Non Fiction


18
Apr 15

Shellshock!

When Esther and the philosopher moved out of London and acquired more living-space, they got down, or up, to breeding. The result arrived Saturday.

The due date was Sunday. I came Friday evening, to hold the fort and the existing baby while Esther produced the new one and the philosopher helped.

I was apprehensive on several fronts.  Mainly, I am deeply aware that It Can Happen To You. I had a pregnancy, before the one that ended in Esther, that turned out to be a Down’s baby: it was terminated at 20 weeks, not a fun proceeding. And recently, some friends had an undiagnosed Down’s grandchild. Esther was routinely tested at 12 weeks: she had the lowest possible likelihood, 10,000 to one against, so there was no amniocentesis. Even so, there must always be an unfortunate one alongside the 9,999 luckies. There could be no relaxing until the baby was born and declared normal.  The night (or nights) he spent alone with me would be the first he’d ever spent without at least one parent present to put him to bed. And babies aren’t always in a hurry: I. took three days to complete the journey.

There was also the little question of how I. would react.  A friend of ours with a spectacularly grumpy (grown-up) daughter told me her previously sunny character had totally changed when her younger brother arrived.  And no amount of There’s Going To Be A Baby books (his favourite reading recently), nor discussions of his mother’s ballooning size, can really give a young child a sense of the impending reality.

Esther’s waters broke Saturday morning, and we waved her and the philosopher off without apparent trauma just before teatime. I. had a play, watched the regulation half-hour’s telly, made no more than the usual fuss when the ration was not extended, ate his tea, had another play. But when bathtime and bedtime approached, he burst into tears – real, terrified sobs, such as I’ve rarely seen him shed. Where were mummy and daddy?   In hospital for Mummy to have her baby, I told him. And when were they going to come back?

That, of course, was the facer. He wanted a definite schedule – After you’ve gone to sleep or, They’ll be here when you wake up. But that was just the kind of answer I couldn’t give him. They would be back, I assured him. When? he wailed. And there we stalled. I kept checking my phone: not a peep. I thought it wouldn’t be too long – everything seemed to be happening much faster than last time (not that that was saying much). I told him I hoped his daddy would be there in the morning. But I couldn’t be sure. Probably he would. But maybe he wouldn’t.

He didn’t want his bath, climbed out as fast as I inserted him, and wept when I put him to bed. Even three Thomas the Tank Engine stories didn’t help. ‘Do you want me to stay till you’re asleep?’ I asked. ‘No, by myself,’ he sobbed. So I left him to it, and when I got downstairs there was the message. The baby had arrived, all was well, and in the fulness of time the philosopher would be back. See you in a bit, he said, though when I went to bed at 11.30 he still hadn’t arrived. But in the morning, miraculously, there he was.

A little later we all went to view the new arrival. The philosopher, a tender and emotional man, billed and cooed, but I., once he’d received the baby’s present to him, and we’d all exclaimed over the miraculous perception, on the part of a person less than 24 hours old, that a car transporter was the one thing he’d always wanted, asked when we could go. Shamefully, I felt much the same. I’m not one for small babies; one newborn, even when it’s Esther’s, looks much like another to me. ‘You have other talents,’ she assured me kindly. Let’s hope she’s right.

On the way home I. said, ‘Will my little brother stay at the hospital?’ I explained that a) it was a sister, and b) she would be part of the family from now on. He didn’t comment; fortunately a row of tractors hove into sight and claimed his full attention. Esther tells me that today he has several times remarked that he loves his sister. H’m, well. Perhaps if he says it often enough he’ll convince himself. Meanwhile, actions, I suspect, may speak louder than words.

 

 


5
Apr 10

Ugly Beauty

Ugly Beauty: Helena Rubinstein, L’Oreal and the Blemished History of Looking Good

Everyone has heard of Helena Rubinstein, international queen of cosmetics.  Tiny, plump, spike-heeled, bowler hatted and extravagantly jeweled, she was for many years one of the fixtures of the New York scene as she hurried between her vast apartment on Park Avenue and her salon at 8 East 57th Street, in one hand an enormous leather bag stuffed with dollar bills, business notes, old tissues and spare earrings, in the other a paper sack containing a copious lunch.  Instantly recognizable to all from the advertisements that carried her photograph, she was energy personified, at once comic and awe-inspiring.

Few, by contrast, have heard of Eugène Schueller – though everyone is familiar with L’Oréal, the firm he founded in Paris in 1909.   Like Rubinstein he was born poor; like her, he rode to riches on the back of women’s compulsion to beautify themselves.  Unlike her, however, neither his name nor his face were familiar to those who bought his hairdyes.   Immured within his empire, travelling between factories in a Rolls equipped as an office on wheels, he shunned personal publicity.  As for entertaining, he quite simply had no time for it – was indeed so removed from society that when his wife died and he wished to remarry, the only woman he could find – even though he was by then one of the richest men in France – was his daughter’s governess.

In 1988, Schueller’s business swallowed Rubinstein’s.  In the normal way of things the takeover would have gone unnoticed except in the business press.   But Rubinstein had been a Jew, and Schueller, during the German occupation, a leading fascist collaborator.  And although they had never met during their lifetimes, and were both, by then, long dead, the consequences of this potentially lethal opposition outlived them both, exploding in a series of scandals that ricocheted around the world.

It may seem odd – certainly unexpected – that a history of the beauty business should include an excursion into fascist politics.  But cosmetics, unlike clothes, have always been a political hot potato.  Rubinstein’s and Schueller’s stories show why this has been so – and why it continues to be so today.

Published by Denoel in France
Published by Harper Collins in the USA.
Published by McClelland and Stewart in Canada.