There’s a show — and showdown — now unfolding at the Nederlander Theatre.
“Her clientele is strictly Second Avenue,” says Elizabeth Arden of her archrival, Helena Rubinstein.
“We don’t speak that name — that name is verboten,” says Rubinstein, of Arden.
And don’t get either of them started on what they considered lesser brands — Revlon, Maybelline and the oh-so-French-sounding Estée Lauder. “It’s Esther,” Arden shouts, revealing Lauder’s real name. “Esther from Queens!”
The beauty business was never pretty, and that’s made clear in “War Paint,” a new Broadway musical directed by Michael Greif, depicting the rivalry between two cosmetics industry giants, and starring two legends in their own right — Patti LuPone (as Rubinstein) and Christine Ebersole (as Arden), both two-time Tony Award winners.
Opening at the Nederlander on April 6, the musical — by “Grey Gardens” team Scott Frankel (music), Michael Korie (lyrics) and Doug Wright (book) — tracks the rise of these women, who overcame the Depression, war shortages, ill-fated marriages and sexism, running their own companies and forever changing the way women look at themselves in the mirror. And, all the while, loathing each other.
“We’re not looking for a campy, diva slap-down,” says Frankel. “Both women were so accomplished and, ultimately, both these actresses were intent on keeping us honest, determined to have this show depict what it’s really like for women in business — a real female experience.”
It seems hard to believe there was a time when cosmetics weren’t part of the average woman’s tool kit. But back in the early 20th century, makeup was the province of actresses and prostitutes. Arden and Rubinstein changed all that, opening up luxurious salons in midtown and riding the wave of female emancipation. (Arden handed out lipstick at suffragist rallies.) Makeup soon became symbolic of a woman’s freedom, a way to become whomever she wanted to be.
“It’s interesting — makeup gives women a chance to feel better about themselves, but it also hooks them, like a pusher,” says Frankel.
Both Arden and Rubinstein sold a plethora of creams and lotions, establishing sales tactics (Arden’s pretty packaging, Rubinstein’s scientific-sounding ingredients) that are cornerstones of the beauty biz today. It’s a woman’s “duty . . . to look beautiful,” proclaimed an early Arden ad. Another, from Rubinstein, assured that makeup was a good hedge against infidelity: “Be faithful” to your beauty regimen and your man will “be faithful to you.”
That kind of hard sell doesn’t surprise LuPone.
“Rubinstein came from poverty in Poland, bucked her father for not marrying the man he chose for her and was banished from the house,” says the Northport native. “She was smart, shrewd, a bit ruthless. She wanted to succeed.”
Arden, too, came from hardscrabble roots, morphing from Canadian farm girl (born Florence Nightingale Graham) to high-society matron (with a name she dreamed up), selling fantasy with face creams.
Both women were local fixtures — when not at the office, Arden was often found at her barn at Belmont Park in Elmont, rubbing her famed Eight Hour Cream into the legs of the thoroughbreds she raised and raced there. (Tragically, the barn burned in 1937, killing three horses.)
Rubinstein had a factory in Queens, then a state-of-the-art plant on 20 acres in East Hills, built in 1953, complete with its own railroad siding and 1,000 employees.
In 1964, at age 92, Rubinstein suffered a stroke while visiting the factory, and died hours later. She was buried at Mt. Olivet cemetery in Queens, leaving an estate valued at more than $100 million. A year later, Arden, 87, left her Belmont stables feeling ill, suffered two strokes and died a few days later. (She owed $35 million in back taxes.)
Both firms were soon sold, and only the Arden brand is still available in the United States (recently bought by competitor Revlon).
“Their tragic flaw was that they were exclusive, not inclusive,” says LuPone, noting how they clung to snob appeal when young people in the 1950s and ’60s wanted makeup that was quick, easy and cheap.
Still, their legacy — in bathroom vanities, and now on Broadway — lives on.
“When I was a teenager, I felt like, ohmygod, nobody can see me like this, I have to wear makeup all the time,” says Ebersole. “As you get older, there’s more self-acceptance. I don’t worry about people seeing me without makeup anymore Although . . .”
Then she laughs.
“I try to at least have a bit of lipstick on.”
Worth the wait
Women have long dreaded long lines outside theater restrooms, but at the Nederlander they now get something for their trouble. The women’s restrooms are stocked with Elizabeth Arden products to sample — two scents, two moisturizers, including Arden’s Eight Hour Cream, soon to be sold at the theater.
“Women keep coming up to me, showing me their own Eight Hour Cream in their purses,” says composer Scott Frankel. Arden would’ve loved that. (Meanwhile, at Mt. Olivet Cemetery, Rubinstein is no doubt rolling over in her grave.) — JOSEPH V. AMODIO