A Beautiful Rival
In this stunning new novel, bestselling author Gill Paul reveals the infamous rivalry of cosmetic titans Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein.
They could have been allies: two self-made millionaires who invented a global industry, in an era when wife and mother were supposed to be any woman’s highest goal. Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein each founded empires built on grit and determination…and yet they became locked in a feud spanning three continents, two world wars, and the Great Depression.
Brought up in poverty, Canadian-born Arden changed popular opinion about make up—persuading women from all walks of life to buy skincare products promising them youth and beauty. Rubinstein left her native Poland, launching her own company with scientific claims about miracle creams and anti-aging herbs.
And when it came to business, nothing was off-limits: poaching employees, copying products, planting spies, hiring ex-husbands, and one-upping each other every chance they had. This was a rivalry from which there was no surrender! And through it all, were two women, bold, brazen, and determined to succeed—no matter the personal cost.
A Beautiful Rival
Published in the UK, Australia and New Zealand on August 31st, 2023, and in the US and Canada on September 5th.Scroll down for reviews:
PRAISE for A Beautiful Rival
“Gill Paul’s fascinating novel shows us that behind the lipsticks and lotions were two compelling, ambitious and passionate women who were responsible for the birth of the global beauty industry. Few women leave such an extraordinary legacy as Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden and Paul’s impeccable research brings to life their rivalry and their personal struggles, showing us that, for two women intent on outdoing one another, they actually had a lot in common, which makes for a poignant and timeless story.”
Natasha Lester, New York Times bestselling author of The Paris Orphan
“I devoured this novel about two astounding self-made multimillionaires. It’s a meticulously researched tale of rivalry, revenge, passion, prejudice and unimaginable wealth. Their intertwined rags-to-mega-riches stories are so extraordinary they read like compulsive fiction, but these women really lived.” Maggie Brookes, author of The Prisoner’s Wife and Acts of Love and War
“No one writes like Gill Paul. She has this incredible gift for spinning fact into fiction, immersing the reader utterly in the brilliant, page-turning worlds she creates, bringing the most iconic of figures to vivid, sparkling life. In A Beautiful Rival she does this for famed rivals, Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, portraying their passion. ambition, loves, and insecurities, so truly that I’ve been left feeling I know them. I think this might just be her best yet!” Jenny Ashcroft, author of The Echoes of Love and Beneath A Burning Sky
“I ripped through this delicious take on the longstanding catfights between two legends of the beauty industry. Think Dynasty set against the dazzle and glitz of New York in the first half of the twentieth century, with miracle creams, diamonds and racehorses thrown in for good measure. Unputdownable.” Sarah Steele, author of The Schoolteacher of San Michele and The Lost Song of Paris
“This is an utterly compelling, astonishing tale of two extraordinary self-made women who, between them, and in part due to their visceral rivalry, invented the multi-billion beauty industry we so well recognize today. With her impeccable research and engaging storytelling, Gill Paul skillfully takes her reader on a spell-binding journey with Elizabeth and Helena, which only gets more remarkable with every turn of the page. I shall be recommending this book to everyone and it is, for sure, one of my favorite reads of the year!” Louise Fein, author of People Like Us and The Hidden Child
“A Beautiful Rival is an totally compulsive read, a page-turning fictionalised telling of the largely unknown story of the rivalry between Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, two ferociously competitive, self-made businesswomen who made millions inventing the modern beauty industry in American and Europe at a time when women were supposed marry, stay at home and look after their husbands. Who knew what a dirty business selling youth and beauty could be – planting spies, hiring private eyes, copying products, poaching staff and even hiring ex-husbands? They may be flawed and selfish, but Gill Paul brings both so fully to life we cannot help but feel sympathy and even affection for these two titans of the early twentieth century.” Liz Trenow, author of Searching for my Daughter and The Secret Sister
“Scandal, sabotage and spies. Who knew the beauty industry was so cutthroat! This was a “thoroughly compulsive and addictive read. Gill is such a clever writer, deftly peeling back the layers of these two formidable doyennes to reveal their tender, vulnerable core. It had me up way past my bedtime racing to that enormously satisfying end!” Kate Thompson, bestselling author of The Little Wartime Library
“A brilliantly entertaining novel about the ugly side of the beauty business. With incredible attention to detail, Gill Paul takes the reader up close and personal with Arden and Rubinstein and their battle for dominance in the emerging beauty industry of the 1900s. Paul blends fact and fiction as smoothly as Arden’s Venetian cream, and with pithy dialogue and a wicked sense of humour, brings her leading ladies and their outrageous backstabbing and jealousies roaring to life on the page. An absolute decadent joy from beginning to end, this is the perfect summer read!” Hazel Gaynor, NYT bestselling author of The Last Lifeboat
“A delicious page-turner of a novel about the rivalry between beauty titans Elizabeth Arden & Helena Rubinstein. Spanning two world wars and full of fascinating period detail, I really enjoyed this story about two formidable women, driven by a mutual desire to succeed, no matter what.” Jacquie Bloese, bestselling author of The French House
“A fascinating tale of two determined, glamorous businesswomen locked in a battle for supremacy. Gill Paul is a mistress of the fictional historical biography.” Rachel Hore, bestselling author of The Love Child and One Moonlit Night
“Gill Paul brings Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein to life on the pages of her new historical novel, A Beautiful Rival. Exposing the raw, ugly side of the beauty industry, Paul delivers two headstrong, passionate women, willing to do whatever it takes to build their empires. With meticulous research and Paul’s signature skillful storytelling, readers will be swept up in this fascinating, and intimate portrait of these cosmetic titans.” Renée Rosen, author of Fifth Avenue Glamour Girl
“A delicious look at the high-stakes rivalry that defined a century of beauty. Gill Paul masterfully weaves skillful storytelling with an acute eye for glamor to make A Beautiful Rival an utterly compelling read.” —Julia Kelly, international bestselling author of The Lost English Girl
“Glamorous and fascinating. Two businesswomen ahead of their time, a tense rivalry in a beautiful world, an intriguing story expertly told. I was completely riveted.” Tracy Rees, international bestselling author of The Elopement
“Paul brings the rivalry between two icons of the beauty industry to vivid life in this lush, moving, and gripping novel. A 5-star must-read.” Louisa Treger, author of Madwoman
Reading Group Questions
1. Both Helena and Elizabeth dealt in the illusion of youth and beauty, but both were pretending to be something they were not. Both worried about how things appeared to the outside world. Did they really care about helping women to look their best, or was it all about money and power and outdoing each other?
2. Would Helena and Elizabeth have been as successful as they were had it not been for their intense rivalry? Can you think of other examples of rivals spurring each other on? For example, some say the Beatles owed their huge success to the rivalry between John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
3. Antisemitism was common in the period the novel covers (1915–46). Should Helena have changed her name when she launched her first American salon? Why do you think she didn’t? Was her Jewishness more important to her than she admitted?
4. Did you find it hard to sympathise with Elizabeth, or were there moments when you felt sorry for her despite her faults? How much was her tough childhood responsible for making her the woman she became?
5. If Helena put business before family, she was only emulating what successful men had been doing all along. Why do you think it was easier for her to be a businesswoman than a mother or wife?
6. Elizabeth’s sexuality remains opaque and she clearly didn’t have very good gaydar. Why do you think she never managed to have a fulfilling romantic life?
7. Helena handed out dollar bills to the homeless during the Great Depression but got her doorman to move beggars from outside the salon so they didn’t disturb her clients. Should she have done more?
8. Elizabeth was not an especially political person, and her sympathy for fascism in the 1930s was shared by many of her contemporaries. However, she crossed a line when she compared Gladys’s experience in a Nazi camp to that of Helena’s sister Regina. In this era when there are still Holocaust deniers trying to negate the established facts of the Nazi genocide of Jews, it is crucial that novelists don’t let their characters get away with any watering down of the full horror. In A Beautiful Rival, Laney chastises Elizabeth. What did you think of Elizabeth’s views? Was she ignorant or bigoted or both?
9. How do you feel about the modern beauty industry, with their promises of eternal youth if you buy the newest products with the most scientific ingredients? Are you ever persuaded by adverts to try a new miracle cream or serum?
10. Could Helena and Elizabeth ever have been friends?
Both Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein dealt in illusion. They sold the promise of youthfulness and beauty to their customers, while both were pretending to be something they were not. Elizabeth tried to pass as upper class and to hide her impoverished upbringing; Helena pretended to have a medical degree and to have discovered herbs with anti-ageing properties.
They both told fibs about their age; you will find several different dates of birth quoted in biographies and newspaper archives. Wikipedia claims Helena was born on December 25, 1870, the Fitoussi biography says 1872, her 1928 New Yorker profile said she was forty-eight (so born 1879) and her New York Times obituary in spring 1965 said she was ninety-four (so born 1870). Elizabeth’s date of birth is variously given as December 31, 1878 (most biographies), 1881 (Wikipedia) and 1884 (her New York Times obituary). Whatever their true ages, both of them looked a good decade younger, making them living advertisements for their products.
To appreciate their achievements in building global empires from scratch, you need to understand how difficult it was for women to operate a business in those days. Married women could not open bank accounts without their husbands’ permission until the 1960s in the US, 1975 in the UK. Neither Helena nor Elizabeth was able to borrow money from a bank to help them start their businesses, so both had to find their own methods of raising capital. Legislation on equal pay for women was a long way off. When they started out, women couldn’t even vote.
On top of being female, Helena had the additional handicap of being Jewish in an era when antisemitism was widespread. Some of it was overt, such as the landlords who would not lease premises to her and the hotels and restaurants that wouldn’t take her booking, but there was also a more insidious element. I am indebted to David Baddiel’s book Jews Don’t Count for some examples of this in history and in the present day. It made me admire all the more the decision Helena made not to change her surname when she launched her business in the US.
Was Elizabeth antisemitic? Probably no more so than was the norm for the era. It’s true that her Parisian brother-in-law had Nazi friends and that she dined with Hermann Goering. Fascist meetings were held in her London salon in the 1930s, but Elizabeth probably didn’t know about them. An FBI file contains information about her Nazi links, as reported in a letter dated March 1941 by a ‘Mrs Elizabeth Lewis’ – could she have been Tommy’s sister bearing a grudge? The top sheet has a note saying that the letter has been passed to J. Edgar Hoover then a later note says “No info in files reflecting this is true”. Her salons remained open in Occupied cities throughout the war – not just in Paris but Berlin, Vienna, Rome, Milan and Budapest.
There’s no doubt that both Helena and Elizabeth were forceful personalities, and were autocratic in running their businesses. Elizabeth had a reputation for ‘bouncing’ employees who displeased her, but she was loyal to Laney (Irene Delaney), to Teddy Haslam and to Tom Smith, standing by Tom when he was penalised on a charge of doping a horse. Helena hired family members for key positions, and she promoted her nephew Oskar Kolin over her son Horace, which caused some ill feeling.
I have stuck to the facts in covering the main events of both women’s stories but I sometimes moved the timeline of events for the sake of my narrative. I dramatized scenes and invented dialogue and feelings throughout.
Lindy Woodhead reports in War Paint that the women copied each others’ products and advertisements. The two adverts about success I quote are remarkably similar. I can’t say for sure which came first, but I decided in this instance to make Helena the aggressor. I also don’t know specifically which of each others’ products they copied, but I expect they would have analysed all the others’ new releases and incorporated elements into their own. It’s true that Elizabeth poached Harry Thompson and eleven members of Helena’s sales team in 1937; and it’s also true that Helena hired Tommy Lewis the following year, in a significant escalation of their previous rivalry.
It’s true that Helena’s sister Regina died in Auschwitz. I found it very moving to write about this, especially after visiting there in 2019.
Elizabeth’s sister Gladys was held captive in Ravensbrück then Vittel, accused of “espionage and communicating with the enemy”. She was part of an aristocratic group, led by the Duc de Rohan, that cared for Allied airmen who had crashed in France. I don’t know exactly what her role was but I invented the detail that she supplied civilian clothing.
It’s true that Elizabeth lost twenty-two horses in a stable fire in 1946, although there was never any suggestion that Helena might be responsible.
When she died in 1965, Helena had lined up the successors to her business, with her son Roy chairman of the board, while Oscar was executive vice-president. Family members, including Horace’s children, received bequests left in trusts. The business went through a period of transition and consolidation over the next few years before it was sold to Colgate-Palmolive in 1973 for $143 million. They sold it on in 1980, and in 1988 the worldwide assets were bought by L’Oréal. It remains a premium skincare and cosmetic brand sold in department stores to this day.
Elizabeth Arden died in 1966, a year after Helena. She owned 90% of her company and hadn’t done any estate planning, leaving her successors with a huge tax bill of $37 million. In 1970, the company was sold to Eli Lilly for $38.5 million. It went through two further changes of ownership before being bought by Revlon in 2016. Her Eight Hour Cream and Blue Grass perfume remain top sellers today, along with a Red Door eau de toilette, named after the red salon doors Elizabeth made a trademark in 1916.
There is no record of the two women ever meeting, but I couldn’t resist bringing them together for my novel. They had so much in common – not just their rival businesses, which they built from scratch, but their marriages too, and their sheer resilience and chutzpah (to use a wonderful Yiddish word).
Both were forthright, opinionated characters. It’s harder to sympathise with Elizabeth today because of her snobbishness and antisemitism, but it’s important to remember her attitudes were not uncommon for the era. She was a generous philanthropist, and her love for her horses was clearly genuine. As for her sexuality, we can but speculate; some biographers claim that Tom White was the great love of her life, but by choosing someone married and Catholic, she ensured the relationship would never work out. Perhaps that suited her best of all.
Helena had her flaws too, in particular being a lousy mother, but she sounds like a formidable force of nature, whose great love was her business. She loved to work, and she loved to win. The men in her life always came second to her ambition.
I’ve had a lot of fun writing about this inspiring pair. If you would like to find out more about them, I can recommend the following sources.
There’s a remarkable website, www.cosmeticsandskin.com, that lists the history of beauty companies and the treatments they offered, along with pictures of their products and advertisements they used at the time. The research that has gone into it is phenomenal and it was invaluable for me. Thank you, James Bennett, for all your hard work.
Baddiel, David: Jews Don’t Count, 2021
Brandon, Ruth, Ugly Beauty, Helena Rubinstein, L’Oréal, and the Blemished History of Looking Good, 2011
Chase, Edna Woolman, & Chase, Ilka: Always in Vogue, 2018
Chase, Ilka, In Bed We Cry, 1945 (novel said to be based on Elizabeth Arden)
Fitoussi, Michele, Helena Rubinstein: The Woman Who Invented Beauty, 2014
Hillenbrand, Laura: Seabiscuit: Three Men and a Racehorse, 2001
Johnson, Louise Claire, Behind the Red Door, 2021
Lewis, Alfred Allan, & Woodworth, Constance: Miss Elizabeth Arden, An Unretouched Portrait, 1973
Lewis, Alfred Allan, Ladies and Not-so-gentle Women: Elisabeth Marbury, Anne Morgan, Elsie de Wolfe, Anne Vanderbilt, and Their Times, 2000
Peiss, Kathy, Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture, 2011
Rubinstein, Helena, My Life for Beauty, 1964
Snow, Carmel, with Aswell, Mary Louise: The World of Carmel Snow, 2017
Wharton, Edith: French Ways and Their Meaning, 2015
Woodhead, Lindy, War Paint: Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, 2003
Ziegler, Philip, The Biography of Lady Diana Cooper, 1981
The Powder and the Glory, PBS, 2008
In 2017 War Paint opened as a Broadway show starring Christine Ebersole and Patti LuPone. Excerpts from it can be found on YouTube
“Lady’s Day in Louisville”, Time, May 6, 1946
Jo Swerling, ‘‘Beauty in Jars and Vials,’’ The New Yorker 24, no. 22, June 30, 1928
“Elizabeth Arden”, Fortune, October 1938
Douglas J. Roche, “The elegant worlds of Elizabeth Arden”, Maclean’s Magazine, February 20, 1965