paris. In Europe, Helena fell in with a chic, artistic crowd and met poets, musicians, painters and more. Already fond of searching and shopping, she began collecting art in earnest, a passion that would continue throughout her life, eventually making her one of the most respected art collectors in the world.
Helena met her first husband, journalist Edward Titus, in 1906. He took over the advertising arm of her business and they had two children in the following years. In 1914, she left her children in the care of Titus and, at the age of 42, set out to conquer America.
Florence Nightingale Graham, named after the famed British nurse in the Crimean War, was born in 1881 (this date is disputed, but elsewhere that year’s census confirms it) in a small town just north of Toronto, Ontario. Blue-eyed and with an outstanding complexion, she briefly followed in her namesake’s footsteps by going to nursing school, before dropping out after a short time. In 1907, she moved to New York, where her brother Willie lived, and pored over the society pages of the newspapers, fascinated by the lives of the upper echelons. Still unmarried, she started calling herself “Mrs. Graham” and found a job as a cashier at a beauty salon owned by Eleanor Adair. At the salon, she convinced Adair to teach her how to apply skin treatments, manicures and massage.
She eventually left the job and in 1909 paired with Elizabeth Hubbard, who was looking for a partner with whom she might open her own salon. The salon was quite successful, but the pair parted ways after six months, with Florence retaining the lease on the business with the gold signage reading “Mrs. Elizabeth Hubbard.” She assumed for herself the first name of her erstwhile business partner, and invented a surname—Arden—perhaps inspired by an Alfred Lord Tennyson poem, perhaps by the name of a nearby estate owned by multimillionaire E. H. Harriman. Regardless of the source of the name, it stuck. A year before with Mrs. Hubbard, Arden named the salon’s beauty line “Grecian.” Now in charge of her own products, she named the line “Venetian” (like Rubinstein, she knew about the allure of exotic European names) and packaged the creams in exquisite bottles and jars with white, gold and pink ribbons (with pink soon becoming her signature color that would remain associated with her brand the rest of her life). Early in her career, Elizabeth was able to afford her lavish-looking products by making them and packaging them herself and writing her own advertising copy; she even cleaned the salon herself into the late hours.
Though a staunch Republican later in life, a youthful Elizabeth joined the suffrage movement, meeting many high-society doyennes in the process. This societal status would be something she would crave again and again. In 1912 she participated in a march with hundreds of women of all ages wearing bright red lipstick—a bold statement for the day, and an idea which would inspire Arden more in the future.
In 1914, on a ship traveling across the Atlantic Ocean, Elizabeth met Tommy Lewis, who would eventually become her husband and a great director of marketing and advertising. He would soon propose marriage, though Elizabeth did not accept the proposal until nearly a year later—as it happens, a few months after Helena Rubinstein opened her first New York salon.
Watch a behind-the-scenes interview with Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole:
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