The New York Times
Fri, 04 Feb 2011 12:26 CST
© Helena Rubinstein Foundation
Helena Rubinstein promoted herself as a "beauty scientist."
In 1835, the French novelist Honoré de Balzac observed that "the secret of great fortunes . . . is a forgotten crime
." Recast in the English-speaking world as "Behind every great fortune lies a great crime," this truism aptly describes the central conceit of Ruth Brandon's Ugly Beauty.
Reconstructing the lives of two self-made beauty tycoons - Helena Rubinstein, the creator of the cosmetics brand, who died in 1965; and Eugène Schueller, the founder of the corporate behemoth L'Oréal, who died in 1957 - Brandon zeroes in on a crime that, in her view, places them in a "potentially lethal opposition" to each other.
The crime in question is Schueller's collaborationist activity during the Nazi occupation of his native France during World War II, activity that books like Monica Waitzfelder's L'Oréal Took My Home: The Secrets of a Theft
and Michael Bar-Zohar's Bitter Scent: The Case of L'Oréal, Nazis, and the Arab Boycott
have already treated in some detail. But for Brandon, whose previous works include Singer and the Sewing Machine: A Capitalist Romance
and Automobile: How the Car Changed Life
, the fascist dealings of L'Oréal's chief merit additional exploration because the Polish-born Rubinstein "was a Jew," and because, "in 1988, Schueller's business swallowed Rubinstein's." From this confluence of factors, Brandon tries to produce evidence of a drawn-out, high-drama "standoff between Helena Rubinstein and Eugène Schueller."