Helen’s biography

She was born in Krakow, in Kazimierz, at 14 Szeroka Street. Her father first traded in kerosene (13 Józefa Street) and then dealt in buying eggs. Helenka, the eldest of the siblings, was studying at the VI Szkola Ludowa (VI People’s School), and at the same time she was helping her father in his business, to be more precise: in his business, because the business was so bad that Mr. Herzli Naftali was seriously thinking about returning to his hometown Dębica.

Helen's biography

However, the wise persistence of his wife, Mrs. Gitel, caused the family to decide to continue slapping down a bounty on “Kaźmirz.” Uncle Luis came to the rescue, declaring an invitation to Australia for one of his five nieces. Helenka was sent as the oldest and most resistant to scandal. She left for the antipodes in 1890, taking with her, apart from a few patched pockets, thirteen jars of cosmetic cream, made by a dermatologist from Krakow, Dr. Jacob Lykusky, a Hungarian by origin. It was the latest gift from a mother concerned about her first-born daughter’s messy, dry skin.

The pomade turned out to be sensational: – ‘In just a week you’ve become unrecognizably beautiful,’ said her sea companions with envy, and the wise Helenka immediately sold them some of the stock she had taken from Cracow.

From Australia she wrote to Dr. Lykusky, and he came immediately, smelling good business. Together they earned first thousands, then millions on the production of cosmetics. Then Helena (well, already Helena then) built her huge cosmetic empire on all continents (30 thousand factories, stores and salons, 100 million of good old dollars).

She took from Cracow one of the most beautiful traits of Cracow: thrift. She just couldn’t tame her wild passion for pearls. Still, as she meticulously calculated, her empire was to last 300 years. For the time being, she does indeed live on, although she herself is no longer with us: the world queen of cosmetics, born in 1872 into a family of Galician Jewish paupers, Helena Rubinstein died in 1965.

Before her death, like any truly great lady, she wrote diaries. They show that she came from a wealthy family of Galician oil workers (at that time – at the turn of the century – 5% of the world oil production came from our Carpathians), received a thorough and comprehensive education in Switzerland, and then returned to the palace in Krakow, where the richest people of Europe and both Americas vied for her hand. Her mother kept her on a tight rein, not allowing any romance. However, the heart is not an servant, especially for a young, beautiful (no skin problems there) girl.

Worried about her “serious and dangerous” affair with a deadly handsome Krakow opera singer, the family sent Helen to the antipodes as soon as possible. There her beauty brought all the gentlemen to their knees without exception, while the fame of the mysterious rich stranger from some, what’s his name? – Cracow? – quickly reached as far as New York. We can guess the rest.

It is a little more difficult to come to terms with the fact that not a single page of Helenka’s memoirs mentions her escape from hunger and poverty. It’s a pity, because it would have been romantic and true. And the whole story reminds me, for some reason, when I read the biographies of some politicians I have known for years in the newspapers.

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