Max Factor: Father of modern makeup
The night Max Factor premiered his new makeup studio in Hollywood — Nov. 26, 1935 — many of the glamorous stars in attendance had him to thank for improving their appearance on film.
Located on Highland Avenue — just around the corner from where today the Academy Awards are presented at the Dolby Theatre (and close to Factor’s Walk of Fame star on Hollywood Boulevard) — the event attracted thousands to what the invitation proclaimed as the “world’s greatest cosmetics factory.”
Documenting their presence that night, Claudette Colbert, Bela Lugosi, George Burns, Judy Garland, Carole Lombard, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson and many other stars celebrated the opening by signing their names to a “Scroll of Fame.”
With the opening of the studio, Factor — a Polish Jew who had escaped from czarist Russia to emigrate to the U.S. with his wife and children in 1904 — was poised to expand both his makeup and wig business, which served Hollywood studios and movie stars, and his celebrity-endorsed line of retail makeup, to an even greener shade of
success. It was a Hollywood success story writ large with greasepaint, rouge and lipstick.
“He had to make his own way,” said Donelle Dadigan, founder and president of the Hollywood Museum, which is housed in the former Max Factor Makeup Studio on Highland. “And he was determined.”
Factor was born to Abraham and Cecilia Faktrowitz or Faktorowicz (depending on the source), circa 1877 in Lodz, Poland, according to the biography “Max Factor: The Man Who Changed the Faces of the World,” by Fred E. Basten. Coming to America in 1904 to escape working as a beautician and wig maker for the czar’s family, Factor used his skills to sell cosmetics and hair preparations of his own making at that year’s St. Louis World’s Fair.
After his first wife, Lizzie, died in 1906, and a second marriage failed in 1908, Factor, father to five children, married a neighbor, Jennie Cook, in 1908.
Aware of the growing popular interest in silent movies and that filmmakers were heading to Los Angeles, Factor joined them that year, hoping there would be a need for wigs and makeup. Soon after arriving in L.A., he opened a business called “The Antiseptic Hair Store” at 1204 S. Central Ave., where he sold made-to-order toupees and a couple of lines of theatrical makeup not his own, according to the 2008 Basten biography.
Downtown L.A. then, like today, was a place to shoot movies, and Factor, according to Basten, who interviewed him, observed that the theatrical makeup in stick form used by that era’s movie actors was heavy and dried into a stiff, mask-like surface that easily cracked and did not allow for much facial expression. Looking for a solution in a lab in the back of his store, Factor began to experiment, and in 1914, created a greasepaint in the form of a cream that was thin, flexible, and came in 12 shades.
However, in 1913, it was his wig making that got Factor into the movie business. Factor worked a deal to rent wigs to Cecil B. DeMille, who was set to co-direct the first feature-length film to be shot in Hollywood, “The Squaw Man.”
As for the new greasepaint, it was movie comics such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Ben Turpin who first gave it a try, coming to Factor’s shop to buy it and have him personally apply it, Basten wrote. Soon the new greasepaint was accepted by actors and studios alike, resulting in a blossoming demand for Factor’s makeup and services.
Wanting to be more in the center of things, Factor moved his shop to the Pantages Building on 534 S. Broadway, and then to 326 S. Hill Street, where it occupied a ground-floor storefront.
Adding to his innovations, in 1918 Factor introduced a Color Harmony line of 11 shades of face powder, and also started selling his greasepaint in tubes. One of his testers for the powder was screen actress Carmel Myers, daughter of Rabbi Isidore Myers of Sinai Temple.
Wanting to live close to his business, Factor, who did not drive, in 1922 bought a house at 432 Boyle Ave. (still a residence today) in the growing Jewish neighborhood of Boyle Heights, where he and his family lived until the late 1920s.
After the turn of the 20th century, the popularization of makeup had been slowed by the perception that it was mostly worn by actresses and prostitutes. Yet, with the advent of movies, women saw the makeup applied by Factor on such gorgeous stars as Mary Pickford and Greta Garbo and began to ask, “Why not me?” Soon, Factor and his sons heard that noticeable quantities of their products were disappearing from movie sets and studios.
“Normal people wanted to take it home,” said one of Factor’s grandchildren, Jerry
Through a deal with Sales Builders in 1927, Factor’s makeup began selling in drug stores across the United States. By 1935, acceptance of makeup was widespread, including in the L.A. Jewish community, where at the Social Center at 2317 Michigan Ave. in Boyle Heights, a trained representative from Factor’s Hollywood shop, named Mr. Shore, was calendared to give a one-hour demonstration on society makeup.
“Be you blonde, brunette or redhead, Mr. Shore can give you pointers on how to appear lovelier than you really are!” said an item in the Aug. 15, 1935, edition of the B’nai B’rith Messenger.
In the early 1930s, the Factor family moved to a two-story house at 802 N. Elm Drive in Beverly Hills. Jerry Factor recalled that the house had an impressive swimming pool and a monkey cage in the backyard. On weekends, he remembered, the house was “filled with people for Sunday breakfast.”
To expand, Max Factor & Co. soon was looking for property in Hollywood, eventually purchasing the building where the grand opening took place, after a complete makeover by movie palace architect S. Charles Lee (born Simeon Charles Levi) was completed.
An Art Deco showplace complete with a laboratory, offices, factory space and an area for wig making, it had a room specifically decorated and lit for “Blondes Only,” and one each for “Brownettes,” “Redheads” and “Brunettes.” The night of the grand opening, Jean Harlow “cut the ribbon for the blondes-only room,” said Dadigan, the Hollywood Museum head.
Today, the building houses a collection of Max Factor products, photos and devices, including a beauty micrometer (a metal contraption designed to measure the face), as well as additional exhibits devoted to movie and TV history.
“I used to go and watch the ladies making wigs. And I liked to ride the [freight] elevator,” said Jerry Factor, recalling his childhood visits to the building. He now works in property management and is an emeritus trustee of the Max Factor Family Foundation.
Sometime after Max Factor merged with Norton Simon in 1973 (today the brand is owned by Coty), “The Scroll of Honor” disappeared. “Turns out,” Jerry Factor said, “my cousin Barbara had somehow got it out of the building, and it was under her bed for years.” Since its re-emergence, the scroll has been put on display in the Jewish Federation building and as part of an exhibit on Jewish Los Angeles at the Autry Museum of the American West. Today, it is on loan to the Skirball Cultural Center.
Factor died at his home on Aug. 30, 1938. Rabbi Edgar Magnin of Wilshire Boulevard Temple officiated at the funeral, and later his family dedicated the synagogue’s chapel in memory of him and his wife Jennie. Though he was the man who gave Joan Crawford her lipstick “smear,” and Lucile Ball her first shade of red, “Max Factor’s goal was not just to glamorize movie stars,” Dadigan said. “Culturally, he changed the look of
women all over the world, in every station
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