There was a time when “nice girls” didn’t wear makeup. Max Factor changed all that. Born Maksymilian Faktorowicz in the late 1800s to a poverty-stricken Polish family, he worked as a beautician for the Russian royal family—until bigotry forced him to flee to America, where he opened a small cosmetics store in Los Angeles.
His work caught the eye of the burgeoning film industry, and soon Max Factor was the makeup of the stars, and Factor himself was designing the legendary looks of Katharine Hepburn, Rita Hayworth, Bette Davis, and countless other style icons of the day. But he also brought makeup to the masses, not just to movie stars. A revolutionary of the industry, he invented false eyelashes, lip gloss, foundation, eye shadow, the eyebrow pencil, concealer, wand-applicator mascara, and water-resistant makeup, even as he developed such concepts as color harmony and the celebrity endorsements that are the backbone of today’s cosmetics business. Now, ordinary women could add a little big-screen beauty to their own lives, with Max Factor products sold in department stores and drugstores everywhere.
At once a rags-to-riches story, a portrait of Hollywood’s golden age, and a look inside the origins of a modern multibillion-dollar industry, Max Factor is “fascinating . . . you won’t be able to put it down” (Glamour).
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About the Author
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On a winter night in February 1904, twenty-seven-year-old Max Faktor huddled with his wife and three young children in a Russian forest, frightened more for the family he had kept secret for nearly five years than of the wind and snow or even the approaching czar's men calling his name. Only days earlier, Max Faktor was a favorite of the royal family and was esteemed by the royal court. Now he was being hunted as a fugitive.
Born in 1877 in Lodz, Poland, a town southwest of Warsaw with a developing textile industry, Max was one of ten children of Abraham and Cecilia Tandowsky Faktor. He never really knew his mother; she had died when he was a toddler. His father, a textile mill worker, worked long hours and was seldom home, so Max was raised by his older siblings. Little is known about his formal schooling, if indeed he had any. He did, however, have a Hebrew education — presumably at shul, studying the Talmud and Michnah — which he often neglected to help with the family finances. Although young Max dreamed of being an artist, at the age of seven he sold oranges, peanuts, and candy in the lobby of the Czarina Theater in his hometown, a job he later called his "introduction to the world of make-believe."
A year later Max worked as an assistant to a local apothecary, a man who not only supplied remedies, potions, and pills to the sick and ailing but provided dental care as well. When Max told his siblings about the things he was seeing and touching, they made faces and turned away in disgust, but Max was fascinated and eager to learn more.
Soon after his ninth birthday he apprenticed to Lodz's leading wigmaker and cosmetician. For four years he trained in tying and weaving human hair into wigs, creating coiffures, and compounding and applying make-up, using local actors as models. "Catering to loveliness," as he put it, was Max's first full-time job.
It gave him the experience he needed to join the staff of the famed hairstylist and make-up creator, Anton of Berlin. Max's time with Anton soon led him to Moscow, where at age fourteen he was attached to Korpo, wigmaker and cosmetician to the Imperial Russian Grand Opera. For the next four years he traveled from city to city as make-up artist to some of the greatest operatic singers of the time. Whenever the company performed for Czar Nicholas II and the royal family, as well as other nobility, the temperamental opera stars insisted they look their absolute best. Max remembered being stormed backstage before royal performances, as each demanded to be made beautiful. Max worked calmly and quickly despite such pressure. Luckily, he was ambidextrous and equally skilled at using either hand. The performers usually met with royal approval. But not always.
The teenager was the company's scapegoat, no matter what went wrong. If the tenor missed his cue, Max's make-up was to blame. If the diva's performance was off, perhaps her eyebrows hadn't been arched to her liking. If the conductor misplaced his score, it was because Max had kept him waiting. As the months wore on, Max was saddled with even more responsibilities: hair- dresser, prop boy, valet, gofer. His easygoing nature was often tested to the extreme, but Max took it all in stride. He was gaining valuable experience working with professionals and having his work admired by royalty.
Max remained with the Imperial Russian Grand Opera until his eighteenth birthday, when he was required by law to serve four years in the Russian army. Max wished to continue his theater work within the military, but the decision wasn't his. "The first day they picked me for the Hospital Corps," he recalled. "I was like a trained nurse. The doctor prescribed and I did the work. I did not like it but I learned much." He learned to bleed patients with cups and leeches and all he'd ever need to know about phrenology and skin disorders. During his years away his father remarried and his stepmother gave birth to a son they named John Jacob.
When Max's military service came to an end, he opened a small shop just outside Moscow, in the suburb of R'azan. Finding available space not far from the town square, Max, at twenty-two, became a proprietor, making and selling his own creams, rouges, fragrances, and wigs. For the first time in his life, he was working on his own and enjoying the responsibility and newfound freedom of being a shopkeeper. But all that changed when a traveling theatrical troupe passed through R'azan and a member of the company stopped at his little shop to buy some make-up. Unknown to Max, the troupe was on its way to Moscow to entertain the imperial family. Within weeks, Max's business took a royal upswing in sales and he was adopted by the summer court. It wasn't long before he was the cosmetician not only to Alexander Nicolaivich Romanoff, uncle to Czar Nicholas II, but also to the czar's personal physician and — once again — the Imperial Russian Grand Opera.
Max didn't want to return to the life he had known as a teenager working for the company, but he had no choice. His services had not been requested, they had been commanded. While Max was allowed to keep his shop, he knew he'd be forever on call, at the whim of the court favorites who wanted him to attend to their beautification, to create a new hairstyle, or to correct cosmetic problems, so that their eyes might sparkle, cheeks glow, and hair gleam when the czar of all Russia looked upon them. "All my attention went to their individual needs by showing them how to enhance their good points and conceal the less good," Max recalled years later.
Max was highly paid for his expertise, and he was constantly surrounded by the imperial family's dazzling wealth. He had never seen such an incredible display of jewelry — diamonds, rubies, emeralds, pearls — and gowns of velvet, silk, and satin. Soldiers and guards wore gold-braided uniforms, and armies of servants paraded about in exquisite liveries. Gigantic crystal chandeliers lit enormous rooms with polished parquet floors and Persian rugs. Curtains of sapphire and silver brocade hung from rods of gold at towering windows.
"I had but to ask and what I asked was mine," remembered Max, "but I was the same as a slave. The only thing I wanted was to be free." According to the strict rules of the czar's uncle, Max could not leave the court unescorted. "Every time I go out a dozen people watch what I am doing. They follow me. I have no life. I am only a creature to make beautiful the court, not to live myself." Once a week Max was allowed to return to his store in R'azan for a few hours, attend to business there, and collect supplies, but he never made the journey alone. Guards accompanied him, then remained outside in the carriage, waiting stiffly for him. Max compared those visits to R'azan to being a prisoner on parole.
He bided his time with the court patiently, just as he had a few years earlier as a teenager waiting to join the army. But one day, during a weekly trip to his shop, a slight, dark-eyed young girl from Moscow came in with her chaperone. She looked into each of the cases, then up at Max — who was instantly captivated — and asked him questions about his various powders, creams, and perfumes. Once her chaperone was out of earshot, examining a new hairdressing and testing some rouge in the light of the front window, they talked — but not about cosmetics. Her name was Esther Rosa. She would return another time, she said, and she did, repeatedly, only on her return visits she would slip through the back of a friend's house next to the store. Max would enter through the front door, supposedly on business, while the guards outside waited in the carriage.
Max could think only of the hour or so a week he'd be able to spend with Esther, whom he called Lizzie. He hoped for more and despaired that their moments together were so scarce. He cursed the fate that made him a prisoner to beauty instead of his own man. Worse, he knew he was bound to the rule that forbade anyone in service to the court to marry or even be involved romantically without permission. Yet he told himself that love would find a way.
It was Lizzie who found a way. As Max entered their secret meeting place one day, she rushed to tell him that she had discovered a rabbi who had agreed to marry them without a license. No license meant no paperwork to fall into the wrong hands. The following week Lizzie and the rabbi, who had been smuggled into the house, were waiting for Max. The rabbi united the couple in a quiet, solemn ceremony, then silently exited, leaving Max and Lizzie alone together. It seemed like only an instant before Max had to break away from his tearful bride. "We must think only about this happy day," he told her, leaving her to return to the waiting guards. "Till death do us part," he had heard the rabbi say at the brief ceremony. A mockery, when a cruel court kept the newlyweds apart for all but one hour a week.
As the carriage made its way back to the palace, Max, sitting between his guards, fought to control his emotions. While he was thankful to the rabbi who had married them, he knew no rabbi could protect him from certain doom should the czar or his uncle learn of the marriage. He feared for his young bride. What would happen to her if the secret marriage were discovered? Was she safe? Max could only try not to arouse suspicion.
There were times in the months ahead when Max was unable to see Lizzie, when the calendar was so crowded with events he simply could not get away. Once their children were born — first Freda, then Cecilia, then Davis — he agonized at not being able to live with his young family. There was no way Lizzie could bring the little ones to their secret meeting place and no way the carriage would stray from its familiar route to his shop in R'azan. He dreaded the thought of having his children grow up without a father. He knew how his own father had struggled.
There were other, more serious dangers. At the beginning of Nicholas II's reign, the Jewish population in the Russian Empire exceeded five million. By the early 1900s, the number had grown considerably despite the exodus of over a million Jews to other countries, mainly America, to escape poverty and persecution. Famine was common, and religious persecution was on the rise with the enactment of strict anti-Semitic legislation.
The Jews in Russia were never thought of as Russians. They were regarded as interlopers. But the Jewish people were not responsible for their increase in numbers on Russian soil. By annexing surrounding territories with significant Jewish populations, such as the Ukraine and Poland, Russia herself was to blame. In towns big and small within southwestern and western Russia, many essential members of the communities — tailors, apothecaries, shoemakers, glaziers, pub-keepers, cabinetmakers — were Jewish. Peasants depended largely on Jewish middlemen for the sale of their goods and produce, as well as their connections with suppliers of necessities. Jewish peddlers were familiar and indispensable figures.
Nicholas II feared a rise in Jewish power. If the Jews became stronger, he believed, they would overthrow the government. Although the royal family lived in seclusion, constantly protected by secret police and military guards, he felt his life, or his way of life, was threatened. In 1903 he ordered a siege on the Jews he so feared and hated, and burned down their villages. It was only the beginning.
Max knew his services were invaluable to the court, but he also knew his time was coming. His brother Nathan and uncle Fischel had already left Russia for a city called St. Louis in America, a land that promised freedom, happiness, and opportunity. St. Louis would play host to the World's Fair in the coming year, and Max wanted to be part of it. Perhaps he could exhibit his wares at the fair. Max dreamed of going to America, where he and his family could live openly together. But how could he make that happen? It seemed impossible.
Overworked and under pressure from the constant surveillance, Max began to lose weight. He had always been of small stature — barely five feet tall — and slight build. Most of the court didn't notice; they saw only themselves. Max had made a good friend at court, a general, whom he felt he could trust. Rarely in Moscow, the general had returned from the field to see the beautician looking poorly and troubled. He invited Max to speak with him privately, away from the guards.
Max finally shared his dangerous secret: about the girl he loved, the clandestine marriage, his young children, and his dream of America. The general listened quietly, then told Max it would be arranged.
The following day at court, the general remarked that the cosmetician looked ill and what a catastrophe it would be for the courtiers, what with the coming season of grand pageants and balls hosted by the czar at the palace.
The next morning Max had a visit from the general's personal physician. Max's face, arms, and hands were sallow; covered with a yellowish make-up, he looked jaundiced. The doctor reported to the court on the patient's poor appearance. With a mind to its hair, face, and complexion, the court unanimously recommended a stay of ninety days in Carlsbad, the centuries-old Bohemian spa famed for its thermal springs and healing waters, where ailing court members were often sent to recuperate. The doctor gave Max the news and left. The general told Max to be ready to leave for Carlsbad in the morning. He would arrange for Lizzie and the children to meet Max there. The rest would be up to Max.
Max was accompanied to Carlsbad by his guards. As the train pulled into the valley, he saw that the surrounding forested hills were covered with snow. Despite the cold, steam rose from the waters of the Tepla River, which ran through town. Magnificent castles and manors dotted the countryside. In the near distance was a beautiful church. It was still morning, but scores of people were milling about, many drinking from porcelain mugs. Max wondered how and where he would find his family. How long would his guards stay with him? But no sooner had he departed the train than the guards crossed the tracks for the return trip to Moscow. He limped weakly ahead with his bags, just in case they were still watching. He kept looking back until they were gone.
Max walked to the town center. In the main square by a fountain he spotted four figures huddled together against the cold. She was bundled from head to foot, but he instantly recognized the tallest figure. His limp disappeared as he ran to Lizzie and the children. They had a long moment in each other's arms, then they were off to the forest that flanked Carlsbad. Max knew it would only be hours, at most, before the palace was notified that he hadn't checked into the spa.
Lizzie had not slept since she received word from the general. She had gone to Max's shop in R'azan, taken as many of his products as she could carry, then packed food and blankets. Now she and Max and the youngsters were trudging through snow in the forest. They walked mainly at night when they were less likely to be detected, traveling seemingly endless miles until they reached a clearing in the woods. Ahead was a seaport where the steamship Molka III was boarding for America. Max happily paid the fare. Money was not a problem. Over the years, he had saved nearly $40,000, which he carried with him in a pouch. At last they were aboard and on their way.
Years later, whenever Max retold the story of his escape from Russia, he always closed by saying, "Thank God, there were no passports to America then."
A New World
As the Molka III departed the harbor on February 13, 1904, Max and his family were enjoying the seclusion and warmth of their small cabin below deck. They remained there throughout the night and early morning, still uncertain about their safety. Max was worried that someone might have followed them onboard, but no one had knocked on their door, and the ship was at sea, well away from the ordeal they had left behind.
When Max finally led Lizzie and the children outside their cabin, they joined a mass of people, young and old; some still huddled together, others off by themselves as much as was possible; some nicely dressed in the winter fashions of the day, others bundled in tattered garb, and still others in clothing from places unfamiliar to Max. The passengers were speaking different languages, and some milled about with expressionless faces, as though uncertain about what they had left behind and what was to come in the new country. But there were no guards, no eyes watching them suspiciously. For the first time in years, Max could relax.
Excerpted from "Max Factor"
Copyright © 2011 Fred E. Basten.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
2. A New World,
3. Starting Over,
4. New Directions,
5. The Roaring Twenties,
6. Recognition and Growth,
8. Opening Night,
9. Crowning Glories,
11. Moving On,
12. The Glamour Girls,
13. Changing Times,
14. The Legacy,