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“Rouge: A Novel of Beauty and Rivalry,” by Richard Kirshenbaum

The glitz and glamour of the high-end cosmetic industry provides the intrigue in this story of a rivalry between two women whose competition for the top spot in cosmetics lasts several decades. 

This is Richard Kirshenbaum’s first novel, and often that means something is lacking in writing style or plot, but Kirshenbaum comes from a career in advertising and promotion and is the author of several nonfiction books as well as magazine columns. He brings a polished style to this story that is loosely based on the lifelong rivalry between Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. There are also themes reminiscent of Avon cosmetics and the first African American woman millionaire, Madam C.J. Walker.

As the novel opens in the 1920s, Josiah Herzenstein leaves the Jewish shtetl where she was born, emigrates to Australia and works in her uncle’s drugstore. She soon tries selling skin cream based on recipes from her relatives back in Poland. Being motivated by spite comes early. Josiah’s uncle isn’t happy about her spending time selling her own products while on the job, so he fires her. With the small amount of money she has saved, she rents a counter at a salon across the street from the drugstore. Before long, Josiah is successful enough to start opening her own salons. She then moves to London and eventually to the United States. She finds that the name “Herzenstein” is an immediate barrier to renting due to restrictions against Jews, so she changes her name to Josephine Herz.

Josephine’s main rival doesn’t have to completely remake herself or hide a Jewish heritage, but Constance Gardiner also has to rebrand herself from a humble background and find a way to access the wealthy women who could be her best clients. After an education at an appropriate women’s college, she takes a job with a cosmetics company and comes up with an idea that is revolutionary at the time, to not only sell a product, but provide an employment opportunity for the many women who would like to earn some of their own money. The “Gardiner Girls” have immediate success selling cosmetics door-to-door.

Constance is always looking for angles to appeal to unserved groups of women, and her hiring of CeeCee Jones provides a look at the racism of that time. Half white and half African American, CeeCee would have been denied entry to many hotels and restaurants. By changing her last name to Lopez, she can “pass” as Brazilian. With this new persona, she becomes an exotic beauty who is welcome, at least when she is with her white friends. CeeCee has developed hair products for African American women, a segment of society that is just beginning to join the workforce and have money to spend. The backing of an established business as well as her created identity allow her to make direct contact with customers.

As the novel progresses through the 1930s and 1940s, plot twists related to the McCarthy era, blacklists, World War II, and the Nazis add depth to the story. Affairs and forbidden same-sex relationships lead to blackmail and threats of exposure. 

The details of the obstacles faced by women, Jews, and minorities are thoughtfully presented. The hypocrisy of the classism and racism is apparent – many people know that Josephine Herz is Jewish, but because she has disguised that with a name change and backed it up with money, she is allowed to rent in restricted buildings. CeeCee is allowed in white-only establishments for similar reasons, always working in association with white businesspeople until she finally has enough money that she is taken seriously on her own merits.

Josephine and Constance coexist with at least the appearance of a cordial relationship until they both start working on the first mascara with an applicator brush. CeeCee defects from Gardiner and joins Herz after a botched attempt at witness intimidation, and she brings secret details about the product formula and package design. Spying lawyers and rival patent applications leave Josephine’s Herz company triumphant in the end, with her patents preventing her rival from marketing a competing mascara, but Josephine suffers the ultimate tragedy when she learns that her youngest sister, who never left Poland, died in a concentration camp.

Meanwhile Constance manages an almost equal amount of success with a line of eyebrow pencils. In a bit of a concession, Constance focuses on women of a slightly lower economic status, opening a string of “budget” salons to appeal to the aspirations of working-class women who now have some disposable income. 

One could say that Constance had the final triumph – she outlives Josephine and attends her funeral in 1983, the opening scene of the novel, which gains its meaning only at the end. But now in her 80s, Constance’s demise is inevitable as well, and a brief epilogue demonstrates that no matter the competition, wins, and losses, everyone is about equal in the end.

There is always an interest in exotic locations and the lives of the rich, especially when there are scandals and secrets to be revealed. Sony Pictures bought the movie rights to “Rouge,” so you may be getting an advance glimpse of an upcoming feature film when you read this novel.

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