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Great European lives: Max Factor

Max Factor, Polish businessman and founder of cosmetics company, Max Factor, demonstrates the technique of applying lipstick on US silent film actress Madge Bellamy. Photo: Margaret Chute/Hulton Archive/Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images

Charlie Connelly looks at the life of make-up mogul Max Factor

On 5 February 1904 30-year-old Maksymilian Faktorowicz stepped off the gangplank of the SS Moltke onto the New York quayside and entered the vast immigration shed at Ellis Island ahead of his wife Esther, known as Lizzie, and their three young children. The new arrivals joined one of the long lines, shuffling forward among the nervous whispered conversations around them in a range of languages, Russian, Italian, Polish and German, all feeling that mixture of hope and anxiety that underpins the new immigrant experience. The process was efficient and simple and it wasn’t long before Faktorowicz was standing before a uniformed man in a peaked cap perched on a high chair at a high desk.

“Name?” said the man.

Faktorowicz looked up at him, paused for a moment and then replied.

“Faktor,” he said. “Maks Faktor.”

On the form in front of him the immigration official wrote down exactly what he’d heard: Max Factor, a barber arrived from Poland.

Ahead of the family lay a thousand-mile journey to St Louis, Missouri, where Maksymilian’s brother Nathan lived. He didn’t know it at the time but Max Factor’s destiny ultimately lay even further west, in the hills of California.

It had taken a dangerous rise in anti-Semitism across the Russian Empire to prompt the family’s flight to New York, a new wave of pogroms commencing the previous year, an explosion of murderous attacks on Jews costing hundreds of lives – tacit approval of which infused the imperial court where Maksymilian worked as cosmetician and wig-maker. Having to react immediately to the whimsical vanity of members of the Russian nobility kept him almost permanently at the Moscow court, rarely seeing even his own family, making the chances of being released from his duties practically non-existent and necessitating subterfuge to facilitate escape.

Hence in January 1904 Factor convinced his employers that for the sake of his health he needed to visit the popular Bohemian spa town of Karlovy Vary – some accounts claim he used his own products to convince his employer he was suffering from jaundice – from where he and his family slipped into the surrounding forest and walked the 300 miles north to Hamburg and a ship for America.

A few weeks after the Factors’ arrival, St Louis hosted the World’s Fair, a seven-month event where 1,500 buildings occupied 1,200 acres and featured pavilions for 50 countries as well as representations from 43 US states. Factor, who at the time spoke no English, co-opted a local businessman as a partner in a stall selling his home-made cosmetics that were already, even at the relatively young 
age of 30, the result of years of innovation and expertise.

Maksymilian Faktorowicz was born in Zdunska Wola, near Lodz in Russian-administered central Poland. One of 10 children, the death of his mother when Maksymilian was just two led to a childhood blighted by poverty and a lack of formal education in favour of earning a living. He was selling fruit and nuts to theatregoers in Lodz while still a toddler and at eight was working as an assistant to a dentist and pharmacist before being apprenticed to an elderly local wig-maker and cosmetician. By the time he was 13, Faktorowicz was in Berlin working at the famous Anton’s hairdressing salon and a year later had moved to Moscow to work at Korpo, where the Imperial Russian Opera company sourced their wigs and make-up.

On completing his four years of mandatory military service, at the turn of the 20th century Factor opened his own shop in the prosperous Moscow satellite town of Ryazan, selling wigs and cosmetics he made himself. When a famous touring theatrical company passed through and began using his products, word of their quality reached Moscow and Factor found himself summoned to the imperial court as chief cosmetics adviser and provider to the Russian royal family in addition to the Imperial Opera.

It was this wide range of experience that convinced Factor he could succeed in America and the St Louis World Fair on his doorstep was, he felt, the perfect way of establishing himself. He ploughed much of his savings into both the stall and stock to cover the duration of the fair – only for his business partner to abscond with the takings and most of the stock.

This setback was compounded in 1906 by the death of Lizzie, followed by a brief and catastrophic second marriage as Factor moved quickly to find someone to help care for his children. In 1908, however, when Factor married a neighbour named Jennie Cook, his fortunes began to change.

Most accounts of Factor’s early years in the US describe how he had noted the new medium of cinema and suspected his expertise in theatrical make-up could be adapted easily for the screen. Los Angeles was the centre of the fledgling industry and, as Factor himself told it, with a combination of courage and prescience he moved his business and family to the Pacific coast. Max Factor’s Antiseptic Hair Store (‘toupées made to order – high grade work’) opened on South Central Street, Los Angeles in 1909 and immediately attracted custom from the studios.

Yet while Factor was unquestionably a key figure in the early years of cinema he opened his shop three years before the first film studio arrived in Hollywood. He ran a barber’s shop in St Louis after being ripped off at the World’s Fair and it’s more likely the gold rush was the big draw, the men flocking to the west coast requiring shaves and haircuts. The fact the world’s fastest-growing entertainment industry then landed on his doorstep was probably nothing more than happy coincidence.

When cinema did arrive there’s no doubt Factor was appalled by the standard of make-up he saw in early films and spotted an opening for his true calling. Many screen actors wore the greasepaint that worked on the stage while others acknowledged the camera as a different proposition and created concoctions of their own from ingredients including Vaseline, flour, lard, brick dust and paprika.

By 1914 Factor had perfected a new camera-tailored form of make-up, “a greasepaint in cream rather than stick form,” as he put it, “ultra-thin in consistency, completely flexible on the skin and produced in 12 precisely graduated shades”. Some of Hollywood’s pioneering stars adopted Factor’s products from their earliest days. Comedians like Chaplin, Keaton and Arbuckle were fans, facial nuance being vital to their art, while early success came in 1925 with an order for 600 gallons of body make-up for thousands of extras required for Ben Hur.

In addition to facial cosmetics in 1915 he introduced Brownette, a product that lent definition on screen to light-coloured hair, while his wigs became hugely popular – most notably with Cecil B. DeMille – because they were crafted from real human hair imported from Europe rather than the horsehair and straw that had dominated wardrobe departments.

A key to Factor’s success was his recognition that a one-size-fits-all attitude to hair and make-up was entirely inappropriate for screen stars of the period and his bespoke services won him fans among some of cinemas biggest names. He developed a light yellow make-up specifically for Rudolf Valentino to help him break out of typecasting as a dark, swarthy villain. He persuaded Jean Harlow to become a platinum blonde (maintained with treatment including ammonia and Lux soap flakes), accentuated Clara Bow’s cupid bow lips and devised the lipstick smear for Joan Crawford. Factor invented false eyelashes, devising them for Phyllis Haver when she wanted to leave pie-chucking comedies for more vampish roles, and crafted the ringlets worn by Norma Shearer in Marie Antoinette. As film technology improved so did Factor’s craft, not least the Pan-Cake make-up he developed for colour film, a product that accentuated the actors features without shining in the glare of the studio lights.

By the 1930s Factor was selling make-up to society women through high class department stores across the US, meaning that when he died in 1938 – possibly due to the combined effects of being hit by a van crossing a Hollywood street and anxiety resulting from a death threat received while visiting Italy a few months before his death – he had almost single-handedly invented today’s cosmetics industry.

Max Factor is commemorated by a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame but perhaps his most eloquent legacy can be found immortalised in the song Hooray For Hollywood. Performed every year at the Oscars it includes the couplet, “To be an actor see Mr Factor, he’ll make your pucker look good”.

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