I KNOW ELIZABETH ARDEN from jars that have found their way onto my bathroom vanity over the years. I know Helena Rubinstein from snatches of memories . . . of magazine ads? TV commercials?
I know these were two real women, not just brand names. But did I understand that the two women had, basically, invented the skincare industry as we know it today? No, I didn’t. Did I know they had engaged in a decades-long high-stakes feud that rocketed both of them into the financial stratosphere? Not that either.
I found these things out by seeing “Señorita y Madame: The Secret War of Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein,” playing its last performances this Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the GALA Hispanic Theatre on 14th Street NW. And as Celia Wren pointed out in her Washington Post review of this engaging play, “A mortal enemy sure comes in handy.”
The play, by Venezuelan-born playwright Gustavo Ott, is lots of fun (the Post called it “double-barreled fun,” so there!). But although it’s lively and humorous, sometimes at the expense of its two protagonists, I found it terrific for what it was not.
Two high-powered women clawing their way to the top, two women who hate each other, each wanting to outdo the other . . . and yet the play was not a catfight, which is how so many female rivalries are portrayed.
“Señorita y Madame” is more like Sotheby’s versus Christie’s, or Steve Jobs’s rivalry with Bill Gates. Serious, winner-take-all (or at least most), but not petty. A clash of beauty titans.
Oh, okay, there were petty things, but they were on an as-large-as-life scale: One buys a full-page ad in a newspaper, the other takes out a whole spread; one opens a salon in a new city, the other buys an entire building down the street. You get the picture. Who was the first to market eye makeup to “regular” women? Who produced the first waterproof mascara? They one-upped each other, stopping along the way to appear on the cover of Time magazine (Arden) and become, at one point, one of the wealthiest women in the world (Rubinstein).
This is a talky play—I like talky plays—but even with only two hours’ worth of acting, I got a real sense of what the skincare and cosmetics landscape looked like before Arden and Rubinstein (Rubinstein was older and came first)—and before that world was divvied up between Revlon and Estée Lauder. (Don’t know what I mean? Estée Lauder owns dozens of brands most of us think of as independent, even renegade. Bobbi Brown? An EL company. Smashbox? Ditto. La Mer? M·A·C? Jo Malone London? If EL doesn’t create it, the company acquires it.) Today, the Helena Rubinstein brand is owned by L’Oréal, while Arden is an independent company listed on the NASDAQ.
Driven by their humble origins, a poor Polish Jew from Krakow (who first emigrated to Australia, BTW) and a farmgirl from Canada brought creams and lotions out of the lab, infused them with non-medical scents and turned them into appealing items for our dressing tables and makeup bags. They oversold their products outrageously, creating “problem skin” that only they could cure, promising all sorts of miracles (though it would be left to Charles Revson to explain that at Revlon he was selling “hope in a jar”).
Seeing the play inspired me to find out more. So now I’m reading “War Paint: Madame Helena Rubinstein, Miss Elizabeth Arden, Their Lives, Their Times, Their Rivalry,” a 2004 book by Lindy Woodhead. Consider “Señorita y Madame” a Cliffs Notes version of these two life stories, if you will. But the play, which is performed in Spanish with English surtitles, is a window onto a lively, fascinating subject I knew little to nothing about.
With his playwright’s prerogative, Ott allows us to imagine a meeting, late in life, of the two women, whose paths cross in a restaurant. One cannot hate someone whom one disdains, declares one of the women. And they follow that with, in turn, “I don’t disdain you!” Message received.
“Señorita y Madame” by Gustavo Ott. GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20010; 202-234-7174, www.galatheatre.org. Performances continue Thursday, February 25, through Sunday, February 28. Tickets $38 to $42.