By Michael Dirda
Thursday, February 3, 2011; C03
Ruth Brandon is one of our most wide-ranging and accomplished cultural historians. She's written books about the automobile, Houdini, Sarah Bernhardt, the chef Alex Soyer and the anti-nuclear movement. My own two favorites among her dozen works of nonfiction - she's also published seven novels - are "Spiritualists: Passion for the Occult in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century" and "Surreal Lives: The Surrealists, 1917-1945." Both are immensely engaging, well researched, sometimes shocking and a pleasure to read.
Almost, but not quite, as much could be said of "Ugly Beauty," its title presumably an echo of "Ugly Betty," a television series set at a women's fashion magazine. Subtitled "Helena Rubinstein, L'Oreal, and the Blemished History of Looking Good," Brandon's new book, while full of interesting matter, reads like four or five magazine articles not quite successfully joined together.
Brandon opens with a potted biography of Helena Rubinstein (1870-1965), the great entrepreneur of modern cosmetics. Here she traces Rubinstein's life from her Jewish childhood in Krakow, to her first beauty parlor in Australia, to her immense success in Europe and America during the 1930s and '40s. Brandon argues that the hard-driving Rubinstein perceived the existence of a huge market that men were unaware of. Twentieth-century women didn't want face creams and lotions just to improve or preserve their appearance. What these products actually gave them was self-esteem. With a lipstick and some powder, they gained the confidence to slam the door on Victorian social constraints. They could finally be women, and not just daughters, wives and mothers.
Rubinstein was also a marketing genius, understanding that "the high price was an essential part of the treatment." If a product didn't sell well, she would make it more expensive. When a client, for instance, paid serious money for what the early ads called " 'a rejuvenating cream de luxe for the ultra fastidious woman, containing the youthifying essence of Water Lily buds,' the mere possession of such a luxury helped her feel both youthified and richer." Not even a 1934 Consumer Research survey - which pointed out that commercial facial treatments didn't do much of anything - could slow the growth of the Helena Rubinstein empire. As Brandon writes, "No expose, however painstaking, could outweigh the magical allure of hope."
At this point, Brandon suddenly shifts the focus of her book to Rubinstein's contemporary, Eugene Schueller (1881-1957), the young French chemist who discovered the first safe hair dye and then founded L'Oreal. Schueller's father was only a baker, but he himself managed, through sheer luck, to receive an excellent scientific education. Combined with a workaholic nature similar to Rubinstein's, Schueller eventually oversaw several companies, produced Votre Beaute magazine and regularly spoke out about economic and business reform. He was, in fact, something of a visionary, paying worker incentives and foreseeing a united Europe. Unfortunately, just before and during World War II, he also grew politically and ideologically close to a group of homegrown fascists and their Nazi friends.
In its middle sections, "Ugly Beauty" consequently turns to an investigation of Schueller's war years. Eventually brought to trial for collaboration, the man himself was narrowly acquitted of any indictable wrongdoing, largely through the influence of young friends who had won honor in the Resistance. These supporters included France's future president, Francois Mitterand, a future director of L'Oreal, Francois Dalle and Schueller's eventual son-in-law, Andre Bettencourt. All three were closely connected to L'Oreal, the latter two throughout their lives. To his discomfort and embarrassment, even the young Mitterand worked for a year as the editor of Votre Beaute.
While Brandon clearly approves the drive, chutzpah and business sense of Rubinstein, she finds little to admire about L'Oreal. Now a vast international conglomerate, L'Oreal not only acquired Helena Rubinstein Inc. after its founder's death, but also comprises 400 subsidiaries and 500 brands, including "Maybelline, Softsheen, Garnier, CCB; luxury products Lancome, Biotherm, Kiehl's, Shue Uemura; the fragrance lines of Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, Cacharel, Lanvin, Viktor & Rolf, Diesel, and YSL Beaute; professional products Kerastase, Redken, Matrix, Mizani, Shue Uemura Art of Hair; cosmoceuticals Vichy, La Roche Posay, Inneov, Skinceuticals, Sanoflore; The Body Shop; and Laboratories Ylang." The company, she strives to show, may be financially successful, but it has also been morally tarred by the fascist sympathies and anti-Semitic past of its founder and several key employees.
After these muckraking pages, Brandon again shifts to a new subject. In a chapter called "Consumers or Consumed?" she offers what is essentially a polemical essay on the modern beauty industry, taking on plastic surgery, facial treatments such as Botox and the influence of photography on our notions of physical attractiveness. She particularly stresses how much doctored digital imagery now distorts our sense of how we should look. Computer magic can lighten the skin of the singer Beyonce (as it did for a series of L'Oreal advertising pictures) or do away with the smallest defects of already glamorous models and actors. "The body," Brandon writes, "has become a mere canvas, upon which the digital-age beauty business remasters our image of what is physically possible. But since perfection is ipso facto unattainable, what is really on offer, in the world of beauty as elsewhere, is infinite discontent."
She laments that "today's women turn to the knife and the needle, liposucking off some inches here, tightening a jawline there, plumping out this fallen cheek, lifting that recalcitrant breast, in a never-ending, inevitably futile attempt to achieve the ultimate unreality: Photoshop." Moreover she notes that the beauty industry has begun to tap a new market: Products for men. "As the world gets fatter and man-boobs ('moobs') proliferate, more and more men are opting for breast reductions. . . . And they're worrying about their wrinkles. "
In the final section of "Ugly Beauty," Brandon compares the old age of Helena Rubinstein and Liliane Bettencourt, Eugene Schueller's (still living) daughter and heir. She contrasts, in particular, the two women's late-life intimacies with much younger men. But Brandon judges the friendship between Rubinstein and Patrick O'Higgins as touching and genuine, while Bettencourt's obsession with the gay photographer Francois-Marie Banier is presented as a monstrous example of an idle rich woman being preyed upon - for millions of dollars - by a seductive charmer. Brandon concludes that Helena Rubinstein made herself into an active modern woman, hardworking and true to herself, while Eugene Schueller's social theories, tinged with male authoritarianism, simply kept his immensely wealthy daughter from becoming anything but a well-known fashion plate and an infatuated cash cow.
"Ugly Beauty" clearly tries hard to blend biography, cultural history, investigative journalism and polemical essay. While it doesn't quite manage this with any smoothness, the book is still worth reading. After all, it's by Ruth Brandon.
Dirda reviews books for The Post every Thursday.
Helena Rubinstein, L'Oreal, and the Blemished History of Looking Good
By Ruth Brandon
Harper. 290 pp. $26.99