Fire and Ice
FIRE AND ICE
This is the story of Charles Revson (1906-1975), the insecure kid from a cold-water flat in Manchester, New Hampshire, who never went to college but founded Revlon. He went from putting the nail polish on his own nails (to test it) and criss-crossing the country by rail (to sell it) to, ultimately, a $5,000-a-day New York lifestyle complete with a 257-foot yacht, the Ultima II, whose gas tank cost $20,000 to fill and whose staterooms Revson liked to keep chilly enough, in the heat of the Caribbean, to require toasty electric blankets. I loved writing this book, not least my three days on that yacht.
It’s out of print, but below you can read the first chapter.
FIRE AND ICE
The Story of Charles Revson – the Man Who Built the Revlon Empire
by Andrew Tobias
Chapter One: New York on $5,000 a Day
“Well, he certainly was an original.”
It is the fall of 1972. Charles Revson is on the phone with the assistant manager of Campbell’s funeral parlor, trying to arrange for the burial of Norman Norell, namesake of a major Revlon perfume. He is used to dealing with the manager at Camp-bell’s, not the assistant manager, but the manager has stepped out. “This is Charles Revson,” he says. “Do you know who I am?” The man apologizes. “Charles Revson, Charles Revson — don’t you know who I am?” Sorry. “Where’s your boss?” He stepped out. Revson tries another tack: “Mr. Norman Norell. Do you know who he is?” He doesn’t know Norell, either. “Norman Norell! You don’t know who Norman Norell is?” He is supposed to be making funeral arrangements, but he hasn’t been able to make contact with this man. He says, “You don’t know Revson, you don’t know Norell. You live in New York?” The man says something about the suburbs.
Charles’s inclination is to hang up and wait for the man’s boss to return, but he still has to make the funeral arrangements. He says: “Norman Norell. He’s a leading name in fashion, if you don’t know him. He’s just died at Lenox Hill Hospital and I want to make arrangements. Go over and get him. I don’t know what he is.” By which Charles means religion. Norman Levinson was his real name, from Noblesville, Indiana.* [*Designers Halston, Bill Blass, and Ken Scott also grew up in Indiana.] He was half Jewish, half something else. “I don’t know what he is,” Charles says, “so I don’t know what the service is going to be. How big is that chapel of yours?” The man says it seats however many people, and Charles says, “No, it doesn’t.” He’s arguing with the guy. “Oh, it has a balcony? You have to tell me that when you talk to me. How big is your air-conditioning unit? It’s going to be very hot there.” The man says it’s whatever it is, and Charles says, “I don’t know if that’s enough, couple of thousand people going to be there . . .” The man reassures Charles that they’ve had plenty of people there and the system has been adequate. So Charles says, “Well, I don’t know yet if we’re going to have it at your place, but you go pick him up and fix him up and we’ll see. I’ll be down in a little while to pick the box. My name is Charles Revson — don’t you know who I am? Well, when I get there make sure the other guy’s there.” Click.
The point is that there certainly were people who didn’t know who Charles Revson was. (No, Peter was the race car driver who was killed . . . Charles’s nephew, not his son.) On the other hand, Charles Revson was not the sort of person whom, once you had met him, you would easily forget. “I know that man,” a waitress at the Sands in Las Vegas said as she refused to allow his party at her table. “I can’t deal with him.”
Shortly after noon on a Sunday in August 1975, with only a nurse in attendance, Charles Revson himself died. He left: One cosmetics and pharmaceuticals empire — Revlon, Inc. Three ex-wives — including one whose name he couldn’t re-member, one on whom he had cheated like a cardsharp, and one — Lyn — on whom he walked out days after giving her $30,000 in a tin can for their tenth anniversary (she wore everything he hated to the funeral). One brother — with whom he had feuded bitterly for thir-teen years. Two sons and two stepsons — all working for their father, none entrusted with the execution of his estate or the direction of his charitable foundation. One granddaughter — on whom he was able to lavish the affection he denied everyone else.
Hundreds of shell-shocked, verbally assaulted, over-worked, overpaid, and in some cases wiretapped executives.
Scores of intimate one-night acquaintances.
And, withal, a great many more admirers than is com-monly thought. He left, too, an estate valued at barely $100 million. It would have been more had he not been given to spending money on a par with men five and ten times as wealthy. Raised in a cold-water flat in Manchester, New Hampshire, he had fought his way up to a standard of living that was New York on $5,000 a day. Literally.
His mahogany-paneled living room was by no means the world’s largest, hut it was ample (26′ by 36′) particularly when you appreciate that it was the living room not in his triplex penthouse but on his triplex yacht. (The first element in a gracious New York City life-style, as any New Yorker knows, is a place to get away from New York.) Air-conditioned so vigorously as to re- quire electric blankets on every bed, the Ultima II was 257 feet long — a full New York City block; slept fifteen guests; and em-ployed a year-round, full-time, uniformed staff of thirty-one-nine officers and twenty-two crew. It was powered by the equivalent of ten Cadillacs and a Toyota. Its propeller blades measured eight feet from tip to tip. A thirty-foot air-conditioned launch, a twenty-four-foot speedboat, and a little motorboat sat on one corner of the deck like bicycles on the back of a Lincoln. Sixteen bathrooms, twenty-two touch-tone telephone extensions . . . a walk-in freezer for the several hundred pounds of specially-cut meat flown down from New York before each cruise. (A typical shopping list telexed from Puerto Rico to New York: sixty pounds of chateaubriand, twenty pounds of corned beef, twenty pounds of brisket, forty–eight pounds of hamburger, 168 chickens and sixty Ducks.) With-out taking into account its adjoining study and enormous dressing room, the Revson stateroom occupied 391 square feet — more than twice the size of the master stateroom on the presidential yacht Sequoia. Six other Ultima II staterooms were not much less grand. After Onassis’s Christina and Niarchos’s Atlantis, Revson’s was the largest private yacht in the world. (Too large, its captain pointed out, to dock in most yacht basins.)
Revson bought the Ultima II in the summer of 1967 from D. K. Ludwig, the secretive billionaire shipbuilder, and then went about a major overhaul and total redecoration. The Burma teak decking alone, hand-laid in Naples, cost $125,000. Also: three new electric generators; two new evaporators (to desalinate 10,000 tons of water a day); radar with a fifty-mile range; forty- eight sterling silver place settings from England, forty-eight gold-plated settings from France; two movie projectors for nightly movies; engraved, gold- lettered Cartier stationery, with the blue, green, and white “R” flag flowing in the wind, at $1.75 or so for each sheet and envelope (about what it costs to manufacture a 750-page telephone book), fine wood paneled walls . . . Ask for a typewriter at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington and the front desk will not even be able to arrange to have one rented to you. Ask for it aboard the Ultima II and the response was, simply, “Will you require carbon paper, sir?” Sniffle imperceptibly at lunch and Kleenex would be waiting by your deck chair when you went to take the afternoon sun. You wish pizza? Sweet and sour pork? Lobster Newburg? Filet mignon? Fresh-squeezed juice in your Dom Perignon? Chief steward Wu would positively run to bring what you desired. And not out of fear, either, but pride. He would watch you take your first cup of coffee and, if it met with your pleasure, deliver every cup that followed precisely that way.
The Ultima II cost $3.5 million to buy and refurbish, per-haps a fourth what it would cost to reproduce today. [“Today” being 1976.] The main-tenance and crew, the transoceanic phone bills, the Gucci Bingo prizes, the fuel ($20,000 for a tank of gas), the steaks, the buckets of golf balls whacked off the bridge — by 1975 expenses were aver-aging $1,800 a day. Add in the cost of tying up $3.5 million, plus depreciation, and the ship cost Revson, personally, better than $3,000 a day. Four days out of five no one used it. Little wonder that after his death potential buyers were not besieging the estate with offers. Henry Ford looked and de-cided it was too rich. The Arabs, by and large, are not yachtsmen. There is Adnan Khashoggi, of course; but at the time of Revson’s death he already owned one yacht — Revson’s old one, in fact — and had another under construction. A Milanese minerals mag- nate was all set to buy it, then backed out the day before the closing. A Dutch-based petrochemicals potentate, Samuel Johan-anoff, bought it instead. He paid in the neighborhood of $2 million.)
Yachts aside, there were scores of $650 suits and $1,000 tuxedos, dozens of pairs of $300 shoes. I came, I saw, and I counted. Each custom-made Jules Holden button-down shirt cost $42 (there were ninety-eight at his apartment ); each pair of pajamas, also custom-made, was $68 (his last order was for a dozen pairs); each pair of custom-made undershorts — $26.50. (I didn’t count his shorts, but one executive tells of having had to transport an order of sixty pairs from Switzerland. These, plus eighty-six monogrammed handkerchiefs, ninety-five pairs of black socks, etc., were stored in glass- fronted drawers he designed to be able to tell at a glance what was where. And the custom-made drawers were just a small part of a custom-made cooperative apartment that easily qualified as one of New York’s most expen- sive. It was sold after his death — in a terribly depressed real-estate market — to the Shah of Iran’s twin sister for $1.4 million. But even at that it represented no capital gain. He had purchased the Park Avenue triplex from the estate of Helena Rubinstein for a mere $390,000 in 1967, but spent thirty months and $3 million gutting it and redoing it to his gold-everything taste. (When Madame Rubinstein had herself first tried to rent the apartment she was turned down for being Jewish. So she bought the whole building. When she died, an attorney purchased it from her estate and turned in into a co-op. It was from him, actually, that Revson bought the apartment.)
It bad been an extremely open, airy, cluttered, eclectic apartment. His first step, characteristically, was to seal shut all the windows and provide a controlled, artificially-lighted, air-conditioned environ-ment. Fans ran at all times, blowing warm or cool air; the electric bill alone approached $100 a day. Maintenance charges came to another $200. And that did not include the eight live-in servants or odds and ends like food.
If anything, the apartment was too large. The boardroom-like dining room seemed embarrassingly empty with fewer than twenty-four guests, so most dinners were served in the library. The third-floor marble-and-mirror ballroom (which had been Madame’s picture gallery) and its adjoining industrial-sized kitchen cost $750,000 to do up, but were used not even once. Oil–man Leon Hess, whose company’s 1974 profits dwarfed Revlon’s, manages to get by with half a floor in the same building.
Unlike many chief executives, Revson charged off none of his apartment or his yacht to the business (and deducted only 15 percent of the yacht in figuring his taxes ). And then you had the country estate at Premium Point; the $200-a- dav Waldorf Towers suite (formerly Herbert Hoover’s) he camped in while the Rubinstein apartment was being made over; the masseur, the medical bills, the phone bills, the florist’s bills, the $50,000 fifteen-minute gambling losses, the million-dollar U.J.A. pledges, the chartered jets … plus Lyn’s chauffeur, Lyn’s $3,000 dresses (“I’m sure he was in favor of them,” his brother Martin says, “but not five at a clip”), Lyn’s jewelry, Lyn’s pinball machines, Lyn’s daisy chain of $100 bills, Lyn’s lunches at Lutece . . . there was no way Charles could make ends meet on his $1,650,000 an-nual salary-plus- dividends. He had occasionally to sell a few of his million-plus shares of Revlon stock.
“It was a pleasure to go shopping with him,” his second wife, Ancky, recalls wistfully, “because he bought everything in sight. Anything that looked good on you you could have. That was fabulous.” He enjoyed realizing fantasies. Paying three women to service him simultaneously . . . standing at the helm of his own floating castle . . . placing a $5,000 chip on a single number at roulette. As a boy, he had taken baths in a tub that doubled as a washbasin. It would be filled part way from the tap –cold water –and then pot after pot of hot water, heated on the stove, would be dumped in until there was enough of the lukewarm mixture to bathe in. At 625 Park Avenue, in a resplendent bathroom easily large enough for a chic little cocktail party, he made sure he had the fastest draw of any marble tub in town. Special water tanks were installed on the roof to step up the flow.
A Revson secretary who lived “in constant fear” from 1968 to 1971, by which time the man had mellowed a good deal, put together a handbook for her successor. It ran 108 pages and included instructions on flowers (“If Mr. Revson is invited out, always include $150 for flowers as his gift to the hostess”) [about $500 in today’s dollars] on every detail of office decorum (“Check that Kleenex boxes are at least half full . . . Curio shelf should be dusted. Mr. Revson is concerned about the items on this shelf . . .”); and on the daily nap (“It is the responsibility of the second secretary to prepare his sofa for rest . . . The sofa pad is to be kept in the bathroom closet on a hanger with clips”). The manual specified that the Revson bathroom be checked hourly, and that there always he “two glasses, his brush and three combs” out on the sink. Only twice in the previous year, the author noted, had Revson deviated from Geisha-brand tuna salad at lunch in the office (when he opted for a well-done hamburger); but for the occasional sorties out to the plant the secretary was to order a “double, double corned beef on rye, very lean with no fat, with mustard, wrapped in tinfoil. Also ask for a very old pickle …” An elaborate tele-phone procedure included the information that all Revson’s phones have “a cut-off switch. The moment Mr. Revson picks up on any wire, you cannot hear the party on the other end.” One frequent caller, the manual advised, was Lyn Revson. “He always takes her calls no matter who he is with or where he is.” Still, “Mr. Revson is fully entitled to his privacy. Therefore, any caller, including Mr. Revson’s immediate family, should never be informed concerning Mr. Revson’s whereabouts or who he is meeting with.” Revson liked this manual and handed its author five $100 bills on her last day at work.