Have you ever spent two hundred and some odd pages with a real bastard? I just have, and by the way, the description is one that Charles Revson himself would have embraced. In fact, he did embrace it. He got ahead in his business by being a bastard, and his life story bears that one out in spades.*
He was born the son of Jewish American parents in New Hampshire and got into the cosmetics trade by selling nail polish for a firm based in New Jersey. Then came the Great Depression. Instead of being grateful to have a job at all, he was miffed when he lost out on a promotion.
He brooded. And he decided to do something about it.
His thought was that women would pay more for slightly upscale polish sold in slightly better stores, so in 1932, with the financial help of his brother and the scientific help of a chemist named Charles Lachman (who gave the L in his name to the Revlon company moniker), he set up as a manufacturer and distributor of cosmetics in New Jersey.
He was a mad man. Seriously. He would paint every color of polish he had on his own nails to see the effect, to measure how much they chipped as opposed to the competitions’. He flipped the bird at the garden variety workaholic by being Revlon in some weird and (trust me) completely non-spiritual way. He did not scruple to lay his most lucrative accounts and make sure they had a good time in the process (apparently this was how he won his best Chicago distribution deal, though it turned into a situation far stickier than his nail polish when he married someone else.)
Along the path of unrighteousness, he picked up many millions of dollars, three wives, the worlds third largest yacht (Ultima and Ultima II), and a constantly rotating roster of employees. They never worked hard enough in Revson’s estimation and when they didn’t, bam! Down rained the pink slips.
When it came to perfume, Revson’s corporate philosophy was, “Why innovate when the competition will do that for you?” Accordingly, most Revlon scents were tweaked versions of existing fragrances, sometimes better than the originals, but seldom original themselves.
What do I mean by this, specifically?
Well, consider Intimate (1955). Pretty much the Revlon take on Miss Dior (1947). Similarly, Moon Drops (1970) was Estee Lauder’s Estee (1968) re-engineered. Norell (1968) was Fidji (1966) done, obligingly, by same perfumer, the late Josephine Catapano.
This strategy also applies to perfumes done after Mr. Revson’s death in the seventies. Norell II (1980) was a version- one among many- of the blockbuster hit Coriandre (1973), and Scoundrel (1980) was a fruity floral monetizing for Revlon Ralph Lauren’s phenomenally successful Lauren (1978).
The one exception to this business of imitation as a sincere- if irritating- form of flattery is Charlie. That one seems unusual because it’s hard to trace an antecedent. If it was based on an earlier formula then that formula is hopelessly obscure, but Charlie seems to be the one time that Revlon went out on a limb with a new perfume, and tellingly, it dates from Revson’s period of decline in 1973. Charlie was a huge hit for them and Wikipedia lists something like 18 different iterations, all named for, you guessed it, their charming soon-to-be-gone boss. He died in1975.
Should you shake your head at such corporate piracy, or avoid the scents? As to the perfumes, I think they’re rather good myself, worthy stand-ins for any of the originals they were modeled on, especially attractive now when you can find some of the old Revlons online for a song.* Revson was on very good terms with the providers of his essential oils a couple who were old friends of his, and I think it shows in the quality of the products produced. An old bottle of Norell is a treasure.**
As for his legacy, there used to be a joke my mother-in-law tells me:
“What do Charles Revson and Max Factor talk about when they meet?”
Answer: “Nothing. They’re laughing too hard to talk!”
And indeed they did. All the way to the bank.
(On the plus side of the moral ledger, he did set up the Revson Foundation and gave millions to charity. But I still would not have wanted to work for him.)
For my facts, I’m indebted to Fire and Ice, Andrew Tobias‘ fascinating biography of Revson begun while the subject was still alive and with his co-operation and finished after his death. Out of print, but well worth tracking down.
* His words, by the way, not mine. He is quoted as saying to one of his executives (probably just before firing him): ““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.”
** Make certain sure that your bottles of Norell date from at least the nineties; recent versions don’t do the ‘68 release justice. As to Norell II – be prepared to pay.