Cover of book: Helena Rubinstein:  The Australian Years

Angus Trumble
Helena Rubinstein: The Australian Years

Helena Rubinstein, born to modest shopkeepers in Kraków in 1872, grew up to found an international cosmetics empire that bore her name. Most biographical sources list her as Polish and American or a Polish-born American entrepreneur. They pay lip-service to her opening her first shop in Melbourne but fail to give full credit to the formative experience of her 12 years in Australia. It was here that she was first inspired to found the business that would make her famous worldwide.

Angus Trumble, who was a research fellow at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, director of the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), and author of some lively books of popular history and a genial man, had just finished a book filling that lacuna when he died in October. Helena Rubinstein: The Australian Years is published posthumously.

“In the professional life of every art museum director or curator there are acquisitions that one recalls with pride,” Trumble wrote in his introduction, “but only a handful that one suspects may eventually be career-defining or, failing that, those for which one would most like to be remembered.” Foremost among the latter, he writes, was a portrait, Helena Rubinstein in a Red Brocade Balenciaga Gown (1957), by the English painter Graham Sutherland.

According to the NPG, which would say no more at the time, Trumble apparently worked hard to acquire it from London dealer Daniel Katz for a six-figure sum. Katz had purchased it in 2011 from a sale of artworks when the Helena Rubinstein Foundation was wrapped up, and the gallery bought it four years later.

The picture was one of three Sutherland painted of the cosmetics queen in Paris. The NPG quotes Rubinstein’s 1964 memoir, My Life for Beauty, where she described Sutherland’s portraits as “incredibly bold, domineering interpretations of what I had never imagined I looked like”, but conceded that “as paintings they were indeed masterpieces”.

Trumble quickly admits to being “an unmarried gay male white Anglo-Saxon Protestant art historian” who knows little about the history of cosmetics, fashion, domestic service, labour, hospitality or commerce in the state capitals of Australia post-Federation. Indeed, his descriptions of skincare and make-up have an old-fashioned ring to them. He quotes liberally from Australian news cuttings of the day and his continuing use of nanna-speak might have been intended to fit the era.

His passing references to the anti-Semitism Rubinstein had to deal with are less explicable, given the compassion he expresses. He must have encountered many more instances of it in his research. That Eugène Schueller, the founder of L’Oréal, which finally acquired the Helena Rubinstein trademark, for example, collaborated with the Nazis in Paris when it suited his business purposes – and expeditiously swung his support behind the Resistance when the US entered the war and the tide began to turn – is surely as germane a sequence as any of the many segues Trumble makes to bulk out what little information there is about Rubinstein’s time here.

We do get a factual outline, though the dates are often hazy in his circuitous account. Rubinstein arrived in Melbourne in 1896 to look after a relative facing difficulties in Victoria’s Western District. She had previously looked after some of her eight sisters’ progeny off and on at home in Poland in an unambitious life. She travelled the east coast of Australia doing waitressing and other odd jobs, settling in Toowoomba as a governess for a while, until she set up shop in Melbourne importing a face cream that apparently performed miracles: “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones” was one of her mottos. We see a copy of her application for naturalisation, which was to British citizenship then, in 1907.

Rubinstein was clearly a business dynamo once she got started in 1903, when she was already in her 30s. She employed about 30,000 women at the height of her business. Everything was geared to the “new woman”. Trumble even has a 1932 photo of her in pants to prove that “Rubinstein is not an anachronism.”

Strangely, since he sets himself up as a champion, Trumble quotes extensively from people who wrote quite nastily of her – which says quite a bit in itself, especially about anti-Semitism. One in particular is Patrick O’Higgins, journalist and confidant, who wrote a disloyal account called Madame: An Intimate Biography of Helena Rubinstein. Trumble repeatedly refers to him disparagingly yet continues to quote him throughout the book.

Given the lack of information about her in Australia, the book is bulked out with long sections describing the social networks she interacted with and detailed geography of places she stayed in from Coleraine to Toowoomba. This may make the book more attractive to people interested in social history than those who care about skincare and the work of beauty salons.

The more exciting bits are extrapolations to her later life, such as when she sold her company to Lehman Brothers in 1928, only to buy it back at a fraction of the price after the Wall Street Crash. Or how she managed to shift her large art collection from Paris to New York before the arrival of the Nazis. Or how she ingeniously circumvented the anti-Jewish vetoing of neighbours when she wanted to buy a New York penthouse – by buying the whole building. These are all dealt with quickly in the introductory chapter.

Trumble admits many young people today won’t recognise her name. The Helena Rubinstein brand continues 58 years after her death, still under the auspices of the beauty colossus L’Oréal, but its appeal now is to an older generation.

Black Inc, 304pp, $34.99
Black Inc is a Schwartz company

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 22, 2023 as "Helena Rubinstein: The Australian Years ".

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