Thursday, September 17, 2015
Exceptional American of the day: Charles Revson
One would think that the founder and longtime president of Revlon Cosmetics would be a charming fellow who made nice as his company peddled make-up to women. But Charles Revson had a different opinion of himself.
“Look, kiddie. I built this business by being a bastard. I run it by being a bastard. I’ll always be a bastard, and don’t you ever try to change me,” Revson once said.
But while he did not work well with others, Revson served the most important person in his business -- the customer. He knew what women wanted, and he gave them that.
“In the factory, we make cosmetics, in the store, we sell hope.” Revson said.
Born on October 11, 1906, in Somerville, Massachusetts, Revson's parents were Jewish. The family lived in Canada for a while before settling in Manchesteer, New Hampshire, where he grew up. His father was a cigar roller. One of three sons, Revson moved to Boston when he became of age and began work as a salesman for a cosmetics company, Elka. Passed over for a promotion, he quit and with $300 to his name, he started Revlon.
It was 1932, the middle of the Depression, which described the nation's mental state as well as its economy. Cosmetics were a luxury item.
But Revson knew people need luxuries. It makes us individuals. Nail polish is a small item that costs little but does so much. Working with his brother, Martin, and chemist Charles Lachman, Revson began selling a nail polish at beauty salons, offering a wider range of colors than competitors did.
He was a hard-driven perfectionist who headed his company for 30 years, creating an empire built Sam Spade's description of "The Maltese Falcon" -- "The stuff that dreams are made of."
Using ads featuring beautiful models and movie stars, he offered Hollywood glamor in a small bottle of nail polish. Paint it on, become Myrna Loy. Matching lipstick came later. Perfume as well. Eventually, Revlon offered more than 3,000 different cosmetics, but only and one product. Hope.
After World War II, he expanded his national company internationally. America emerged from the war the biggest victor. It dominated world politics, world science, and world culture. In the 1960s people across the world wanted to be American because people like winners.
“Knowing this, Charles Revson didn’t do what other cosmetic companies did. Rather than use international icons in his ads, he featured famous American actresses. It was a success and started an international movement where women bought Revlon cosmetics to capture the American look,” advertising expert Brenda Do wrote.
Revson became involved in the quiz show scandal by demanding producers drive ratings by picking the winners in "The $64,000 Question." He was, after all, a bastard. Rigging the game brought congressional action. But it did not affect sales.
He bought yachts, had three wives (one of whom's name he forgot), cheated like hell, and had "celebrity Alzheimer's" as he would often demand, "Do you know who I am?"
But he also was a straight shooter. Biographer Alex Tobias wrote, "Unlike many chief executives, Revson charged off none of his apartment or his yacht to the business (and deducted only 15 percent of the yacht in figuring his taxes ). And then you had the country estate at Premium Point; the $200-a-dav Waldorf Towers suite (formerly Herbert Hoover's) he camped in while the Rubinstein apartment was being made over; the masseur, the medical bills, the phone bills, the florist's bills, the $50,000 fifteen-minute gambling losses, the million-dollar U.J.A. pledges, the chartered jets ... plus Lyn's chauffeur, Lyn's $3,000 dresses ('I'm sure he was in favor of them,' his brother Martin says, 'but not five at a clip'), Lyn's jewelry, Lyn's pinball machines, Lyn's daisy chain of $100 bills, Lyn's lunches at Lutece . . . there was no way Charles could make ends meet on his $1,650,000 annual salary-plus- dividends. He had occasionally to sell a few of his million-plus shares of Revlon stock."
In 1956, Revson established the Charles H. Revson Foundation with $10 million. His philanthropy funded schools, hospitals, and service organizations serving the Jewish community. He also bequeathed $68 million to the foundation, which using interest from its investments to give away $145 million since hiss death on August 24, 1975, in New York City.
He also left behind a lot of hope.
I have published two collections of the best in this series and I am working on a third. Readers may purchase them online: "Exceptional Americans 1" and "Exceptional Americans 2."