As John Updike wrote in a 2008 New Yorker piece, Max Factor was “the inventor of modern makeup.” Not only did this former beautician to the czars concoct the first movie makeup (it held up under hot lights) and bring commercial cosmetics to the average American drugstore, he also invented lipstick, mascara, lip gloss, false eyelashes, and foundation. Most original of all, in its way, was his invention of “Color Harmony”—i.e., the concept that your makeup should match your hair and complexion. In the early days of one-size-fits-all beauty, this was a paradigm shift, and it is memorialized in his office building at 1660 North Highland, now the Hollywood Museum, where you can still visit his original four rooms: for blondes (blue-hued; the ribbon was cut by Jean Harlow), redheads (green, Ginger Rogers), brunettes (pink, Claudette Colbert), and brownettes (peach, Rochelle Hudson).
For this was the idea: when a starlet walked into one of these rooms, she could look in the mirror and tell immediately whether she was meant to go blonde (as both Harlow and Marilyn did, in the blue room), or perhaps red, like Lucy. “For Redheads Only,” reads the sign on the door of the room off the museum lobby, and while I had always privately fancied that I might look ravishing with russet locks, it cannot be denied that the green-hued walls gave me a distinctly bilious cast. Color Harmony confirmed that, as nature intended, I was an unglamorous brownette.
When I visited the museum, it was early in the day. But I had a few fellow patrons: a nice older gent with a very taut face, dramatically dark brows, and smooth, tobacco-colored hair; a lady of a certain age with a Veronica Lake coiffure; and a pair of younger fellows, both sporting rouge, who informed me that this had been their first stop off the plane. They were headed for the Brunette Room. I turned right at Brownette.
The brownette is an antiquated concept, but distinctions used to be made between raven-haired, dark-eyed beauties and their lighter counterparts. Apparently even in its heyday (Factor coined brownette in the late twenties) the term was controversial. Writing in a February 1939 “Hollywood Beauty Secrets” column, his son wrote,
In undertaking an article on the proper make-up practices for brownettes, I am immediately stepping into a field which is very regularly conducive to arguments. The reason for this is that many feminine appearances which really should fall under the brownette classification of natural hair and complexion coloring are quite of-ten wrongly considered by their possessors to be blonde or brunette. The brownette is one whose natural complexion and coiffure tints actually should be placed in a range definitely in between the blonde and brunette degrees of coloring—and statistics prove that forty-eight per cent of the world’s women come under this brownette classification.
He then further confuses the issue by insisting that Merle Oberon and a few other popularly supposed brunettes are in fact dark brownettes, whereas lots of blondes are light brownettes. By his own admission, “the distinction here is an extremely fine one.”
As a Factor coinage, brownette seems to have died with that company, but even on its home turf, I couldn’t help thinking it got the lamest of the four rooms, even if Rochelle Hudson was a WAMPAS Baby Star in 1931 and would feature in the OG Imitation of Life. Still, I did feel at home in that peach room—the others were in the more glamorous blue room, looking at the Marilyn stuff, or communing with Joan Crawford in pink—and was interested to read that the brownette color harmony demands were for “rachelle powder, blondeen rouge, vermilion lipstick, gray eyeshadow (or brown shadow for those with hazel eyes), black eyebrow pencil and eyelash make-up, blush make-up foundation, and rachelle make-up blender.”
When a docent came around and asked me if I had questions, I did: What about stars who were not white? He hastened to explain that Factor had indeed done the makeup for all actresses of the era; Lena Horne had gotten her own color scheme, “Dark Egyptian.” There was a head shot of Anna May Wong, signed to Max Factor. But of course, this did not extend to commercial makeups: there would be no devoted cosmetics lines for women of color until the 1970s, which was also, not incidentally, when the Max Factor empire was in decline.
Interviewed in 1959, Max Factor Jr. was asked to make beauty predictions about the world fifty years hence.
“I firmly believe that in the future women of fifty years or more will look as appealing as girls of twenty. We are keeping in touch with scientific experiments in Europe on youth-giving cosmetics.”
Factor also foresees the extensive use of cosmetics by men fifty years from now, and for the same reason; to keep young. Men who live longer will want to work longer; hence they’ll need to avoid looking aged. Among the Factor predictions: A pill which will forestall the graying of hair.
There is a film one can watch at the museum that details the history of the company. Darryl Hannah is the narrator. One of the main talking heads is RuPaul. Which is to say, his prediction was kind of accurate. On the other hand, Max Factor, then owned by Proctor & Gamble, was discontinued in 2010. And last year, one of the heirs to the fortune was sentenced to fifty years for serial rape.
“It’s a real taste of Hollywood glamour, isn’t it?” said the Veronica Lake lady as we stepped into the sunshine. I guess it was. In any case, I bought some vermilion lipstick.