Recommended: The Forgotten Crime Behind Two Great Fortunes

This week’s New York Times Book Review includes a piece on a new book by Ruth Brandon, Ugly Beauty, assessing the ostensible rivalry between Helena Rubinstein and Eugène Schueller (the founder of L’Oréal) and how both tycoons managed to profit from World War II (in Schueller’s case, by collaborating directly with the Nazis when they occupied France in 1940). Rubinstein, of course, was Jewish but felt no particular allegiance to the Zionist cause until her sister was killed in the Holocaust; even then, as reviews emphasize, she put her professional life first.

As a review in The Wall Street Journal points out, hardly any European corporations managed to escape World War II completely unscathed, and it’s far easier to let Rubinstein off the hook than Schueller (who was actually tried for Nazi collaboration after the war, but was acquitted). While I don’t think anybody’s advocating, say, a boycott of L’Oréal because of the fascist tendencies of its founder, the ubiquity of the L’Oréal brand demands that the origins of the company be examined, if for no other purpose than to underscore, yet again, the verity of Honoré de Balzac’s words: “Le secret des grandes fortunes sans cause apparente est un crime oublié, parce qu’il a été proprement fait.” The secret of grand fortunes without apparent cause is a crime forgotten, for it was properly done.

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