MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
New York City, 1933
A Technicolor sky hung over the city even though it was only early May. At times, even New York City seemed to have caught the bug. The pear trees that bloomed like white fireworks every April may as well have sprouted palm trees. Everyone, it seemed, had just stepped out of a Garbo movie, and Josephine Herz (née Josiah Herzenstein) would be damned if she would not capitalize on this craze.
A young, well-kept woman was the first to grace her newly opened, eponymous salon on Fifth Avenue. With bleached-blond “marcelled” hair, a substantial bust, and a mouth that looked as though it had been carved from a pound of chopped meat, her new client had all the ammunition to entrap any man in the city, to keep him on the dole, and her cosmetic hygienist, in this case Herz Beauty, on the payroll. She lowered herself onto the padded leather salon chair like a descending butterfly and batted her eyes as though they too might flutter from her face.
“I want thickah,” she whined. She said this in a Brooklyn accent that would have killed her chances had she been an actress transitioning from silent to talkies.
Josephine nodded and reached into her arsenal, procuring the favored Herz moisturizer for a dewy complexion. She removed and unscrewed the glass jar, leaned over her client, and began to apply it to her cheekbones in soft, round swirls.
“No!” The client swatted her hand away as though to scold and dispose of a landed bug. “Not my skin,” she said. “My lashes.”
“Oh.” Josephine withdrew her hand and held it, poised high above her client’s face, as though hovering a spoon over a boiling pot.
“I want thicker lashes,” said the blonde. “Like Gloria.”
“Gloria?” Josephine was perplexed.
“Swanson!” the client said, shaking her head, miffed that she was not understood.
“I see.” Josephine replaced the glass jar in her holster bag and procured a separate, zippered case. “For the thick-eyelash look, you have two options: tinting or application.” She removed both a small black cake and a moistened brush to apply the pigment and a plastic box of spidery lashes and displayed them as though they were a cache of jewels. The tube of adhesive gum came next.
The blonde’s eyes widened. She shook her head and sat bolt upright on her chair. A convalescent, revived from the dead. “Ya don’t mean you want to glue them on?”
Josephine took a long, deep breath. “How else do you think women get them?” she said. “If there were a drink ve could drink to grow them, I assure you I’d let you know,” she said in her Polish-tinged English.
“I just assumed…,” said the blonde. Miffed, she reached into her pocketbook and produced a magazine clipping from a crumpled stash. She unfurled a luminous, if wrinkled, image of Gloria Swanson, the Hollywood glamour girl, from the latest issue of Motion Picture. All lips, pouting like a put-out princess. She had the brow of an Egyptian goddess, the same distinctive beauty mark, and the eyelashes of a jungle cat. “Like that,” she said, pointing at her eyes. “I want to look like that for a party tonight.”
Josephine’s perfectly lacquered blood-red nails grazed the wrinkled page. She studied Gloria’s fabulous face, the brow, the lash, the pout.
“Application,” Josephine said, returning the image.
“Geez,” said the client. “You’d think by now you people would come up with something better than that.”
It was her duty, Josephine had come to feel, to tolerate stings and slights like this. But a new thought occurred to her as she prepped the lashes for application, as she meticulously heated and applied the adhesive gum. Her client was right. She often worked the floor to do just that: to listen to her patrons, her clients. And now that she was in New York, she knew enough never to be too far away from what real American women wanted. And so she took in the woman’s request with deep reverence, as she knew nothing was more important to her future sales than her clients’ needs. Blanche or Betty—or whatever the tacky blonde’s name was—was right. It was high time someone came up with something better. Josephine was certainly up to this task. The only problem was that across town, a woman named Constance Gardiner was doing the very same thing.
* * *
Josephine Herz was not, of course, the first to invent mascara. But she would be the first to invent one devoid of mess and fuss and to make it available to the masses. As early as ancient Egypt, women found their facial fix. Considered to be a necessary accoutrement in every woman’s and man’s daily regime, kohl, a combination of galena, lead sulfide, or copper and wax, was applied to the eyes, the eyebrows and lashes, to ward off evil spirits and to protect from sun damage. Most any image of Egyptian gods or goddesses will reveal hieroglyphs, not only on pyramid walls but on the Egyptians’ faces. The bold, black lines on the female face lost fashion over the centuries, especially in more recent times when Victorian ladies eschewed color of all kind on the face. But it was not long before women craved—and chemists created—a new brand of adornment for the eye. Coal, honey, beeswax—all the traditional ingredients had to be tested and tried. Josephine could smell a market maker from a mile away, and in this, she sensed a new moment for the eye. From Los Angeles to Larchmont, women were craving new ways to look like the stars of the silver screen, new ways to dress, look, and behave in a modern woman’s ever-changing role. These women needed a product that would make them look and feel like Garbo or Swanson, something simpler, cleaner, and quicker than the application of false eyelashes every six to eight weeks. These women needed a product that was cheap, fuss-free, and less mess than the old option made from charcoal, which, in the very worst cases, caused blindness.
A NEW FRONTIER
Sydney, Australia, 1922
The heat was unbearable, constant, itchy, and apparently determined to do battle with her skin. It was ironic how brutal the journey had been given that the point of it was to flee a brutal adversary at home. Her mother’s favorite phrase came to mind as she grasped the railing of the ship: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Were her dear mother here right now, she would also be telling Josiah to protect her skin by putting on her hat. Instead, in a flash of rebellion, she stared head-on into the sun as though the sun itself were her enemy and she would win the face-off so long as she did not betray fear.
Oy vey ist mir. She could not keep this lament far from her mind as she thought of the distance between her loving mother and herself. The distance increased with every second, along with the ache in her heart. She could practically smell her mother’s distinct scent: sweet, earthy, like the kasha and sweet white onions simmering on the stove. The warm, instant relief of being in her soft arms and her lilting voice. She did not need to close her eyes to see the outlines of her home: a medieval town surrounded by water on all but one side, stacked with red brick that fortified it from intervention and escape. Josiah had been held here during her childhood, safe, if confined. Home was not perfect by any means, but the comfort of the familiar is a strong incentive for any incumbent, and she struggled to remember why she had left in the first place.
Of course, she knew why.
They had heard the terrifying stories, and her mother and father were not willing to live with this risk. Tales of the pogroms, of drunken soldiers arriving at night, soldiers looting homes, tearing through hidden drawers; watches and jewels, belongings and books. Soldiers terrorizing fathers and sons, beating them, and, in the worst accounts, locking their daughters into the bedrooms and forcing them to do unspeakable things, the soldiers’ laughter and moaning audible through the door—and the daughters’ screams. Her mother and father had heard these accounts from reliable sources, first from women gossiping at the market, a crowd gathered by the butcher, obstructing the line for milk. And then from their beloved rabbi, who had heard it from the men themselves.
And while these atrocities had taken place in Lwów, not too near, not too far, from home, the threat was too much to bear. It began to pervade daily life. A sense of palpable anxiety as the drunken Polish peasants leered and the sense of unease grew like a boiling pot until it accompanied her at all times—while she was walking into town, writing a letter to her aunt, even bathing at night. There was always an invisible guest trailing noiselessly behind. So it was decided, after many family meals and meetings, that she and those sisters old enough to relocate would move to a place free of threat. Australia, a distant continent, seemed as good a choice as any. It may as well have been a disparate planet, so intrinsically different was it to everything she knew from her native Poland.
Others had left before her, of course, and her uncle Solomon and aunt Masha had written back with good news about the pioneer life. Still, it was hard to imagine Australia as the next obvious stop. This enormous, distant island, covered with hills and grass and sheep. And the vast, unfathomable ocean, an incomprehensible force, a planet unto itself. Josiah had been swimming only a handful of times in her life—in a country lake near her home. Nonetheless, the plan was made: her uncle and aunt would house and employ her. She would work at the counter of her uncle and aunt’s five-and-ten-cent store, live in their home, and help out with the brood of nieces and nephews in the evenings until she could afford a place of her own. She would learn the English she had dreamed of studying one day, starting with the handful of words she had read in the papers stacked in her father’s office. A new life awaited on this bright, hot planet, a better life to be made and found. She believed her mother. She wanted this life. But at the moment, she could not see this bright future because the sunlight was making her blind.
An unusual beauty, petite but imposing, Josiah had a powerful presence. Pale skin and black hair, large oval onyx eyes, and a strong, elegant, and beak-like nose gave her a regal, if withering, look. Her eyes were her greatest weapon, perceiving others’ motives even while obscuring the impression she made. This appearance had proven both an asset and a weakness, inviting sisters and friends to confide in her while putting off boys her age, who were somehow convinced of her critique. But intuition and intelligence prevailed, earning her the adoration of sisters, friends, and, in recent years, a handful of older boys. Unfortunately, at the moment her intuition was telling her one thing: Go back.
But it was too late for this. She had been brought here on a wave, the first wave of Polish immigrants, the first of what would soon be a tidal force. A wave of women seeking safety, families seeking freedom to express their beliefs, people seeking resources, a new life, people fleeing a profound and terrifying threat. The rewards were enticing enough to intrigue. But the threat made this urgent. The threat was what pushed people out of their homes, made the rewards even worth considering. The threat was what compelled a twenty-two-year-old girl to leave behind all she knew and loved to venture into the unknown alone on this strange massive and rusted ship. This threat was what brought her to this foreign place, two oceans and three continents away from home, in cramped bunks shared with two other girls, the salt air barely masking the scent of so much proximate sweat.
Daunted, Josiah glanced across the deck at a large cloudy hill. The hill was lush and white. And then it was green, peppered with white dots. Why the sudden transformation? Soon enough, she understood: the dots were not clouds, but sheep.
“What have I done?” she muttered.
Another passenger answered, a girl her age, Sonjya, whom she had taken meals with during the trip. “If all else fails, we can knit,” she said.
Josiah smiled, comforted by the camaraderie. But just as quickly, a swell of yelling and footsteps rolled toward her, and she felt herself being pushed to the front of the ship. She gripped her meager case and the cream straw hat with the blue-and-white ribbon—it seemed so cosmopolitan at the time—and, squinting into the sun, allowed the swell to push her forward toward the dock.
Copyright © 2019 by Richard Kirshenbaum