The eccentric cosmetics entrepreneur Helena Rubinstein once said of her rival, Elizabeth Arden, “With her packaging and my product, we could have ruled the world.”
Too bad they hated each other’s guts.
“They avoided each other and wouldn’t even refer to one another by name,” said Doug Wright, who wrote “War Paint,” a new Broadway musical about Rubinstein and Arden, opening April 6. “It was either ‘the other woman’ or ‘that dreadful woman.’ ”
Rubinstein and Arden ruled the cosmetics industry in the first half of the 20th century, but their rivalry was anything but pretty. Throughout their 50-year battle, the beauty queens stole one another’s employees, copied each other’s products and threw all sorts of shade. Their combative relationship inspired quite a few cosmetic breakthroughs, including the first waterproof mascara, and helped them earn millions at a time when women were just getting the right to vote.
Patti LuPone, left, and Christine Ebersole respectively play Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden in “War Paint” on Broadway.
Amazingly, though “War Paint” depicts an imaginary tête-à-tête between the dueling divas, the two never actually met, despite living and working blocks apart from one another on Manhattan’s East Side.
“Their competition almost depended on them never meeting,” said Ann Carol Grossman, who co-directed “The Powder & the Glory,” a documentary about Rubinstein and Arden.
“What if — God forbid — they met and actually liked each other?”
Arden and Rubinstein were hardworking, self-mythologizing, larger-than-life social climbers. Both were immigrants who came from nothing. Arden, born Florence Nightingale Graham in 1878, was a Canadian farm girl; Rubinstein, born 1872, a poor Polish Jew whose parents shipped her off to Australia when she started seeing an unsuitable fellow.
Elizabeth Arden in 1939.Alan Fisher/Underwood Archives/Getty
Arden arrived in the Big Apple first, opening her salon in 1910. New York society women went crazy for her face creams, sold in pretty pink pots. So, when Rubinstein — a 4-foot-10 dynamo whose exotic accent, ostentatious jewels and tall tales seduced the fashion press — brought her Australian brand to New York five years later, Arden got territorial. She moved her salon from 42nd to 54th Street, five blocks away from Rubinstein’s new shop, and painted the door bright red to send a message: This was war.
When Arden launched her first mascara in the ’30s, Rubinstein worked overtime to develop a waterproof version. When Arden came out with her best-selling Blue Grass perfume in 1934, Rubinstein retaliated shortly after with Heaven Sent, which she announced by dropping 500 balloons from the roof of Fifth Avenue department store Bonwit Teller.
Things got particularly heated in 1937, when Arden poached Rubinstein’s top HR guy, who brought 11 defectors with him. Rubinstein got even by hiring Arden’s ex-husband as her publicist.
“It was a way to sting,” said documentarian Grossman.
Dali painted Helena Rubinstein sitting on an Empire loveseat in her apartment.Herbert Gehr/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty
“The ways they battled each other were sly and sophisticated — more elegant than name-calling,” said Wright. “It was like watching two high-powered executives go at one another: No one’s tearing off the other’s wig.”
Not that it didn’t get personal.
When Rubinstein, then 66, married Prince Artchil Gourielli-Tchkonia, an impoverished Russian aristocrat 23 years her junior, Arden was so blinded with jealousy over her rival’s new title of princess, that she went out and got herself her own royal beau, who ended up being a charlatan.
“They both wanted to be the queen bee,” said biographer Lindy Woodhead, whose book, also called “War Paint,” inspired the new musical. If the two women did happen to be at the same party, she added, “some poor hapless young editor had to keep Madame Rubinstein at an arm lock on one end of the room, and another had to do the same with Miss Arden on the other . . . so they didn’t meet in the middle of the room and start a catfight.”
Yet while their constant competition allowed these two moguls to scale new heights, it also blinded them to other threats. By the 1950s, Charles Revson had skyrocketed to fame and fortune with his Revlon nail polish, which the two older women had dismissed as vulgar. Soon other upstarts, who weren’t afraid of youthful, sexy advertisements or TV, were eclipsing Rubinstein and Arden and their old-fashioned ways.
Still, the cosmetics titans battled to the death, clinging to their companies through the mid-60s. When Rubinstein passed away in 1965, at the age of 92, Arden — who would die 18 months later at age 89 — couldn’t help but gloat. “Poor Helena,” she sighed to a reporter, who noted that “Arden’s voice was sad, but her eyes were triumphant.”