My First Book

WAR PAINT – Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden

Their Lives, their Times, their Rivalry: Virago Press 2003

Twinning together the lives of the two most successful, pioneering businesswomen of the early 20th century, the rival beauty tycoons Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, was never going to be easy, but their achievements were so stupendous I relished the challenge. Between them, these two trail-blazing women had created the luxury beauty business, which, at the point I was planning to explore its origins, was booming as never before. As I worked on my outline and unfurled their lives, I knew I had all the ingredients of a cracking story.

The first beauty entrepreneurs to forge their own identifiable brands, Arden and Rubinstein energetically – and ruthlessly – marketed their names literally around the globe, each excelling at embellishing their background to re-invent a pedigree that existed only in their imaginations. Ambitious, fearless, determined, the quote Bobbi Brown made for my book jacket says it all:

‘These were women who were tough in business, who had a single vision…an idea of what they believed in and would do anything to get there’.

Their success was built on giving a public face to a guilty secret – that women everywhere wanted to feel beautiful, and craved beauty products to achieve it. This simple premise was boosted by the ‘fear factor’ they both built into their advertising – namely using veiled threats that by not using the products, women would be left ugly, a trick with psychological seduction that earned them consumer supremacy in the fast-growing trend for ‘beauty culture’. These two clever, trend-setting women forged ahead to the extent that by the late 1920’s they had become the richest, most famous businesswomen in the world. They didn’t just break the glass ceiling – they invented it.

Both women broke all the established rules of their era to follow their dream. Working at a time when women didn’t have the vote,  the status quo was that they could conceivably have a job – but not a career. On marriage they were expected to retreat to hearth and home.
Arden and Rubinstein ignored it all, climbing a towering ladder to get finance (this at a time when banks seldom loaned to women) and re-writing the rule book to suit their ambition.

In the early 1900’s, for a woman to own a business, especially one that employed men, was virtually unheard of unless it had been inherited. Canadian-born Miss Arden (whose real name was Florence Nightingale Graham) and Helena ‘Chaja’ Rubinstein  (from Krakow in Poland), had nothing to inherit.

Both were born poor but dreamed big, bold dreams of becoming masters of their art, with all the wealth and fame that came with it.

Helena’s press handout used in 1904, a year after opening her first beauty salon in Melbourne, Australia

Elizabeth Arden circa 1910 when she had just set up her own business in New York

In their case, dreams did come true, but both paid a high price as the strains of juggling their work-life balance soon kicked-in.

Both women had failed marriages. Each was sexually unfulfilled. Both suffered from acute insomnia. They were lonely, meaning each developed an obsessive ‘hobby’ to fill the aching void. Elizabeth Arden’s passion was racehorses and Helena Rubinstein’s was collecting – whether art, antiques, jewels or junk – she bought the lot!

Elizabeth Arden in the winner’s enclosure when her horse ‘Jet Pilot’ won the Kentucky Derby in 1947

Helena Rubinstein age 63, photographed in New York with African carving loaned to MoMA for their 1935 ‘Negro Art Exhibition’

The ‘Beauty Queens’ were great rivals and, naturally enough, played their animosity to the hilt. It was mainly petty gripes. They couldn’t bear to say each other’s name, instead saying ‘that woman’ or ‘the other one’ around the office. Miss Arden – a prolific letter writer – delighted in miss-spelling her rival’s name when bitching about her to her management. One of my favourite stories is when Helena heard that Jewel’s Reward – Elizabeth’s favourite horse – had bitten off her little finger! The dismembered joint in question was immediately sewn back on in an emergency operation, about which Madame (Helena was always called Madame) enquired: ‘ Such a shame. Tell me, how is the horse?’.

Elizabeth Arden leading her favourite Jewels Reward into the winner’s circle at Belmont Park, October 1957

Spite and jealousy did eventually catch up with them. When Miss Arden fired and subsequently divorced her profligately unfaithful husband Tommy Lewis, first in line to offer him a job was Helena Rubinstein! In a spectacular tit for tat, Helena’s top team of sales managers – led by the man she hoped would develop her business to ever higher levels, Mr Harry Johnson – all defected to join Arden. It was a crushing loss.

Having avoided each other for decades, my two protagonists never actually met. It took my book – and its adaptation as a Broadway Musical which lit up the New York stage in 2017 – to finally bring them together. (Musical fans can see pictures from the show alongside a trailer further on in this site in the ‘& MORE’ section). I often wondered if they would have been friends. Somehow I doubt it. Yet each respected the other’s savvy skills. In an interview towards the end of her life Helena Rubinstein said – rather wistfully it seemed to me: 

‘With my product and her packaging we could have ruled the world’

I was thrilled when this quote made it to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations

Putting it all together

At Virago, my publisher Lennie Goodings gave me the greatest gift a writer can have – that of time.  Having decamped to our house in France to write in comparative isolation I over-wrote (as any first-time author would). I justified it to myself by reasoning that the lives of two extraordinary entrepreneurs and the birth of a mega-industry meant it was always destined to be a big book. When it was finished, I took the 12 hour train journey back to London from South West France, never once letting the finished manuscript out of my sight!  It was delivered to Lennie the next morning and a week or so later I heard back from her:

‘Lindy – it is utterly fascinating – riveting, bitchy, poignant, intelligent, exciting. I really love your writing style which is intimate and dignified’.

That she liked it so much was great news, but amongst the myriad foibles of publishing – a steep learning curve for me – came a message  that as the book was so long, Lennie herself was backed-up and couldn’t do the full edit. Instead it went ‘out’ to one of her favoured editors.  It was a tricky time for me and, in truth, I struggled. As I said in the book’s acknowledgements, during this final process while I was giving birth to my ‘twins’, my Agent was off on maternity leave having her own daughter! Being away during the actual line-editing and printing process meant I was left largely alone to ‘learn on the job’ about essentials like picture permissions and clearances (authors are expected to pay for ‘world’ clearance even if their work doesn’t make it to print other than in their home territory). Perhaps hardest of all was the realisation that authors have little (if any) creative input into the cover design of their precious book. As visual creativity had been such a huge part of my life for so long, this hit me quite hard. I craved a cover that would resonate with young, style-conscious cosmetics aficionados. I lost that debate, and the cover was a tad matronly! On the winning side, the three picture plates, super paper quality and illustrated end-papers were all marvellous. No paperback can ever thrill as much as a handsome hardback with enough photographs to properly explore the story.

Elizabeth Arden’s salon ‘Hip Roll & Pelvic Floor’ exercise regime. 

Elizabeth Arden’s health spa, ‘Maine Chance’ hoop exercise at the lake shore.

Miss Arden was very keen on deportment…

Arden’s ‘Gymnasium moderne’ opened in New York in 1937 showcasing her friend Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting Miracle Flower 

The gymnastic bars at Helena Rubinsteins New York Salon 1937

Face masques were an anchor Rubinstein treatment. 

Madame Rubinstein, ‘the Beauty Scientist’ in her laboratory.

A makeup class at the Helena Rubinstein salon on 5th Avenue.

Published at last

War Paint published in the spring of 2003 and we celebrated with a party at the Polish Hearth Club in South Kensington where we had a jazz band, drank vodka shots and champagne and sent our guests away with a goody-bag containing gifts courtesy of Elizabeth Arden. Not the usual everyday book launch!

Our family loves giving parties and I couldn’t resist sharing this huge, life-changing moment with cheer leaders who had helped me on the journey.

With my husband Colin and our sons Oliver and Max

With our family friend journalist John Rendall


After decades working with designers who faced show reviews twice a year, I was prepared for the worst in facing up to my own. Happily, the story about these two pioneering women at the helm of their businesses struck a chord with pretty much everyone who wrote a review. In the end, the cuttings filled three scrap books. Here’s a few of my favourites:

  Like Hollywood, the cosmetics business is about dreams and illusions, deception and hope. Lindy Woodhead’s riveting and thoroughly researched biography of Rubinstein and Arden, a work of chutzpah in its own right, focusses on the rivalry between the two queens and the assaults on them by their younger competitors, Revson and Lauder, and in doing so provides the definitive biography of women and their relationships to their faces in the twentieth century.” Linda Grant, The Guardian

“As Lindy Woodhead makes clear as base coat, they lied seamlessly and social-climbed shamelessly. These were women who never retracted their claws”. Holly Finn, Financial Times

“They were two of the most extraordinary women of the 20 century; fiercely feminist before the word was invented, their faces were their fortunes and their weapons were war paint. Their story is so riveting it reads like the movie that will surely be made”. Suzy Menkes, International Herald Tribune

“An impressively researched and intelligent account of these two lives as a parable of their times and ours……..there is an authority and an integrity that is often absent from beauty/fashion journalism”. Irish Independent

All the reviews were inspiring in one way or the other, but something I loved was being invited to write about their story myself for Vogue.

As author’s do, I went on the road promoting the book, invited to talk and sign at various bookshops. One of my favourite destinations was the famous W. H. Smith on the rue de Rivoli in Paris. For Brits in Paris, Smith’s was so much more than a book shop as since it opened in 1903, it also housed the most charming ‘tea rooms’ where you could have toasted tea-cakes, crumpets and a pot of tea. A long-time favourite amongst the city’s fashion cognoscenti – and just around the corner from Chanel’s headquarters in rue Cambon – you could often spot Karl Lagerfeld sitting by the window having poached eggs on toast at tea-time. In 1990, the much-loved tea rooms closed down, so by the time I was doing a signing in the shop, I couldn’t order my favourite cup of Earl Grey. But it was still a thrill for me that the book shop I had dashed into over the years to buy a title to lull me to sleep after ‘back-stage fashion show’ pressure was now stocking my own title.

Window of W.H.Smith

Supper after the event with  our sons and friends in Paris Jean Pierre and Anne Mongon

The good news for tea-drinking fans is that three decades later, W.H.Smith have re-opened their tea rooms, this time in conjunction with Twinings Teas of London. You can buy a British newspaper and tuck yourself up with a scone, jam and cream – and yes, they do still stock my books!

Later that autumn, when I was on a media tour in Dublin, the famous doorman at the Shelbourne Hotel greeted me with the cheery words (forgive the phonetic spelling) ‘Sure and they’ll be making a fillum of your book so they will’. I loved him for saying that and it seemed to herald a flurry of film enquiries: Hollywood Studio executives sent emails; Elton John’s film company got in touch and (then) BBC television drama producer Sue Hogg made an appealing overture. In the end she stood aside in favour of Tracey Schofield of BBC Films, who optioned the book. Despite their enthusiasm, a joint partner failed to materialise, meaning the project fizzled out – as so many film options tend to do. But I was proud it got as far as it did.

War Paint published in America early in 2004. This was a nail-biting experience for me. and I longed for it to be well received. I had been backwards and forwards to New York so many times during the process of writing the story that it felt as though I still had an office there. I researched in the New York Public Library, at Columbia University’s rare book department and at Conde Nast’s magnificent archive. I interviewed a raft of experts involved in the art, antiques and beauty world. On one memorable visit Colin joined me when our friends Mallory Hathaway and her brother Pete hosted a party for us with a very special guest – Kenneth Jay Lane – who was hugely entertained to know I had been the ingenue clutching the guest list at his London boutique opening 35 years earlier! He was a triumph of style, wit, humour and delicious gossip, as was my old friend, author and raconteur extraordinaire John Richardson. They have both since died and I miss them and their astute observations on a more graceful world fast slipping out of sight.

On that same trip I was at a lunch party with one of my own personal heroines – Barbara Taylor Bradford – who was with her inseparable companion of heart and soul, her husband Bob. She wrote me a cheering note which I so appreciated. As I write this (approaching Christmas 2019), the indomitable Barbara has just published her 33rd – or maybe 34th – novel and done so whilst grieving over the death of her cherished husband earlier this year. I remember them getting up from the lunch table to leave early and Bob laughing as he apologised for breaking up the party, pointing at his wife: ‘she’s working, time she got back into the chair!’ He was of course quite right. You can’t write if you linger too long over lunch. In fact, ‘writing time’ usually means isolation, during which publishers imposing demanding deadlines want their authors to work flat-out so they can cut, paste and tweak. The process complete, authors are expected to emerge like a butterfly from the chrysalis, coiffured, roots re-touched, tired skin beautifully buffed and tatty nails manicured – ready to go on the glad-handing circuit to plug and promote the book. It is relentless.

In the USA, my ‘old-school’ publishers (Wiley) weren’t in the business of lighting fireworks, but they orchestrated a graceful release which resulted in a major review in the New York Times Review of Books, paving the way for a steady stream of sales. I was soon contacted by a documentary film maker who worked with the prestigious cable network PBS (Public Broadcasting Service). I agreed a video adaptation of my book, although wary of the name War Paint, the producers decided to call it the Powder & The Glory.

Next up was a book tour to Australia and New Zealand. After ‘speaking and signing’ in Melbourne and Sydney, I flew to Auckland, then to Wellington and Christchurch – having taken a day or so out of the schedule to meet up with my cousin Trisha who lives on remote Harbour Island, off the coast of Auckland. Travelling back to London via Hong Kong, I mulled over the fact that I had thought writing would somehow be a ‘’quieter life’ than criss-crossing Europe and the Atlantic as a fashion publicist. I was wrong! 2003-2004 were just about the busiest years of my working life.

By now, the Foreign Rights department at Ed Victor’s had swung into action, meaning editions in translation were soon stacking-up on my bookshelves:

The Polish edition

The Taiwanese edition

The Japanese edition

I had barely unpacked my luggage when a request came in to fly to Tokyo to spend a ‘week with the media’ arranged by my Japanese publishers Artist House. It was a ‘zip in and out’ week with barely time to see much of Tokyo, but the buzz of the city was absolutely extraordinary.

In London meanwhile, arrangements were underway to publish the paperback in July 2004. At least that was the plan. And then Estee Lauder died. Those old enough to remember the forcefield of crackling energy and ambition that was Mrs Lauder will never forget her. As the saying goes ‘they don’t make them like that anymore’. It’s probably just as well as she was totally, overwhelmingly exhausting. Mrs Lauder was the natural ‘heir’ to the Arden empire which had been left in disarray at the time of Elizabeth’s death in 1966. Lauder’s business was up and running by then and she was ably supported by her husband, while later she could count on her superbly loyal and talented son Leonard to join the ranks. But it was always – and only – Estee who called the shots.

Over at Virago, the marketing department thought her demise would help sell my own title and they brought the publishing date up to April. I entreated them not to publish that early, trying to explain that the amount of eulogies and features about the famously rich and successful Mrs Lauder would completely overshadow my book about her predecessors. It wasn’t to be, and they went ahead. I did what I could to help by writing several features but with the emphasis on Estee Lauder my own book slipped quietly into the background. 

Having met Estee Lauder myself and knowing how the beauty business works, I was invited to write about her by the Daily Telegraph and their colour magazine Stella. Those who are curious about the ‘doyenne grand-dame’ can check my observations out here

This being the point at which an author would be able to turn to their closest professional advisor to discuss the next steps, I found myself rather lost. At this time I was without an Agent – Lizzie Kremer having left Ed Victor’s for pastures new. Agent’s ‘moving on’ is a conundrum for all authors. Do they stay ‘put’ and end up on a different Agent’s list in the same office – or do they ‘switch and go’ with who they know? If the latter, will the new Agency be the right ‘home’ for an author’s work? It’s a balancing act to get right and a crucial move in a writer’s career, made worse for me as I was so new to the game.

Invited by Lizzy to join her at the new Agency, I hesitated. Ed Victor himself was unfortunately unwell at the time and I didn’t know his other Agents – nor they me! It was a difficult call. In the end it was Lennie Goodings at Virago who came up with the solution by introducing me to a dynamic American living in London called Stephanie Cabot who headed up the books division at the international Agency William Morris. We hit it off at once. I joined WMA where things seemed to auger well for the future. It was, I reasoned the perfect time to ‘move on’. To leave my first book behind me and concentrate on what to do next.