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LONDON — They were the women who brought day spas, designer yoga mats, raw food diets and facials to a public increasingly obsessed with looking young. They coined those all-too-familiar phrases, “dry, oily and normal,” to describe a woman’s skin, made face creams and lipsticks smell delicious and warned about the dangers of sun damage.
By the time they reached their 90s, though, they were largely forgotten by a culture that was too youth-obsessed to take the two old ladies seriously. They were Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, whose lives — and vicious rivalry — are the subject of a biography by the former fashion publicity agent, Lindy Woodhead.
“War Paint: Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, Their Lives, Their Times, Their Rivalry” (Virago Press), has just been released in the U.K., and will bow in the U.S. next January, published by John Wiley and Sons Inc.
“These two women were running multinational businesses before women even had the right to vote,” said Woodhead over a cigarette and a glass of white wine in her sunny living room in west London. “They were the originators of the luxury, prestige end of the beauty and cosmetics market.”
Woodhead said that as soon as she started reading about the women — she first stumbled on a Rubinstein biography in a secondhand bookshop — she was hooked, and knew she had to tell their story.
“It was so much my life as a child. My mother was the quintessential Arden woman — right down to the white gloves she wore to bed. My world in the early Fifties was about tea parties and skirts that rustled,” she said.
During her two-year research, Woodhead had access to half a century’s worth of each woman’s correspondence. She buried herself in archives at Elizabeth Arden, Condé Nast and Fairchild Publications, and had each woman’s handwriting analyzed. But she said her research was made all the more difficult by the fact that both Rubinstein and Arden told bags of lies about their pasts and achievements.
The result is a snapshot of the first half of the 20th century through the lens of beauty. The reader sees flappers carrying their makeup in little flip-top finger rings during the post-World War I beauty boom, and the rise of Revlon nail polish during the Depression.
By the time World War II strikes, the reader watches the shuttering of so many of Arden’s signature Red Door salons, their staff gone off to war — or to concentration camps. During the post-war boom, the reader witnesses the rise of advertising and promotions, and a few years later, the beatnik and hippie chicks’ rejection of all things ladylike.
Woodhead traces the rise of both women from their humble origins —Rubinstein’s in Krakow, Poland, and Arden’s in Toronto, Canada — and their personal tastes: Arden’s passion for racehorses and Rubinstein’s passion for Modern and African art. Their careers —and often their personal lives — mirrored one another, and although they never met, they were keenly aware of what the other was doing.
Woodhead said she hopes the book will reposition both women in readers’ minds.
“They were so old when they died — in the middle of a decade dedicated to youth and beauty. In fact, the new media just said ‘Yawn, they’re dead’ and didn’t give them the recognition they deserved,” said Woodhead of the rivals, who both died in the mid-Sixties.
“I hope this book will help set the record straight, and that the beauty business will pause, take a minute and acknowledge them as pioneers — and not crabby, old women.”