Rinse it in dead champagne

Colm Tóibín

  • War Paint: Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden: Their Lives, Their Times, Their Rivalry by Lindy Woodhead
    Virago, 498 pp, £20.00, April 2003, ISBN 1 86049 974 0
  • Diana Vreeland by Eleanor Dwight
    HarperCollins, 308 pp, £30.00, December 2002, ISBN 0 688 16738 1

The women who invented beauty came from far away. They lied about their ages and their origins and the source of their magic; their secrets were known only to certain chemists and secretaries and the maids and butlers who lived in fear of them, who survived long enough to tell and tell again the shocking truth, for example, that Elizabeth Arden, one of the world’s richest women, lined the inside of her shoes with newspaper, or that Helena Rubinstein’s lawyer chose ‘the budget option’ at the funeral parlour after her death until wiser counsel prevailed, or that Diana Vreeland’s hair was so hard that once, when her maid bumped into it with a tray, ‘it clinked.’

1905 was the year Rubinstein returned to Europe from Australia with magic potions in tow and Elizabeth Arden struggled ‘to find a pathway out of Toronto’. It was also the year Edith Wharton published The House of Mirth, in which the lines slowly appearing on her heroine’s face play a central part in the drama. Lily Bart is aware that it is not prudent to indulge in ‘a mood of irritability’ because ‘she knew that such emotions leave lines on the face as well as in the character, and she had meant to take warning by the little creases which her midnight survey had revealed.’ In the survey her face had ‘looked hollow and pale, and she was frightened by two little lines near her mouth, faint flaws in the smooth curve of her cheek’. At the beginning of the novel, she is seen as someone who ‘must have cost a great deal to make, that a great many dull and ugly people must, in some mysterious way, have been sacrificed to produce her’. Lawrence Selden who watches her, is ‘aware that the qualities distinguishing her from the herd of her sex were chiefly external: as though a fine glaze of beauty and fastidiousness had been applied to vulgar clay’.

Two years earlier, W.B. Yeats had published In the Seven Woods, which was full of references to fashions changing and a woman ageing; it had ‘Adam’s Curse’ as its centrepiece, in which the ‘beautiful mild woman’, on hearing the poet outline the difficulty of creating verse,

Replied, ‘To be born woman is to know –
Although they do not talk of it at school –
That we must labour to be beautiful.’

Between July and September 1905 Helena Rubinstein, who already owned a beauty business in Australia where she had arrived nine years earlier, toured Europe, investigating new beauty treatments and new markets in fashionable spas and cities, noting in London, for example, that a large department store like Harrods, already at its current site in Knightsbridge, did not have a cosmetics department. Queen Victoria was four years dead, but her abhorrence of face painting lived on.

Rubinstein, born in Poland in 1872, and Elizabeth Arden, born in Toronto in 1881, quickly removed the aura of the hospital from face cream and replaced it with a sweet or subtle and alluring smell. Both women then built empires on the idea that Lily Bart and Yeats’s ‘beautiful mild woman’ could, and indeed should, stop worrying about the lines on their faces. The labour involved in being beautiful would become akin to pleasure. It would be simple; it would be readily available; it would be expensive; it would be old Europe in the mystery of its origin but redolent of the new American century; and it would make a fortune.

Even in New York in the late 19th century, fashionable women did not wear make-up, except for what Lindy Woodhead calls ‘a light dusting of rice powder and possibly the merest hint of rouge, high on the cheekbones . . . Not one of these ladies would have dreamed of painting their faces: that is, using ceruse-based foundation creams and coloured eye-shadow. To do so would mean social death.’ Mamie Stuyvesant Fish, one of the great hostesses of the age, was famous for greeting her guests with the line: ‘Here you are again, older faces and younger clothes.’ For the moment, there was nothing the more conservative guests could do about their older faces. As late as 1912 the editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal said that ‘men continued to see rouge as a mark of sex and sin.’ That same year, however, twenty thousand women, watched by half a million onlookers, marched in New York City for the right to vote: the leaders, who included some society ladies, wore bright red lipstick. The march was joined by Elizabeth Arden.

1914 was the year the war between Arden and Rubinstein began, with the latter’s arrival to take America. Some of the fashionable New York department stores had begun to stock Arden’s lines – among them, ‘Venetian Cleansing Cream; Pore Cream; Lille Lotion (to prevent freckles and keep skin from darkening); Muscle Oil; Velva Cream; and her newest addition, Venetian Adona Cream for firming the neck and bust’. Arden’s own salons were taking off, as women watched close-ups of heavily made-up stars in the cinema and decided, helped by advertising in glossy magazines and brilliant public relations, that the ‘mark of sex and sin’ was worth the price. By 1927 American women were buying 52,000 tons of cleansing cream, 26,500 tons of skin lotion, 19,109 tons of complexion soap, 17,500 tons of nourishing cream, 8750 tons of tinted foundation, 6562 tons of talcum powder and 2375 tons of rouge every year.

Years later, when much cream had been spread and rouge faded and money spent, figures such as John Richardson, Graham Sutherland and Bruce Chatwin would have dealings with Helena Rubinstein. Rubinstein trusted Richardson, in as much as she trusted anyone, because he told her that certain paintings in her vast art collection that she believed were fake, were in fact by Juan Gris. Richardson had also seen the drawings Picasso had made of her in old age, which Picasso had refused to show her. ‘He had, however, shown them to me,’ Richardson wrote in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

What are they like? She kept asking. Brilliant, I said quite truthfully. I did not dare tell Madame that many of her drawings were studies of her jewelled wattles and ring-covered claws, and that one of her heads had made her look as bald and rapacious as an eagle. ‘Picasso has ennobled you,’ I told her. ‘He has made you his eagle.’

When Sutherland came to paint her portrait he noticed ‘the contained energy burning away behind the stillness . . . She was, in a word – magnificent – minute and monosyllabic, with the force of an Egyptian ruler.’

Sutherland had the impression that ‘neither pictures, furniture nor objects meant more to her than a foil for her electric, contained and strong vitality.’ Yet, all her life she cannily gathered objects, including an important collection of European paintings and African art which she amassed early on in her career. Bruce Chatwin’s last major task at Sotheby’s in 1966 was to help catalogue her collection of African and Oceanic sculpture following her death. ‘Helena Rubinstein wore a lot of people out during her long life,’ he wrote, ‘and she retains that capacity in the grave. We work from 9 till 8 in the evening and we still get nowhere.’ The collection fetched more than half a million pounds. Much as she cared about art, however, and adored wearing people out, she loved money itself – real fresh crisp money especially. When Richardson had been able to raise some cash, he would call round to her apartment in New York,

wave bundles of fifty dollar bills at her, raise my eyebrows quizzically, and point to one of the Picasso drawings, which her first husband, a Greenwich Village intellectual . . . had acquired in Paris in the 1920s. Madame could not resist the fresh green smell of newly minted banknotes. Far from being offended by my pushiness, she would go to the wall as if in a trance, and remove the drawing off its hook.

Once the haggling had ended, ‘we would sit side by side on her unmade Lucite bed with a pile of dollar bills between us . . . Madame counted slowly out loud, and every time she reached a hundred she would puff out her lips and make a raspberry noise.’

Rubinstein’s husband Edward Titus, a great bibliophile and an expert on Baudelaire, very sensibly remained in Paris as his wife began her assault on New York. He had, she said later, ‘a nose for art, a nose for property’. However, ‘the cost of running him’, as Lindy Woodhead puts it, was very high, as he began a publishing house for poetry and cult books and ran a little magazine which published work by Hemingway and many of the other American writers who had moved to Paris. Later, Titus made some money of his own by using his nose and publishing a number of bestselling books including Lady Chatterley’s Lover. He had many affairs, and moved in a world in which his wife had little interest, except that it was new, and she liked things that were new, even if she often missed the point of them. She missed the point of Proust, for example:

that Jewish writer who slept in a room lined with cork and wrote the famous book I could never read. You know, Marcel something . . . Nebbishy looking. He smelt of mothballs, wore a fur coat down to the ground, asked heaps about make-up. Would a duchess use rouge? Did demi-mondaines put kohl on their eyes? How should I know? But then, how could I have known that he was going to be so famous? If so, I might have told him a thing or two.

She missed the point of Hemingway also and slept through most of his reading when, in the company of Joyce and others, she attended an event at Shakespeare and Company in 1937. She did not miss the point of e.e. cummings, to whose work Titus introduced her, and copied his lower-case signature on her Fifth Avenue building.

Rubinstein and Arden were too busy and bossy to have stable marriages. Yet they were both obsessed with the men they married, whom they bankrolled, ignored and spoiled all in the same breath. Nevertheless, they got rid of them in the end, as ruthlessly and efficiently as they got rid of staff and facial hair. (‘Miss Arden loathed body hair.’) Rubinstein then hired Arden’s first husband as a way of annoying her arch-rival. For their second marriages, they both found fake princes, which boosted the aura of magic around what they sold, the dream world which their merchandise suggested, the packaging and the naming and indeed the pricing as important as what was inside. Various forms of miracle-working, witchcraft and cajolery were brought into play in order to prevent their workers following the example of the Revlon packagers who, during a pay dispute, put little notes into the product boxes saying ‘Fuck you.’

Both women sold the allure of Paris to American women through the medium of magazines created in New York. By 1923, magazine sales in America had reached 130 million; between 1909 and 1929 the estimated revenue in the magazine market rose from 54 million dollars to 320 million dollars. Magazines in the 1920s were, as Woodhead puts it, ‘the most influential vehicle in creating dreams, establishing trends and swaying consumer opinion’ and the two women understood very well the need to provide the magazines with constant copy about new products and new outlets and new beautiful possibilities for both the body and the soul. Their own houses and apartments and collections (Rubinstein’s art and Arden’s racehorses) were merely an aspect of their shops, ready to be photographed and pampered (in the case of the horses) and made over (in the case of the apartments) and photographed (in the case of the art) as the cause of progress and profit dictated. The journalists who wrote about them, like the people who invented the advertising campaigns, were to be treated imperiously and then flattered, included almost as members of staff, but threatened with banishment should they fail to please. Harper’s Bazaar, for example, had a Must List of advertisers whose products had to be mentioned in the magazine. Slowly, to the immense satisfaction of Arden and Rubinstein, it became hard to tell the difference between the pages of advertisements and the pages of editorial.

‘The theory that rich women will buy the same as poor women is just a theory,’ Woodhead writes. ‘They won’t.’ Arden, from the beginning, understood this, and kept her merchandise as exclusive as she could, and thus was not greatly affected by the 1929 crash. ‘Our clients are coping with the stress of financial loss,’ she said, ‘by soaking in a hot bath scented with my Rose Geranium bathcrystals.’ Rubinstein sold most of her company for seven million dollars in December 1928, but when it began to lose money bought it back for much less and ran it successfully once more. Both she and Arden spent their days launching new products and launching themselves as repositories of deep wisdom on the matter of skin. In 1930, in The Art of Feminine Beauty, her ghost-writer managed a sentence worthy of Hemingway or Fitzgerald: ‘The sun holds malice in its shining rays.’ She advised American women that one ‘brief indulgent summer can age the skin five years’. When they were not thinking about money, the two women talked (never to each other), ate and lived beauty: ‘The neck is important,’ Rubinstein would say, ‘and when you put on cream, always upwards movements only, up, up, up, lift the face.’

It was important for the two rivals seeking the willing pockets of American women that they themselves had diamonds as big as the Ritz and houses everywhere and glamorous lives. They loved giving interviews suggesting that their days were as exciting as yours could become. In 1930 Rubinstein told the Boston Post: ‘Women have a duty to keep young. We should live adventurous lives, travel, work hard, earn money, spend it, love someone deeply, have children.’ She announced that she had ‘an apartment in Paris, a mansion in Mayfair, a penthouse in New York and a country estate in Greenwich’, all of which was true; then she invented a ‘castle in Vienna and a villa in Italy’.

There were differences in emphasis between the worlds which Arden and Rubinstein promoted. ‘The Arden vision of loveliness,’ Woodhead writes,

was the fragile ante-bellum beauty with her pale face, large hats and ladylike manners . . . Elizabeth’s heroines were all perfect beauties. Rubinstein’s women were urban, edgy, glamorous, while Arden’s classic beauties were more like women who had inherited great wealth and spent time on country estates and vacationed at the watering holes of the upper classes . . . Elizabeth remained convinced that her ‘ladies’ spent most of their mornings – when not at Elizabeth Arden – drifting around their palatial apartments in a cloud of ruffled chiffon.

In the world which Arden and Rubinstein managed with such skill, looking after profit margins and selling people things they didn’t really need, there was a great deal of abject foolishness, much of it concentrated in the magazines. The chief bottle-washer in this world came by the name of Diana Vreeland, who worked as fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar for 25 years and then was editor-in-chief of Vogue from 1962 to 1971 before becoming the first special consultant to the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until her death in 1989. Unlike Arden and Rubinstein, Vreeland had inherited money and was skilled at cadging from people who had inherited even more. What she had in common with them was a semi-detached husband, considerable snobbery, legendary (and mad) imperiousness and steely attention to detail.

Vreeland is less fortunate in her biographer. Lindy Woodhead is at all times sensible on the subject of the two cosmetics queens, but the same can’t be said for Eleanor Dwight, who loses the run of herself a great deal. ‘When they arrived in London in 1929, Diana was 26 and a mother,’ Dwight writes. ‘She was madly in love with her handsome husband and was beginning the six years abroad that would transform her from a post-debutante into a soignée woman of the world.’ Or: ‘As Diana was full of childhood enthusiasm and innocence herself, being a grandmother came naturally and the children always loved her. Alexander and Nicky watched with fascination as she sat in front of the mirror making up her face wearing a camisole like a little shift reaching to the knees.’ After hours of painting herself, she would finally, in Alexander’s words, ‘step into a dress, step into a pair of shoes, pick up a handbag and was out the door in thirty seconds’. It is hard not to feel that it must have been a great relief for both parties that she got away so quickly.

Vreeland’s early fame arose from a column in Harper’s Bazaar called ‘Why Don’t You?’ In January 1937, she wrote: ‘Why don’t you own, as does one extremely smart woman, 12 diamond roses of all sizes? Wear one as a buttonhole on a tailor-made. Wear five for a necklace around the top of your dress. Wear them all at once one night, in the hair, on your bag, up and down your dress?’ Satirists had a field day with her. ‘Why don’t you rinse your blond child’s hair in dead champagne as they do in France?’ she suggested in all seriousness. ‘Or pat her face gently with cream before she goes to bed, as they do in England?’ S.J. Perelman considered the suggestion and resolved to sleep across the foot of his child’s crib ‘with a loaded horse pistol until the next issue appeared’. Many more issues appeared, however, with many more ‘Why Don’t You’s. In 1941, she asked why don’t you ‘paint every door in a completely white house the colour of a different flower – and thereby give each room its name . . . Wear yourself: olive-green corduroy breeches, a loose chemise shirt, knitted white cotton stockings, strong shoes of black leather with silver buckles – like a boy of the 18th century.’

Vreeland, a regular visitor to Paris, took the prospect of the invasion of France very badly. Indeed, she refused to leave. Her husband had to go without her: ‘Look,’ he said, ‘there’s no point in taking Diana away from Chanel and her shoes. If she hasn’t got her shoes and her clothes, there’s no point in bringing her home. That’s how it’s always been and that’s how it has to be.’ A friend booked her on the last passenger ship to sail before the war began. ‘I’ll never forget that afternoon,’ she wrote, ‘coming down the rue Cambon – my last afternoon in Paris for five years. I’d just had my last fitting at Chanel. I don’t think I could have made it to the end of the block I was so depressed – leaving Chanel, leaving Europe, leaving the world . . . of my world. There was an unearthly silence of hundreds of people strolling out of doors under the stars.’ Back in America, a depressed Vreeland, it seems, asked herself a question: why don’t you call all your butlers Edward? Then she did so. One and all of them, as they came and went, were called Edward. When one of her sons, thinking it strange, remarked on this, the butler replied: ‘Well, actually my name is Frank.’

After the war, Vreeland was not short of admirers. ‘Adoring young editors,’ Dwight writes, ‘many of whom came from socially prominent families, assisted her.’ Her antics were widely discussed. Richard Avedon remembered her organising a photograph of a model in ‘a stiff wedding dress’. Having shouted for pins, Vreeland took one, ‘and walked swinging her hips down the narrow office to the end. She stuck the pin not only into the dress but into the girl, who let out a little scream. Diana returned to her desk.’ She called a model agency one day looking for a girl with ‘hair, long, lustrous hair. When a sweet young girl with lots of hair duly appeared, Vreeland asked her if she would like to be on the cover. The girl said she would love that. ‘Well, we’ll have to cut your hair off,’ Vreeland said. The girl went pale. ‘No, you’ll definitely have to cut it off,’ Vreeland continued. The girl discussed the matter with her agency and reluctantly agreed. Vreeland then ‘opened the desk drawer and pulled out a pair of long scissors. Then she picked up this mane of hair and went clomp, clomp, clomp. And then she said: "There, that’s the Italian cut. You’ll do very well now.”’ When the photographer Lillian Bassman appeared one day, Vreeland asked her if she stood on her head. ‘And I said, "No. Why?” and she replied: "Well, my dear, if you don’t stand on your head for half an hour every day, you will never have an orgasm."’

‘In her role of wise woman of the world’, as Dwight puts it, Vreeland was much sought after for advice by ambitious women. In 1949, her niece, who was about to marry Hugh Astor, wrote to her:

We must be by far the most attractive Astor couple – and you do realise, don’t you, that by four years I am the youngest Astor wife! . . . I need so much advice. Be so stern and put me on the right track etc. You are so wise and I need you now more than I ever have.

Part of Vreeland’s wisdom arose from her loving French clothes while keeping the American advertisers happy at Harper’s. It was inevitable, then, that in 1960 she would get a letter which began as follows: ‘Dear Mrs Vreeland – I write to you in hopes that in your busy life you could find a couple of minutes to help me solve an enormous problem, which is CLOTHES!’ The writer was Jackie Kennedy and her problem was that she preferred French designers but her husband wanted to become President of the United States. ‘I must start to buy American clothes and have it known where I buy them,’ she wrote. ‘I rather favour firms who make French copies – if they aren’t too much known to be French – but surely I can be allowed that!’ Vreeland gave her much useful advice. ‘I want you to know,’ Jackie wrote, ‘that you are and always will be my fashion mentor.’ When, after her husband’s election, Jackie began to be dressed by Oleg Cassini, ‘an American designer with a Continental manner’, Vreeland gave both of them advice. Jackie wrote to her: ‘If you can spare the time I would appreciate you helping him as anything you say he takes as Scripture. He would make me a dress of barbed wire if you said it would be pretty.’ The admiration between the President’s wife and Vreeland was mutual. When Vreeland heard the news of the President’s assassination, ‘without a pause she said: "My God, Lady Bird in the White House. We can’t use her in the magazine!"’

Vreeland was almost 60 when she became editor of Vogue in 1962; she could easily have spent the next ten years foisting her snobbery and general foolishness in full colour on the American public while ignoring the bewildering revolution in taste going on outside. Instead, she responded to change with astonishing zeal and flair, working with the best layout designers and the most talented photographers and the most interesting writers on whom she could get her well-manicured hands. ‘During the 1950s,’ Dwight writes, ‘the Vogue look was lady-like, expensive and appropriate to a dignified, conventional way of life.’ Vreeland herself had never had conventional good looks – a matter which her mother had made much of as she was growing up. Now, she could begin to champion difference, to use models who had an unconventional allure. ‘The idea of beauty was changing,’ she wrote. ‘If you had a bump on your nose it made no difference so long as you had a marvellous body and a good carriage . . . You knew how to water-ski, and how to take a jet plane fast in the morning, arrive anywhere and be anyone when you got off.’ She moved the fashion shoot from the studio to the most exotic locations; she made her models famous rather than forcing them to be anonymous; she used unlikely people, including the tall and the skinny, to model for her magazine; she made people famous for being famous, even if no one had ever heard of them, and, into the bargain, she made herself into an icon. When the Irish writer Polly Devlin worked for her, she wrote:

You could hardly see her for the dazzle – the huge mouth; the high bright-red cheeks; the burnished black-on-black lacquered hair; the edge and cut and glitter of her chic; the slanting, knowing eyes, like a fox-terrier’s, missing many a thing to do with the soul, but nothing, nothing to do with the body. To me she was so ugly I couldn’t believe it. Five minutes later the ugliness had vanished under the fascination.

Mrs Vreeland was against sadness. Veruschka, one of her favourite models, had sad eyes, which Vreeland disapproved of. ‘She always was for living in the moment,’ Veruschka said, ‘and would say "Veruschka, it’s now. The joy has to come out of your eyes, and your smile – why do you have that melancholy look into the future Veruschka?”’ While Vreeland looked to the future, spending vast amounts of money on the magazine, revelling in the new and the outlandish and the totally exciting, the owners of Vogue remained watchful. An editor in her position was always vulnerable. She wished to predict and cause change in fashion rather than reflect it. She wanted to make the magazine’s ethos and design and expense budget embody as brazenly as possible the elaborate glamour she believed in. Thus a fall in circulation, as she moved ahead of her readers too quickly, or a fall in advertising revenue, as the American rag trade felt that no one reading Vogue would buy its produce, could easily be blamed on her excesses. She was against sadness: America grew sadder as the 1970s began. She was against the predictable: her readers and advertisers were not so sure. The Newhouses, who owned the magazine, fired her.

She was now 70, and ready to begin again, masterminding shows at the Costume Institute. She produced, with Jackie Kennedy as her editor, a big book of photography and fashion called Allure. She wrote her memoirs with the help of George Plimpton. The strange mixture in her of pure vacuity, a signature appearance, massive energy, flair and confidence made her a godsend to Andy Warhol and his friends. Her witticisms, such as they were (the Warhol magazine Interview called them ‘crypticisms’), were widely reported. ‘Communism is OK, if you’ve got a car and driver.’ Or: ‘The Civil War was nothing compared to the smell of a San Diego orange.’ Or: ‘Peanut butter is the greatest invention since Christianity.’ Who has ever said a truer word?