FIRE AND ICE
The Story of Charles Revson - the Man Who Built the Revlon Empire.
Separating Myth from Legend
We had just come from someone's funeral. I forget whose it was, but he was
lauded and eulogized-and he was a prick. When we got back and were having tea, Charles
said: "When I go, I don't want any of that bullshit. I want the good and I want the
-Evan W. Mandel, former Revlon executive vice president
No one who grows up in a tenement,
starts a business in the middle of the Depression, and ultimately builds a
half-billion-dollar global corporation, is ordinary, or even "normal."
Charles Revson least of all. His business style was so abrasive, his personal style
so eccentric, and his success so stunning, that he became something of a legend not just
"in his own time" but, indeed, midway through his career.
In forty-three years he built one of the 300 largest
industrial enterprises in the United States, and one of the 200 most profitable. He
managed to do this not by capitalizing on a single great invention - which
is easy once you have the invention. Nor by acquiring the ongoing enterprises of
others and merging them into his own, as were built so many of our largest
corporations, from General Motors and United Airlines to Gulf & Western and ITT. He
was granted no monopoly, he was no bootlegger-turned-legit, he struck no oil - he didn't
even have friends in high places.
Instead, Revson built Revlon product by product, shade
promotion by shade promotion, country by country, year by year. Most men would have sold
out and retired by the time the first $10-million plateau had been reached. The kind of
entrepreneur who can take a company from nothing up to $10 million in sales is often not
suited, either by temperament or training, to take it the next step, or the next or the
next. But Revson, like very few other entrepreneurs, took his company all the way to the
top. He sold the first bottle of nail enamel personally, and he was deeply involved with
the selling of the half-billionth bottle. He wasn't just nominally in charge, after a
while, checking in from the golf course to see how his young dynamos were doing. He was
the dynamo, and he was running the place. To the day illness forced him to stop, he was
the chief executive officer of the company - and, for all intents and purposes, the chief
operating officer, the creative director, the marketing director and, for that matter, the
board of directors.
This is not to say that he was a creative genius or an
executive superman. He was not. You could even make the case that after a certain point
his company would have been better off without him. But he did have a deeply probing,
agile mind, incredible dedication and tenacity, a genius for color, an eye for detail, and
an instinctive marketing sense. He also had the rare capacity, at least in part, to
broaden himself and his horizons as the company grew. The extent to which he was not able
to do this was, largely, what made for his peculiarities and for the byzantine way in
which he ran his company.
Revson's handpicked successor, Michel Bergerac, will not
be a legend, because he is just the kind of highly accomplished multinational business
executive you would expect to find at the head of a company like Revlon. But put into the
same spot a Charles Revson, whose father was a cigar-roller in Manchester, New Hampshire
(Bergerac's father was an executive in Europe), who never got further than high school
(Bergerac collected graduate degrees in Paris and Los Angeles), and who never even worked
for any other large company to see how it was done (Bergerac was executive vice president
of $11-billion ITT), and you have the stuff of quite a story. Not to mention massive
insecurities, two hushed-up 'heart attacks," and a nervous stomach.
In the annals of American business, Revson has to be
compared not with Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, though those comparisons are
themselves fascinating, but with staggering egomaniacs like Walt Disney or even the
original Henry Ford. Big-time sons of bitches. He entered a fledgling, highly
unprofessional industry of one-man shows (one-woman shows, really) and, more than anyone
else, was responsible for building it into a $5-billion industry. While his social
impact was obviously not as great, nor as practical, as that of Henry Ford, he nonetheless
changed the appearance of women throughout the world - both in how they looked to others
and how they looked to themselves. He injected a little excitement into what Martin
Revson, borrowing from Thoreau, liked to call the "quiet desperation" of the
average housewife's daily life.
The irony is that he held women in such contempt. And
that he himself, the beauty-maker, was so unbeautiful.
The paradox is that, for all the warts, many of the
people who knew him well - women particularly, but men, too - fell in love with him.
Literally, or as a sort of father figure.
It would be too easy to paint Revson only as a bullying
egomaniac who would scratch his crotch or stand up and break wind in the middle of a
meeting. In fairness, one tries to understand why a man as concerned with his image
and dignity, and as afraid of being embarrassed, would do such things. He was the terror
of Madison Avenue, but it's not enough to say that he would degrade his subordinates or
that he was often hopelessly inarticulate. The question is, why? What was he trying to
The problem with legends-in-their-own-time is that it is
sometimes difficult to tell where truth leaves off and legend begins. Truth, at least as
much as beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Or "the beholden," as
Charles used to say.
"There are so many myths built up around this man," his friend
and executive assistant, Irving Botwin, told me, "such as, to be perfectly frank with
you, that he's tough, he's a prick.
He's not. He finds it tough to fire somebody. He's the softest-hearted
and most compassionate guy in the world."
Like any man, and perhaps more than most, Revson had
different sides, different moods, acted differently with different people, and changed
somewhat over the years. (Botwin saw him at his best . . . and subsequent to our several
interviews was left $250,000 in Revson's will, one of only two nonrelatives who got a
thing.) It's hard enough, then, to pin down the "real" Charles Revson, as though
all his actions could have been predicted by a simple formula. And it's made all the more
difficult by having to see him through the eyes of others, who have their own axes to
grind. Needless to say, one doesn't hear too many stories in which the narrator himself
comes out the fool or the blackguard. More often, the narrator is the hero with the clever
tongue who, alone, would stand up to Charles and set him straight.
Revson loyalists go to great lengths to laugh off as
"myth" anything that might seem the least bit unbecoming. Beware, they say, of
talking with people who have left the company and who ascribe their own lack of success to
some failing in Charles. Meanwhile, people outside the company dismiss those within as a
coterie of lackeys not worth talking to.
But to a larger extent than either group might have
expected, the basic pictures that emerge from each are not so very dissimilar. The main
difference is in point of view. Both groups agree, for example, that Charles frequently
tore his executives apart (though the loyalists deny he would bring grown men to tears).
But the loyalists ascribe this to his desire to teach, while others ascribe it more to a
need to bully and degrade. Both groups, with a few exceptions, concede the man's basic
honesty. But the loyalists attribute this to pureness of heart, while some others see it
as an inordinate fear of being caught doing something dishonest. One group sees him as
having been generous; others concentrate their attention on the motives behind the
generosity. And so on.
Certainly, though, apart from differences in point of
view, stories abound which are simply untrue. One day, while Charles lay in intensive care
at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, an ex-Revlonite, George Abrams, who claims to have
invented the chocolate chip cookie, was telling me that Revson was in fact on his yacht,
cruising in the Caribbean with a helicopter hovering overhead, ready to fly patient and
doctor to shore at a moment's notice. How did Abrams know this? He had "heard it from
a good source."
So, to begin with, one must disregard almost any
information that is not, in some way, at least, first-hand. But that by no means suffices
to screen out the unicorns. A key Revlon executive told me that Lyn Revson had given him a
tour of their Park Avenue apartment and had shown him their huge bed - which, he said, had
been fitted out with special flaps to prevent Charles from falling out at night. Charles
tossed and turned a lot, Lyn told him, and these flaps would automatically come up at two
in the morning to form a sort of cradle, and recede at six. Lyn pressed a button on the
wall that activated these flaps 'before his very eyes," he said.
Now, it is true that Charles often had trouble sleeping;
that he had a huge bed; and that his apartment was customized almost beyond belief. But
despite the fact that this story comes from a supposed eyewitness, who owed his six-figure
income to Revson, it is, as near as I can tell, complete fantasy. "Why in the hell
would he want to fall out of bed?" his former wife, Ancky, asked when asked if he
Yes, there was a button on the bed that would elevate
the head-and-shoulders portion of the mattress up to a TV-viewing angle. And, yes, there
was a button concealed in the side of the bed that summoned the police, who would come
dashing up to the apartment every time it was pressed accidentally. But - and I inspected
this bed at some length - there were no automatic side flaps. Yet this man (and only this
man) swears he saw them.
Similarly, when Revlon was moving into new offices at
666 Fifth Avenue, Charles did have the manufacturer of the boardroom chairs come to him
for a "sitting," and did go through four different handmade models before he was
satisfied. But he did not have them built so that all the directors, regardless of
height, would end up at eye level - or, as the story is best told, with him one inch above
(On the other hand, it's true that, presented with a
series of valuable eighteenth-century Piranesi etchings for his approval, he said,
"Shit, Sam, couldn't we get the artist back to put a little color in them?")
In verifying any story it helps to have two eyewitnesses.
To be sure, even husband and wife, witnessing the same event side by side, will not
remember it identically. Yet the fact that details don't check out does not alter the
substance of the story:
"Richard and I were on vacation at the Dorado Beach
Hotel in Puerto Rico in June of 1966," one such eyewitness told me, "and one
night, in the plush gambling casino, Revson and Lyn arrived and asked to have a table
roped off privately so that he could play blackjack on all six available hands. I remember
the chips he chose were some odd color that I hadn't seen before - purple, I think - and
which later turned out to be either seventy-five or hundred-dollar chips. (Richard and I,
you understand, were working on one-dollar chips, as was most of the casino.) A crowd
formed behind Revson (looking smashing - the most terrific suit and socks and shoes) and
Lyn, who perched next to him like the straight man and looked up at him adoringly. He was
gambling five or six of the purple chips on each hand, but was as calm and cool as could
be, almost as if he didn't care. It was impossible to tell from his expression whether he
was winning or losing - yet the climax, for me, came when one of the groupies behind
Revson, clad in her Dorado Beach finest, empathized to the degree that when he asked for a
'Hit me' on some draw, she gasped - 'Oh, no, don't do it!' Revson, hearing her, turned
around very slowly in his seat and glared at her. Now here's the problem [italics
mine]: I remember him saying to her, 'Shut up, you cunt,' but Richard remembers him
saying, 'Shut your fucking mouth, lady.' Whatever it was he did dare to say was so crude
and shocking that the crowd recoiled in horror. Revson then turned to his table in
disgust, picked up his chips, and walked out as though to blame his loss of
concentration on this terrible spectator. We didn't see him again, and I never discovered
if he was staying at the hotel."
Unfortunately, there are no "White House
tapes" to nail down with certainty just what Charles did do or say on a given
occasion. (I did manage to come by the verbatim transcript -expletives deleted - of a
rambling two-hour talk given to his marketing people in 1969 - "the culmination of
all my experience and I just didn't want it wasted" - from which a number of quotes
throughout this book are taken.) Nor can I vouch for any of the Revson stories at
first-hand. But one thing did happen during an interview with Charles's brother, Martin,
that I think sheds some light.
Martin's spacious Park Avenue office makes no pretense
to magnificence, as Charles's did. There is no elaborate private washroom, for example,
but rather a coat closet and a sink. Still, it is the office of a millionaire, a former
Revlon executive vice president, and the chairman of a small cosmetics firm listed on the
American Exchange. It is also the office of a proud, conservative man, who, though very
likable and down-to-earth, is concerned with projecting a dignified image.
We had finished the interview and were both getting
ready to leave, he to visit Charles in the hospital and I to go home. Martin went to the
coat closet, donned his overcoat, donned his rubbers, pissed in the sink, and showed me
out the door.
Now, I have two points to make. If I saw one Revson piss
in the sink in front of a virtual stranger - a reporter, no less - then I can believe that
another Revson, known to be rather more crude and less personable, would do equally
unorthodox things, or worse, when not under the gaze of the press. I was told, in fact,
that Charles used to piss in the sink, too. But at the same time, this is just the kind of
incident that is easily overblown. The fact is that Martin was quite discreet in what he
did - he didn't stand back and arch, or anything - he was not out to demean anyone; he
offended no one . . . and, oddly, it wasn't all that crude a thing to do. Not at all. It
wasn't as if he had pissed on the carpet or out the window, which would have been an
entirely different story. In other words, yes, most of the Revson stories that firsthand
witnesses tell are probably true, if often embellished. But many of them, considered
objectively, are less damning than they seem.
For example. One day Revlon was rehearsing a commercial that would be
performed live in front of 50,000,000 people a couple of hours later on The $64,000
Question. There was no one in the theater but the technical crew, the model, the
agency people, and the people from Revlon. Charles was in the control booth. As they were
running through this commercial, Charles's voice boomed out through the empty theater:
"GET RID OF THAT GIRL, SHE LOOKS TOO JEWISH!" ECHO, Echo, echo. And the model,
naturally, burst into tears and went running off the stage, with two hours to air time.
What no good storyteller will bother to point out, and
neither of the eyewitnesses who told me the story did, is that Charles almost surely did
not know that the mike in the control room was open or that anyone outside would hear him.
Which, if so, makes his conduct (a) a good deal more believable and (b) a good deal less
Thus, there were often unreported circumstances which
retrieve the man from utter caricature. He would take his pulse during meetings, he
would check the color of the phlegm in his handkerchief, and he did have an
electrocardiogram taken daily when he traveled. But he had also had two mild "heart
attacks" in his mid-forties, which were kept very quiet. Knowing that, his
hypochondria seems a little less outrageous. Likewise his bizarre eating habits.
There is the temptation to take sides. To say, with
Victor Barnett, perhaps the least-liked executive at Revlon and the loyalest of the
loyalists, that Charles Revson was "a truly great human being." Or to say
with Josh Rothstein, former president of one of the companies Revson bought, and one of
his most passionate detractors, that Revson was "the worst bastard who ever
lived." Not surprisingly, the truth lies somewhere in between. Many spoke in terms of
love/hate feelings. As one former Revson associate summarized: "He was not the
most wonderful person around and certainly not the worst. At times, he had the worst
characteristics a man can have in his need to diminish people. I think he is most
interesting through his contradictions. He could do it all; he could make you want to die
and he could make you want to live."
However his virtues and motives might be debated, and
however murky the details surrounding certain of his affairs, the basic outline of Charles
Haskell Revson's life is clear enough. He was born in Somerville, Massachusetts, outside
Boston, on October 11, 1906. He grew up with his older brother, Joseph, and his younger
brother, Martin, in Manchester, New Hampshire. There his father worked for the R. G.
Sullivan Company, rolling the "724" cigar by hand, and his mother worked on and
off as a saleswoman and supervisor at Nightingale's, a novelty and drygoods store. Both
were Russian-born Jews. His mother, Jeanette Weiss Revson, was brought to America by her
family while still an infant. His father, Samuel Morris Revson, emigrated in his early
twenties to avoid conscription into the czarist army.
In Manchester the family lived in a six-unit tenement
house on Conant Street. Their apartment faced the rear on the first floor. They had
running cold water, a coal-burning stove for cooking and heat, and always plenty to eat.
Oatmeal or Cream of Wheat with Dutch hot chocolate for breakfast, lamb chops or steak for
dinner many nights, fish on Friday, and a roast of some kind on Sunday.
Almost everyone else on the west side of Manchester, the
wrong side of the Merrimac River, was Gentile. Martin can remember only one other Jewish
family. The Revsons kept largely to themselves. They virtually never entertained,
virtually never went out to eat, attended no synagogue, and had no telephone. (Or radio or
Joseph, who in his own way was even stranger than
Charles, fell behind in school because of illness. Though sixteen months older, he and
Charles were in the same class in elementary school (the Varney School) and throughout
high school. Martin trailed four years behind. Charles and Joseph got along well and would
often do their homework together, although physically and emotionally Charles and Martin
seemed to come from one mold, and Joseph, from another. Joseph, red-haired and
pasty-faced, was the aloof one, off in his own room; Charles and Martin, although further
apart in age, palled around more and shared the same room - even, for a while, the same
The boys walked to school, nearly two miles each way, on
even the coldest New Hampshire winter mornings. Joseph, miraculously, graduated second in
their class of 127 (a boy named Harry Litvinchook was first). The best explanation for
Joseph's academic success would seem to have been his memory, his delight in detail, and
his ability to learn by rote. Charles, who was more outgoing than Joseph and whose
intelligence was sharper and more intuitive, graduated third or fourth. The Manchester
High yearbook listed Joe's hobby as "reciting" and Charles's as
"argumentation." The parrot versus the fox.
Charles was "Slotkin, a tailor" in the senior
class play, worked on the school magazine and the yearbook, and helped organize a school
debating team. Classmate Louise De Nies, alias "Luhf' or "Weezie,"
remembers him as having been popular with the girls in the class (though she can't
remember which ones), mischievous (though she can't remember just how) and, even then,
sometimes curt or cutting with his sense of humor. Joseph, she says, kept more to himself.
Henry De Nies, Weezie's cousin, recalls going with
Charles to look for summer work, and standing outside a shoe store. Charles told him,
"Look, I'm the better talker of the two of us, so let me go in and see what I
can do." After a while he came out. "Well," he said, "it was
pretty rough in there and they only would hire one of us and I got it." He spent the
summer selling ladies' shoes.
Class president Rufus ("Ruff") King, who
starred on the football and baseball teams and still lives up in Manchester, says that the
Revson boys kept pretty much to themselves. They weren't on any of the school teams. He
remembers that "Chick," as Charles was then called, was "a real
peewee." He was still just sixteen when he graduated, and it was only afterward that
he shot up several inches to his full five-foot-eight or so. He subscribed to Charles
Atlas to build up his body, but never in his life weighed much more than 140 pounds.
The boys belonged to a gang (tame by today's standards)
called the Squogs. "Squog" was short for the Pistaquog River, where the boys
used to fish, swim, and skate. (A few miles farther up, and accessible by streetcar, was
beautiful Lake Massabesic.) The Squogs played baseball with other neighborhood gangs and,
to earn money for their gear, all had paper routes. Charles delivered both the morning and
afternoon papers, although no one remembers his having been much of a baseball player.
Martin was the jock in the family, but so little he was once knocked over by a right-field
fly ball. He recalls going around to collect the money for his papers. "I can
still smell the smell in the kitchens," he says. "You know, it was like a
rathouse. It smelled terrible, between the smell of babies, etc. Not like in a regular
kitchen, but in a hole. Like in a poor kitchen."
The Revsons lived in the same part of town, but they
lived better and cleaner than most. They were a proud family. Charles's father, whom all
three sons called "the Major" (none could remember why), was a five-foot-one,
balding, distinguished-looking man, and an introvert. But proud, and forever talking about
his family in Russia who had been "purveyors of grain to the czarist
government." (Just how successful his family really was is an open question.) A
Litvak Jew, he took pride in the supposed superiority of the Litvaks over the Galicians.
And while he obviously was not a great success, the job he advanced to at R. G. Sullivan
- packing the various shades of tobacco attractively - did require a modicum of artistry.
He didn't look like he belonged on the west side of the river, people said; he looked more
like a banker. When the family moved to Brooklyn in 1925 in the hope of bettering its
financial situation, he became a life insurance salesman. But, being neither especially
aggressive nor articulate nor personable, he did not excel.
He was not a practical thinker. He was, instead, an
ill-equipped intellectual. Martin remembers him as having been "very curious
and interested in world affairs, but not too sound
in his conclusions." One of his friends knew a
couple of instructors at St. Paul's School in Concord, and it seemed to Martin that they
always talked about "fascinating things they didn't want to have get around - and
usually it was about socialism." Whether he was more a frustrated Russian aristocrat
or a frustrated Socialist revolutionary, or just confused, the Major had no difficulty
adapting to the luxuries his sons provided him later in life.
Charles's mother was the taller and more outgoing of his
parents. Many years younger, more practical, more dynamic. A fair cook, but not much
interested in the house. Where the Major led a secluded life, always reading, her prime
interests were on the outside. "I don't think there was a great marriage between my
mother and father," Martin says. She died of a strep throat in 1933. (Penicillin,
discovered in 1929, had not yet come into practical use.) It may have been from his mother
that Charles inherited much of his drive; the rest would have stemmed from a need he felt
to supply the success his father's pride cried out for.
Upon graduating from Manchester Central High School in
1923, along with "Weezie" De Nies, "Dimples" Dexter, "Ruff"
King, "Spoofy" Reed, "Red" Revson, and the rest,
"Chick" left Manchester for New York, where he went to work selling $16.75
dresses for a cousin's Pickwick Dress Company. With that, the family's hope that he would
become a lawyer began to fade. He was getting an education in women's fashion instead. By
the time he left Pickwick he had worked his way up to being a piece-goods buyer, a job he
preferred because it gave him the opportunity to work with materials and colors. He
supposedly became proficient in differentiating between shades of black, which demands a
The story goes that Charles was fired from Pickwick in
1930 for buying too much of a pattern he fell in love with. By the time it was apparent
the pattern would sell out, he had already found himself other work. Supposedly, he went
right into selling nail polish for a company called Elka, in New Jersey. Actually, he
ran off to Chicago with Ida Tompkins, the daughter of a farmer from Pennsylvania and a
showgirl (according to sketchy accounts), and married her instead of the lovely girl at
Pickwick he'd been expected to wed. His parents were heartbroken when they found out.
In Chicago, he signed up with an outfit that sold
sales-motivation materials. Sales plans. The year 1930 was not the most auspicious time to
start selling them, however, and for the six or nine months he was in Chicago things were
very bad. There were days when he had hardly anything to eat. He returned to New York with
his wife, but had no better luck selling the sales plans. They soon separated. Charles
enjoyed confiding to intimates that it was because the girl's parents were sure he would
never amount to anything.
Whoever Ida Tompkins was, she should have tried to stick
it out a little longer, as from here things started to go right for Charles. He moved back
in with his family, by then living at 173rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue, and began selling
nail polish for a firm in New Jersey. Then, with his brother Joseph and a man named
Charles Lachman, now described alternately as "the world's oldest
living hippie" and "the world's luckiest man," he formed Revlon. The 'l'
was for Lachman, who says they were first going to name the company Revlac, but it
didn't sound good.
Revlon was born on March 1, 1932, when Charles Revson
was still only twenty-five. Unfocused to this point, his life would be, for the next
forty-three years, 100 percent Revlon.