Helena Rubinstein wrote—or rather commissioned—two autobiographies that merely serve to perpetuate her legend, and therefore cannot really be trusted… But they are enough to get a good idea of his extraordinary woman. There are also a couple of biographies written about her, as well as the memoir of Patrick O’Higgins, her secretary during the last 20 years of her life. His words are at times rather biting—it must be said she didn’t treat him especially well—but he remains affectionate, which make this account worthwhile.
In Paris, I had access to the numerous archives of the Rubinstein company; I was able to sift through 14 boxes of memories—Dora Maar’s photos of Helena’s apartment in Paris by the Quai de Béthune, newspaper clippings, press files, transcriptions of radio interviews, reports of the branding strategy in the 1950s, and hundreds of photos.
Once in New York, I had the opportunity to visit the Foundation before it closed its doors and auctioned off its collection of paintings. She had had her portraits done by Salvador Dali, Marie Laurencin, Jacques Helleu, Christian Bérard. Helena’s son’s daughter-in-law Suzanne Slesin also had a great collection of archives which she has compiled in a beautiful book entitled Helena Rubinstein: Over the Top. I met her on several occasions and she told me about her fascinating encounter with Madame Rubinstein in the ’60s, when she was only 16 years old, and how dazzled she was upon her visit to Helena’s apartment on Park Avenue. It was at once baroque and a complete mess—a little “over the top” at times—but her style was unbelievably audacious, as she combined for example “Negro art” with contemporary furniture in a way no one would ever dreamed of doing at the time.
I spoke with some of her rare family members who are still alive, including a young cousin who escaped the Shoah with her mother and whom Madame took in after the war and the son of her director in France, Emmanuel Ameisen, who was also her first husband’s nephew.
Trawling through the genealogy sites online I managed to find identity papers, passports, and many newspapers of the time, both American and Australian. Her career truly began in Australia, that’s where her first interviews were conducted, her first adverts placed. One of which I found was dated back to 1903, featuring an actress praising Helena’s “Valaze” cream—the true precursor to “Because I’m worth it.”
I would have liked to learn more about her first husband Arthur Ameisen, who went under the alias of Edward Titus, an intellectual, journalist, and art lover, who set up the bookshop on Delambre street in Montparnasse and published Kiki’s Memoirs by Kiki de Montparnasse as well as the French translation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. He too was a fascinating character. He was a prominent member of the “Roaring Twenties” crowd, and influenced his wife’s artistic taste to a great extent. But what was he up to before they met in Australia and then got married in London? I had the opportunity to meet his second wife in Cannes, Erica, who was 38 years his junior, but sadly she was suffering from Alzheimer’s, and I was unable to glean much information from her.
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The book’s style, setting, and protagonist invite the question: It’s a first-person coming-of-age debut. It takes place largely in New York and Boston, where I’ve spent most of my life. And the main character—the Zinsky of the title—is my age.
But my honest answer is this: “The life I’ve lived is different from the tale I spin about a fictional character named Zinsky. But I’ve used plenty of ammunition from my life to create Zinsky and his story.”
The thing is—there’s heavy ammunition, and there’s light ammunition.
In the category of heavy ammo, I’d list the following:
- My parents separated when I was six. Same thing happens to Zinsky.
- My mother was an English teacher. That, too, is the profession of Zinsky’s mother.
- I’m a zealot of all things related to literature and football. So is Zinsky.
And yet, I never quite feel like the heavy ammo provides the entire picture. The book contains dozens of minor elements—in the form of small descriptions, single scenes, and turns of phrase—that are also autobiographical. This is what I call “light ammo.”
For example: There’s a wedding scene in Chapter 21, in which two characters—bored by the ceremonies—play a game of prayerbook baseball. Here’s how it works: Zinsky whispers a page number to Jimmy Calipari, the character sitting next to him. Jimmy attempts to open his prayerbook to exactly that page. If he succeeds, he’s hit a home run. If he gets within five pages, it’s a triple. Within 10, a double. Within 15, a single. Beyond 15, it’s an out. So the game begins, with the same general rules—three outs to a half-inning—as regular baseball.
A friend taught me this game in seventh grade. We were sitting next to each other during the Bar Mitzvah ceremony of another friend. We were bored out of our skulls. And this was 1987, so you couldn’t just take out a smartphone.
So you see, prayerbook baseball’s appearance in Zinsky is an autobiographical element. It’s not the heavy stuff of location, vocation, or family; but any way you slice it, it’s material from my life that I mined to create a fictional scene.
The point is, it’s easy to think of a novel’s autobiographical elements in terms of big-picture similarities between the author’s life and the life of his or her main character.
But just as often, it’s the small stuff.