A Beautiful Rival: A Novel of Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden

Image of A Beautiful Rival: A Novel of Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden
Release Date: 
September 5, 2023
William Morrow Paperbacks
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“In a business in which feminine beauty is what they’re selling, both Arden and Rubenstein eschewed those qualities society deemed feminine.”

At the turn of the century times are changing. Women, becoming increasingly attentive to youth and beauty, are willing to do whatever it takes to hold on to both.

A new industry has emerged making extravagant promises to these women. With salons in New York and a line of cosmetics and facial cream, Elizabeth Arden is the undisputed queen of the American industry. In 1915, however, a newcomer has emerged in New York who poses a threat to Elizabeth’s reign.

Helena Rubenstein is a formidable foe. With salons in Australia, London, and Paris she is well-known and claims to be a doctor. With little to back up her claims, she bills her products as “scientifically” formulated. She has had great success in Paris and currently Paris is very fashionable with New York’s upper crust. It seems Elizabeth has cause to worry.

Upon learning that Madame Rubenstein is opening a salon at an exclusive storefront on Fifth Avenue, Elizabeth reaches out to a wealthy client and is able to snap up the property for herself. This is the opening salvo of a decades’ long war between the two women.

The ruthlessness and ambition shown by these women hides their fear and vulnerability. Arden is desperate for acceptance from her high society clientele. Growing up in extreme poverty and working long hours throughout her childhood her wish is to hide from her past and gain a sense of belonging.

Rubenstein has also hailed from a difficult past. When she refused to marry the man chosen by her father, she was banned from the family and left to fend for herself. She moved to the home of distant relatives in Australia and worked to open her own salon. In addition to having to survive alone, she is also Jewish and this fact has often put her at a disadvantage. She has worked hard to achieve her success and no one, especially Elizabeth Arden, will stand in her way.

Their competition spanned decades. They sent spies to report on the other, stole one another’s secrets, scooped up their best employees, and hired an ex-husband. The rivalry outlasted two world wars, and the Great Depression. In order to survive they were ruthless. There could never be an olive branch extended nor could there be a truce because, as they each said, it’s hard to be a woman in business.

After three decades of competition a tragedy occurs which forces the women to finally meet face to face. It is there that they acknowledge one another as simply competitors and not personal enemies. They come to realize that neither would have achieved what they had without the other’s one upmanship driving them to do more.

It seems whatever personal animosity they felt toward the other vanished. No magic was needed, simply acknowledgement, understanding, and a healthy respect for the other as a fierce, often cunning, business rival.

A Beautiful Rival is a novel written through the eyes of not one, but two separate protagonists and author Gill Paul switches both voices and perspectives with ease. The chapters are written in a neat, easy to read chronological order that helps you understand how each event is influenced and constructed by past occurrences.

Their different business models and experiences made major world events affect both Arden and Rubenstein in vastly different ways, and the author does a very believable job of explaining their separate fears and their triumphs.

In a business in which feminine beauty is what they’re selling, both Arden and Rubenstein eschewed those qualities society deemed feminine. Rather than a domestic lifestyle, they plunged into the business world and proved that women, even beautiful ones, could be worthy and successful in a world of business that was, for the most part, dominated by men.