Charles Revson founded Revlon, Inc. in 1932 with $300. Beginning by selling nail polish, he developed it into a complete cosmetics company with sales totaling nearly $1 billion before his death in 1975. Known for his harsh personality, his drive for perfection, and his extravagant lifestyle, Revson became a legend in his own day.
Charles Haskell Revson was born on October 11, 1906 in Somerville, Massachusetts, outside of Boston, to Samuel Morris and Jeanette Weiss Revson. He grew up in Manchester, New Hampshire, with one older brother, Joseph, and one younger brother, Martin. Both of Revson's parents were Jewish emigrants from Russia. His father relocated to the United States in his early twenties to avoid being drafted into the Russian army; his mother had arrived in the country as an infant. Revson's father (whom all three sons referred to as "the Major") was employed as a cigar roller for R. G. Sullivan Company and his mother worked off and on as a saleswoman at a dry goods store. The family lived in a six–unit tenement house and, although money was not plentiful, there was always food on the table.
Revson did well in school and although he participated in a few activities, including the school play, the yearbook, and the debate team, Revson was considered a loner who stuck close to his brother Joseph, who—although older—was in the same class. Revson, nicknamed "Chick" was short, of slight build, and not particularly athletic although he did play sandlot baseball in the neighborhood. Only after he graduated from Manchester Central High School in 1923 at the age of 16 did he grow several inches, up to five foot eight and about 140 pounds. His formal education ended with his high school diploma.
Revson was married three times. In 1930 he left behind the girl his parents hoped he'd marry to follow Ida Tompkins, a showgirl, to Chicago. The two married in 1930 but the marriage was brief, and the two divorced within a year. On October 26, 1940 he married Johanna Catharina Christina de Knecht, known as Ancky. A beautiful model and daughter of an important Dutch publisher, she was also the former wife of a French count. Revson agreed to the marriage only after de Knecht threatened to abandon the relationship if he didn't. The couple had three children, again at the insistence of de Knect, who gave birth to two boys and adopted a girl. The marriage lasted 20 years before ending in 1960 when de Knecht filed for divorce, having become fed up with Revson, who was possessive and a constant womanizer, employing prostitutes regularly. He married for a third time in February 1964 to Lyn Fisher Sheresky, 26 years younger than the 58–year–old Revson. Sheresky had three children from a previous marriage. Although Revson was more attentive to his third wife, he decided to file for divorce in 1974 just days after their tenth anniversary.
Over the years Revson gave many millions of dollars to charities. He was particularly supportive of Jewish, medical, and educational causes. Upon his death almost half his estate of $100 million was used to establish a charitable foundation. Revson Plaza, located along Amsterdam Avenue in New York and running through Columbia University, was the result of his $1 million contribution. The black marble foundation at Lincoln Center, valued at three–quarters of a million dollars, was built with Revson's money. As biographer Andrew Tobias noted, many of Revson's most touching gifts were spontaneous and unpublicized, such as the $1,000 he gave to the Cuban refugee brother of a manicurist at The House of Revlon.
Although Revson could be generous with his money, he also loved to spend it on himself. During his final years, he was going through $5,000 a day on his personal expenses. A constant presence on the New York social scene, Revson also liked to gamble, usually for high stakes, but always limited the amount of time he would spend at a table. His yacht, the Ultima II, which he purchased in 1967 for $3.5 million, is a prime example of Revson's love for luxury. The third largest in the world at the time, it was 257 feet long (comparable to a New York City block), could house 15 guests, and retained a year–round full–time staff of thirty–one; it cost $20,000 to fill its fuel tanks to capacity. In 1967 he also purchased his Park Avenue triplex for $390,000 and then spent another $3 million to refurbish it with a heavy emphasis on gold accents, including gold–plated dinnerware and a gold–plated telephone. He also retained a live–in staff of eight servants.
By all accounts, Revson was a difficult man to work for. He was a demanding perfectionist who had no qualms about being direct, to the point of being rude and even vulgar. Most employees lived in fear of inciting the wrath of their boss. One person whose company was acquired by Revlon told biographer Andrew Tobias, "In negotiations with us he couldn't have been more of a gentleman. As for working for him—I think I'd rather clean streets." As for his acquaintances, some thought of him as a fine, if misunderstood, human being; others loathed him and considered him a vile, mean man. Revson did manage to alienate most of his family before his death. It seemed his sole truly soft spot was his one granddaughter Jill, whom he loved unabashedly until his death.
Revson died from pancreatic cancer on August 24, 1975 with only one nurse in attendance. Nearly 1,000 people attended his funeral on August 26, 1975. As Tobias noted, "Whatever else he was—nasty, crude, lonely, virile, brilliant, inarticulate, insecure, generous, honest, ruthless, complicated—Charles Revson was a man of single–minded persistence and drive, entirely dedicated to his business."
After graduating from high school, Revson disappointed his parents, who hoped he would become a lawyer, by moving to New York City to work as a salesman for Pickwick Dress Company, owned by a cousin. He was eventually promoted to a piece–goods buyer, which allowed him to work with materials and colors, something he found he greatly enjoyed. After his career at Pickwick ended in 1930 when he was fired for over-stocking a pattern he particularly liked, Revson moved to Chicago and attempted to sell sales–motivation materials, but with the onset of the depression, the work proved unfruitful and Revson returned to New York nine months later. Moving in with his parents who had since moved to Manhattan, he took a job as a nail polish salesman for the Elka Company. His brother Joseph soon joined him at Elka. When Elka refused to allow the brothers to expand their sales territory beyond New York City, they quit to begin their own business.
On March 1, 1932 Charles and Joseph Revson formed Revlon Nail Enamel Corporation in partnership with Charles Lachman, a chemist who had married into the Dresden Chemical Company, a wholesale manufacturer and distributor of nail polish. (The L in Revlon represents Lachman.) The three put up a total of $300 to form the company and began manufacturing nail polish out of a small $25–a–month room on Manhattan's West Side. Lachman was brought in because of his relationship to Dresden and had no active role in the company, although he continued to benefit financially from his one–third ownership of the company throughout his lifetime.
Dr. Taylor Sherwood of Dresden created nail polish to Revson's specifications—creamy, opaque, and nonstreaking. Elka manufactured an opaque polish that had caught Revson's eye because most polishes on the market at the time were transparent, colored with dyes, and came only in three shades of red. Because his "creamy enamel" would be made with pigment, it completely covered the fingernail and provided the possibility for expanding into a wide range of shades and colors.
With prototypes in hand and the business sustained on money borrowed from loan sharks at 2 percent interest per month, Revson peddled his goods to beauty salons as he had no money to launch an advertising campaign. Thus Revson was the salesman and Joseph ran the office. Revson was a natural master of marketing. While with Elka he noted which products sold, which colors people preferred, and how well they were satisfied. Once he had his own formula he would demonstrate his products by painting his own nails or applying the polish to a potential customer's fingertips. Revlon received its first substantial order in 1934 when Marshall Field's purchased $400 worth of polish.
From there, the company grew steadily and rapidly—even during the midst of the onset of the depression. By 1937 it was clear that Revlon was a success: In the last four years, sales had increased by 400 percent, and Revson, in his early thirties, was drawing a handsome salary of $16,500 annually. The following year the company grew by 300 percent in just one year and Revson's take jumped to $39,000. Revlon's next big jump in sales came in 1939 when lipstick was introduced that coordinated with Revlon's nail polish colors. The slogan "matching lips and fingertips" resulted in sales nearly doubling in 1940. Magazines, printed in color for the first time, showed off the trendy coordinating colors. In 1951 Revlon launched its highly successful "Fire and Ice" campaign that featured a beautiful, somewhat seductive, model who asked, "Are you made for Fire and Ice?"
Chronology: Charles Revson
1932: Formed Revlon Nail Polish Corporation with brother Joseph Revson and Charles Lachman.
1934: Received first major order worth $400 from Neiman Marcus.
1939: Introduced line of lipsticks.
1951: Launched Fire and Ice advertising campaign.
1955: Sponsored hit television show The $64,000Question; became a public traded company; Joseph Revson left company.
1958: Sued by younger brother Martin Revson for fraud; settled out of court.
1966: Purchased United States Vitamin and Pharmaceutical Corporation.
1973: Introduced popular perfume, Charlie.
The company experienced another incredible surge in sales in the mid–1950s when Revlon took on the sponsorship of the television show, The $64,000 Question. The show, which aired every Tuesday night, became something of a national phenomenon and Revlon benefited greatly from its popularity. Sales increased by 54 percent and earnings rose almost 200 percent. Revlon was not affected by the negative publicity that ensued in 1959 when the show was removed from the air after it was discovered that it had been rigged—despite the later testimony of others who swore Revson himself explicitly demanded the shows' outcomes be fixed. In those four years sales increased 400 percent to $125 million and earnings jumped eightfold to almost $11 million. Revson took the company public and the initial stock price of $12 a share increased to $30 within three months.
During this time of rapid growth, Revson came into conflict with both his brothers. Joseph did not agree with the decision to take the company public and quit in protest; Revson bought him out for $2.5 million. Revson brought in his younger brother Martin, who quit in 1958 and sued Revson for fraud and misrepresentation; Revson settled with his brother out of court for $300,000.
During the 1960s and 1970s Revlon continued to expand. The company delved into cosmetics, skin–care products, shampoo, hair spray, and perfumes. Revson, always a master of marketing, developed different lines of products, which ranged in price from expensive to inexpensive, to appeal to different markets. Ultima II and Princess Marcella Borghese targeted the upper end of the market and Charlie, an affordable perfume debuted in 1973, targeted a younger audience and became the best–selling fragrance worldwide, due in large part to Revson's brilliant advertising campaigns. Not every one of Revson's endeavors was successful. His attempt to expand into the fashion field, shoe polish, plastic flowers, and electric razors all failed. Revson owned Evan–Picone for five years but sold the company for a loss of $1.75 million in 1966. However, Revson's decision in the same year to purchase the pharmaceutical company United States Vitamin and Pharmaceutical Corporation (USV) proved very profitable. By 1975, 23 percent of sales and 28 percent of profits came from the health care products associated with USV.
Revson remained in complete command of his company until health issues forced him to step down. In 1974 when Revson named Michael G. Bergerac as his successor, annual sales totaled more than $600 million and annual profits were almost $50 million. Revlon's product line included more than 3,500 items, which were sold in 85 countries. In 1977 Revlon sales figures topped $1 billion and by 2000 Revlon products could be purchased in over 175 countries around the world.
Social and Economic Impact
Revson started with $300 and built a cosmetics empire. Along with the economic impact of such a gigantic business, Revson nearly single–handedly created a social revolution in advertising. His first step was to develop catchy names for his polish colors. Previously Revlon nail polish bottles bore plain names such as dark red. Revson created names that sold both polish and image such as Fatal Apple and Kissing Pink. Then during the midst of the conservative 1950s Revson launched advertising campaigns closely associated with seductive sexuality. His ads startled most and offended not a few. While competitors pushed the girl–next–door natural look, Revson's ads featured such offbeat, tawdry slogans as "Who knows the black lace thoughts you think while shopping in a gingham frock?" As the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s emerged, Revson's campaigns became even more popular.
Revson also broke new ground in other areas. Because of his drive for perfection he introduced quality control and testing long before it became popular. Although Revson entered the international market later than most of his competitors, he caught up and surpassed them quickly. The tradition had been to alter advertising in other countries to match the style and culture of the specific country. Revson did the opposite: He introduced a purely American–style ad campaign, featuring American models, to foreign lands. The approach, later copied by others, was a smashing success. The "Western look" became chic in places like Japan.
In his biography of Revson, Tobias noted: "He 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." He sold image, hope, and glamour to millions of women but always retained a strongly pessimistic attitude regarding the value and abilities of those around him. Seemingly, Revson's drive for perfection was both his greatest asset and his worst trait.
Sources of Information
"The American Experience: The Quiz Show Scandal." PBS, Inc., 2001. Available at http://www.pbs.org.
Bowman, John S., ed. Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Crystal, David, ed. Cambridge Biograhpical Encyclopedia. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Ingham, John N., and Lynne B. Feldman. Contemporary American Business Leaders: A Biographical Dictionary. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.
"Revlon History." Revlon, Inc., 2001. Available at http://www.revlon.com.
Revlon, Inc. Available at http://www.revlon.com.
"Revlon, Inc." Hoover's Online, 2001. Available at http://www.hoovers.com.
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