Malcolm Gladwell’s inexplicable indulgence of an anti-Semite

Belatedly, I read Malcolm Gladwell’s astonishing essay ‘The Color of Money‘ (in the 28 March New Yorker) about two giant rivals in the beauty business, Eugène Schueller, who founded L’Oréal, and Helena Rubinstein.  Gladwell frames the two in a neat conceit that has Schueller representing the twentieth-century way of doing business — methodical and scientific — and Rubinstein the more improvised and personal nineteenth-century approach; no surprise, then, that Schueller triumphs at essay’s end.  Gladwell presents Schueller as one of those “pathological optimists [who] seldom have the first idea about politics. ”  Of Schueller’s stance during WWII, he writes,  “Schueller wasn’t for France; he wasn’t for Germany.  Schueller was for Schueller.”  We’re meant to understand this neutral “it’s just business” posture as admirable and Gladwell credits it as the source of Schueller’s eventual triumph over his rival.

This seems a remarkably generous interpretation of even those facts about Schueller’s activities during WWII that Gladwell presents in his essay, much less the many more documented by Michael Bar-Zohar (in his book Bitter Scent) and others.  Schueller was one of the principal financiers behind a French far-right terrorist group called La Cagoule led by Eugène Deloncle. As Gladwell acknowledges, this group:

marched through Paris in jackboots and tunics, cataloguing Jewish property for expropriation.  In October of 1941, [Deloncle’s men] blew up seven Paris synagogues with explosives provided by the Gestapo.  Deloncle was a gangster, a thug, and a vicious anti-Semite, and Eugène Schueller was one of his biggest backers.

So, Schueller might have been for Schueller but he was also anti- quite a lot of things that most people today would argue he should have been for, yet Gladwell chalks this up to mere pragmatism as if there is no difference between a businessmen selling cosmetics to Nazis and blowing up synagogues on behalf of the Gestapo.  What to make of this?  Gladwell has earned a considerable reputation in certain corners of New York as a Semitophile, so his indulgent attitude towards Schueller’s conservative radicalism is perplexing.  It might be simply that a politically unreconstructed Schueller would have inconvenienced Gladwell’s central conceit.  “The minute Schueller sensed the tide of the war turning,” Gladwell writes, “he coolly changed course.”  Like many Frenchmen, Schueller escaped prosecution as a collaborator after the war, though that hardly exonerates him.  And the essential fact is this: Schueller continued to support the far-right long after WWII ended, which is how Jacques Corrèze — who Gladwell recognizes as “chief lieutenant to that Jew-hating Fascist Eugène Deloncle” — came to be head of a L’Oréal subsidiary in the US, a position he held into the 1980s.  Schueller had one child, Liliane, and five years after WWII he married her off to André Bettencourt, a member of Schueller’s Fascist group La Cagoule and former Nazi propagandist who likewise managed to stay in favor after the war.  Today Liliane Bettencourt is the richest woman in Europe, thanks to her father’s endeavors, and embroiled in another right-wing political scandal involving accusations of cash bribes paid to members of Nicolas Sarkozy’s political party.  Sometimes business isn’t just business, even if we wish it were.

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One Response to “Malcolm Gladwell’s inexplicable indulgence of an anti-Semite”

  1. Don Westmore says:

    Could the New Yorker have been aware of this devastating aspect of the full Schueller history? If so why would it be published? Thank you for this important and enlightening comment.

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