A Fifty-year Feud

Author Gill Paul’s newest novel, A Beautiful Rival, released this week – and if it’s anything like the ones I’ve already read by Gill, it is sure to be captivating. I asked her to give us a little background to writing this particular novel.

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I use skin care products every day and I wear makeup when I go out, but I was never particularly interested in the people who make the stuff. Until, that is, I fell down a Google rabbit hole and came upon mention of a five-decades-long feud between Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein. Now, that’s a story! 

It seemed there had been a 2003 non-fiction book about them by Lindy Woodhead called War Paint, a 2008 PBS documentary called The Powder and the Glory, and a 2017 Broadway musical. Did that mean the feud story had already been told? I only want to write novels if I can bring something new to the picture, so I read the book, watched the doc, and found extracts from the show on YouTube. They’re all interesting, but none of them answered the questions I most wanted to ask. What drove these two formidable grandes dames? Were they happy, or were their lives dominated by work? How did they truly feel about each other?

Apart from War Paint, there aren’t any extensively researched, footnoted biographies and, the more I read, the more I came across contradictions and gaps in the narrative. For a start, no one can agree on their dates of birth, probably because they told so many fibs about their ages over the years. Both were pretending to be something they were not. Helena pretended that she had studied medicine in her home town of Krakow and had learned about skincare from the leading European experts. She didn’t. Elizabeth came from a very poor background, daughter of a tenant farmer in Woodbridge, Ontario, but she reinvented herself with a posh accent and a snobbish yearning to be accepted by what she called “polite society”. She wasn’t.

A few of Gill Paul’s other novels

Lindy Woodhead’s book explained the bare bones of the feud: for example, she says they copied each other’s products and sabotaged each other’s advertising campaigns. But for a novel, I needed to be specific, to “show rather than tell”. I combed through a wonderful website, cosmeticsandskin.com, created by James Bennett, which provides a complete history of early beauty culture, with sections for each major brand listing its products, salons, and advertisements chronologically. It’s a real labour of love and gave me many useful clues into Elizabeth and Helena’s rivalry. Through this I could see they ran advertisements that almost seemed like parodies of the other’s, and whenever one launched a new product, you could be sure the other was quick to follow. 

They both wrote pamphlets on skincare and Helena wrote a sort of memoir, My Life for Beauty, but I didn’t find much in them except a hectoring tone as they listed everything women should be doing in the pursuit of eternal youth. Gradually I formed my own opinions of them, contradictions and all. Both were admirable role models as self-made multi-millionaires with vast global empires, and both were ogres to work for or be married to. 

I started writing, dramatizing scenes and inventing dialogue for them, and trying to answer my own questions. Of course, all historical fiction is anachronistic in this sense because, try as we might, we can never truly put ourselves into the skin of someone who lived a hundred years before us. There are too many nuances – cultural, societal, familial – that we can’t possibly guess at. 

The women often surprised me. I had no idea before I started that Elizabeth Arden was a major racehorse owner, who treated her horses like the babies she never had. I hadn’t realised that Helena Rubinstein was an art collector who encouraged young artists and was on first-name terms with all the major painters and sculptors of her era. She could get Picasso to sketch her, she got Dalí to paint a triptych for her card room, and there are many wonderful portraits of her.

Finally, I think I came to understand what drove each other crazy about the other. Elizabeth had come from poverty and was terrified of being unmasked and losing all she had worked so hard for. Helena was driven to prove herself to the father who had disowned her when she was twenty years old, and to every antisemitic landlord, hotel and restaurant owner who refused to allow her on their premises because of her Jewish-sounding surname. They both had insecurities they were determined to hide, and that made them fascinating fictional subjects

I’m very grateful to have fallen down this particular rabbit hole, and I know I’ll never look at my jar of moisturiser the same way again. Maybe if someone else wrote a novel about them, they’d come up with a completely different picture. Historical fiction is a process of selection driven by our subconscious authorial preferences and prejudices. I feel a great affection for both Helena and Elizabeth, but if they could read A Beautiful Rival, I’m not sure they would feel any affection for me. In fact, they’d probably have sought a legal injunction before the book ever hit the bookstores and they’d be doing their utmost to destroy my reputation. Maybe I’d have inadvertently healed their feud by giving them a common enemy to direct their wrath against.

It’s amazing what research will reveal! I don’t know about you, but this has definitely whetted my appetite for another great Gill Paul story! Many thanks, Gill. Best wishes for A Beautiful Rival.

For more insights from Gill Paul, you can read 9 Tips on Writing Biographical Fiction.

A Beautiful Rival by Gill Paul ~ 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.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY 

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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3 Responses

  1. Thinking what a great book this would be for my book club. Great article, exploring the curiosity of a HF writer.

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