Zibby Owens: I'm really excited to be interviewing Richard Kirshenbaum today. He is an ad man, author, and entrepreneur. His latest book, Rouge: A Novel of Beauty and Rivalry, has already been optioned by Sony Pictures. He also wrote a book called Isn't That Rich?: Life Among the 1% based on his columns for the New York Observer. It sold to ABC Studios. He also wrote Under the Radar: Talking to Today’s Cynical Consumer, Closing the Deal: Two Married Guys Reveal the Dirty Truth to Getting Your Man to Commit, and Madboy: Beyond Mad Men, and he’s an accomplished playwright. He founded Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners ad agency when he was just twenty-six years old and is currently the CEO and founder of NSG/SWAT, a high-profile boutique branding agency. He is also the cofounder of Blackwell Fine Jamaican Rum. Richard cofounded SWAT Equity, which invests in emerging consumer brands. A graduate of Syracuse University, he currently lives in New York with his wife and three children.
Welcome, Richard, to “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks so much for coming.
Richard Kirshenbaum: I'm so delighted. It’s so nice to be here in your amazing library, by the way.
Zibby: This is really a mitzvah that you're doing by being here on Friday afternoon in June. I'm particularly grateful that you made the time for this. Thank you.
Richard: I'm so happy to be here.
Zibby: Your latest book is called Rouge: A Novel of Beauty and Rivalry, which was really delicious and wonderful. Tell me about what inspired you to write Rouge and what it’s about.
Richard: Rouge is about the women who created the cosmetic industry, the first multibillion-dollar category founded primarily by women. I have to tell you that I was surprised that there wasn’t really a major novel about the book before. Being an ad man and having run everything from Avon to Revlon, as accounts, and having worked with many, many, many well-known female entrepreneurs, I thought this was the book that I needed to write. It’s really an homage to all the amazing female entrepreneurs who founded this incredible category.
Zibby: Amazing. Why now? Why this book right now in your life? What made you say, “This is the story. I really want to tell it. I've got to get this one out”?
Richard: It’s about growth. It’s about evolution. I had a column that I was writing the for New York Observer which got a lot of attention. It was called Isn't That Rich: Life Among the One Percent. I wrote that for a number of years. It turned into a book. The book got sold to ABC. It was a book of essays. I always wanted to do a novel. I always wanted to do a novel of the ilk that I grew up with, with these amazing authors like Sidney Sheldon, and Judith Krantz, and Dominick Dunne, and Truman Capote, and Philip Roth, and all these people. They're all very different. Those were books you couldn't put down. I loved to read. I'm a voracious reader. People aren't writing those kind of books today as much anymore. I really, really wanted to do a juicy beach read that also hopefully was well-written.
Zibby: It definitely was well-written. It was great. It was amazing. In one description, it said it was sort of based on real-life rivals Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein. True? Not true?
Richard: I used a lot of source material. When you do a based-on novel, personally, I like to do composite characters. Yes, those women, I researched. They're amazing. The character Josephine is a little bit more based on Helena, who was amazing. For the most part, they're compilations. When I write a book, I always create characters to think about who the person is in my head. Then I have a visual of a person. Then I can create the character better about that.
Zibby: Interesting. I know this has been optioned by Sony already. Congratulations. That's awesome. I was trying to think of who I would cast, so in case you want to make me your casting director. Tell me what you think. I was thinking Charlize Theron for Constance Gardiner and Rachel Weisz as Josephine.
Richard: It’s great casting choices, I have to tell you. They really are perfect. The question really is how Wendy Finerman, who’s the legendary producer of Forrest Gump and won the Academy Award for that, and The Devil Wears Prada -- I'm sure she would consider those people to be perfect. At the end of the day, I have this saying. I know what I know. I know what I don't know. I've never done a film before. I've been saying to Wendy a lot -- this is my quote that I say to her. “Whatever you want to do. [laughs] I'm just happy to be working with you.”
Zibby: You don't have to force these down her throat. It’s fine. I’ll defer to her. [laughs] That's just how I had them in my head based on what you had written.
Richard: But they're perfect characters. They're the perfect actresses for the roles.
Zibby: One of the two women, who starts off with the name Josiah in Poland who then rebrands herself Josephine later in the book, she starts work at her uncle’s store in Melbourne after she's forced to flee from Poland due to Jewish persecution at the time. She learns a lot on the sales floor including, and I quote, “that the lady customers all had a version of the same gripe. Their husbands had wandering eyes and too many women to wander to, so much so that their souls were withering because of the atrophy and the competition.” I was wondering if you think -- is this what inspires women to shop for makeup even now? What part of shopping for makeup and beauty do you think is for other women?
Richard: It’s a wonderful, wonderful insightful question. First of all, the period that we’re talking about is pre-mass makeup and the changing roles of women in society. In many ways, this is a whole generation of most women who didn't work and were homemakers for the most part, except for these women who really stood out. Perhaps makeup may have had a different role in their lives at that time. Today, I don't view it that way as much. I'm the first generation of men to have worked for the first generation of female executives and entrepreneurs. I think that makeup and the fascination with makeup is really about being the best version of yourself. In some ways, it’s armor. At the end of the book -- I don't want to say what happens at the end of the book. There's one line, when I reread it, I thought, yeah, that makes sense. When certain women are taking out their compacts, I used the word artillery.
Today, working women and also homemakers who were working -- I've worked for so many and with so many. I think that they are forced to confront different issues in terms of both social, running new businesses, the balance between family life and business life in a different way than perhaps their parents or grandparents did. Perhaps makeup serves a different function for them. I've talked and I've been in focus groups when I was running these major cosmetic accounts. Women would talk about how they use makeup and how they perceive makeup. In many ways, it’s not as much for the other. In many ways, it’s for themselves and also for other women too. That's really interesting. I hear that all the time. Sometimes women will say that they dress for other women, whereas men think they dress for them. That's a great insight.
Zibby: Who knows what these ladies had in mind? I don't know. Constance’s need for success comes at the expense of her own true soul, basically, her own sexuality even, her own relationships. It’s very extreme, what she's willing to put aside to achieve what she wants to professionally. Even when she starts working for Dr. Osborne when she's only twenty-two, you write, “Constance was no stranger to the unwanted advances of young men, but she had learned to tune out the effects. Certain sacrifices were necessary to achieve one’s goals.” I wanted to know which sacrifices you think are most often sacrificed for success and also maybe what some of yours have been along the way.
Richard: It’s another incredible question, very insightful.
Zibby: I'm having you on the show every day. [laughs]
Richard: It’s a different time period. This is 1920s during prohibition when very few women entered the workforce. During the war years, it was different because men went off to war. Women filled those roles. This is a time when there were fewer women who did that. In some ways, I wanted to create these complex characters and put them into situations where they exposed the truth of what they had to go through at that time. There's no judgement about it. That's interesting today, especially. These are women who were pragmatic, who did what they had to do in order to succeed. When we say sacrifices, the sacrifices may have included unwanted advances. They persevered. I have spoken with women of that generation who've told me that that's how they dealt with it. I didn't want to gloss over it or make it romantic. That would be inauthentic to what they had to go through. I wanted it to be real. I wanted their experiences to be real. When we talk about things like LGBT issues in the book or racism or antisemitism, I did not sugarcoat it, the language that's used, the way that people talked about other people. It was, in some ways, hard to write. I thought it was important.
Zibby: It came across as very -- you felt like you were in the room all those times, especially that police station scene with her brother. That was really good. I have a question about that. You have a scene set in 1929 in New York City when Constance is bailing her brother James out of prison. He was caught in what you called a lude act. You said how at that time, police raids on bathhouses and bars were much more common. Obviously now, they're not really common at all. Constance doesn't disclose to her brother that they have the same sexual proclivities, which I also thought was really an interesting decision. How do you think something like that might go down these days? How do you think somebody functions when they're going through life not sharing with even their closest family members what's going on? That's a rambling question.
Richard: Certain people are expressive. Certain people come from cultures that are very closed. The character of Constance who essentially turns out to be the belle of New York and Palm Beach society, the blond goddess and married to one of the great, old families in New York and has the name and social position, she is secretly a lesbian. There is tension there. Characters write the book. What would Constance do? Constance really wouldn't talk about it. Again, having friends of all different ilk’s and religions and backgrounds and being close with them, I also ask people within their culture, “Do you talk about that in the WASP, high-society, blue-blood culture?” During that period of time, it was really not talked about. That's one of the reasons why Constance as a character doesn't share with her brother. Again, would it be different today? Of course it would be different today. At that time, I wanted to show what women went through. Everyone is complex in the book. Everyone has to deal with certain things, and the inside versus the outside persona.
Zibby: I want to go back. I feel like you dodged the question about any sacrifices you may have made yourself. Maybe I just skipped over it. I feel like everybody in their career has to put something aside. I don't know. Do you have any that you want to share? If not, I’ll skip it.
Richard: Have I had sacrifices?
Zibby: Yeah. What has your success come at the expense of?
Richard: When I was a young, young man growing up, everyone in my culture, my background, was raised to be doctors, lawyers, accountants. I was raised in that culture. Being a creative person, I was heavily criticized. People didn't understand me. Within the world and the social structure that I grew up in, I did not have a lot of positive reinforcement. The criticism continued. I was always the freaky creative guy with the long hair. I heard horrible insults about me. It could be anything. People just didn't understand creative people, especially creative men. I was always the person who was the oddity. I would say that definitely had an effect on me. Living in this world uptown, which is in a certain city sense, the New York City elite, I think only now with a certain level of success am I truly accepted by the other men. It’s really interesting because they were very quick to be dismissive.
Zibby: I find that so interesting. Advertising has been so glamourized. You started an ad agency when you were twenty-six. I would think that all the Don Draper-esque people would have been at your feet about that.
Richard: Certain people. I always had a great relationship with the women. [laughs] I always got the best seat at the dinner party. They always wanted to sit next to me. In many respects, some of the men were very dismissive. I'm not going to lie. Although recently, people have said, “I really respect you. If I had to do it all over again, I would have liked to have been in a creative industry.” Now there's a whole generation of these parents who are raising “creative kids” because everyone wants creative kids. I'm only saying at the time I came up, it wasn’t as well-received or as well-respected.
Zibby: I understand. What do you think it was that made you keep persevering? You kept doing what your heart believed in despite everything.
Richard: I couldn't do anything else. I wasn’t suited for anything else. That's the thing. You can't be what you can't be. A bird can't be a fish. The thing is that for me, it was always about my creative gene and reveling in writing. I started out as a comedy writer selling jokes for Joan Rivers at eight dollars a joke. That was never going to pay my bills. I went into the advertising business. I had a job and security and health insurance and things like that.
Zibby: Wait, how did you get a job writing Joan Rivers’ jokes? You were just out of college? What happened?
Richard: In the comedy circuit in those days, many of the older comedians would hang out at the Carnegie Deli.
Zibby: Like Mrs. Maisel.
Richard: Yeah. You'd go pitch your jokes. Corned beef would be falling out of their mouths. “I’ll take that one.” It was hysterical. Through people and friends someone would say, “This comedian’s looking for some material. You should meet that person.” It was organic in that sense. Then a few years later, since I knew her -- I did this semi-famous campaign in the eighties for a jeans company called No Excuses jeans with Gary Hart’s paramour Donna Rice. The second person to be in the campaign was Joan. It was at a sad time in her life when Edgar died and everything like that. She was fantastic, really wonderful person. She taught me a great lesson about writing. It was really interesting. Joan had these filing cabinets of jokes. She really understood the craft of how to tell a joke. Today, people like Amy Schumer and things like that, they do more monologues, storytelling. They're hysterical, of course. In that period of time, people actually told a well-crafted joke. I had written a joke. Joan took me aside and said something to effect of, “Richard, I just want to say, this is a lesson. A joke on a joke, a punchline on a punchline cancels itself out. You have to have one punchline. It has to sing.” I was layering all these punchlines on top of each other. She really helped me understand the idea of editing. That was the first time I really understood the surgical editing is really important in writing.
Zibby: Had you always liked to write your whole life?
Richard: Yes. When other young men were playing soccer and football -- of course, I was the worst athlete -- I sat down in front of the manual typewriter. This is for me.
Zibby: When was the first time you published anything?
Richard: My first published piece, it was in the school paper. Then when I went to college, of course I was the editor of the paper and things like that. It was a little, slow build.
Zibby: Now you've written fiction, nonfiction. You've written advice books about dating, business, this novel throughout decades inside women’s lives. You're multi-talented in that way. Did you ever get formal writing training? Is there a particular type of writing you like the most?
Richard: I never got formal writing training. I am a voracious reader. I love reading. When you're a natural storyteller, when you love to tell stories, it’s just within you to want to tell those stories. I really hooked into something which was special with the column which was really about social observation. That's when I knew I had hit my calling and hit my stride. I was living in this world and talking about -- my first column for Isn’t That Rich? was entitled “Drivers Are the New Dads.” It was about how many families in the Upper East Side hire private drivers. Then when the parents are away, the drivers are sent in to parent or to go with the children to clubs. It caused an enormous controversy and scandal that I had revealed this thing. People were upset about it. At the time, because I was criticized and people were telling me that I shouldn't write about things like that and expose that world, I went to my wife and I said, “I think we’re being cut socially. Do you have an issue with this? Should I stop?” Luckily, I'm married to a really strong woman. She said, “No. Nothing great ever happens if you're going to compromise. Don't change a word for anyone.” That really was wonderful for me. That's why the book is dedicated to my wife Dana.
Zibby: Aw. That's great to have such an advocate.
Richard: She's great. The second thing she told me was -- when I started writing the column, I said, “Do you like it?” She said, “Rewrite it.” I said, “Why?” She said, “Pretend you didn't go to Syracuse.” Although, Syracuse is a good school. She goes, “Pretend you are the narrator in The Great Gatsby and you went to Princeton, Yale. If you can create that persona, I think it would be better for you. You won't be as criticized.” She was right. I reread The Great Gatsby. I upped my language game a little bit, creating more artful sensibility. I think she was right.
Zibby: I feel like there's such a, I don't want to say discrimination, against the wealthy these days. I feel like the wealthy are constantly getting bashed for some reason or another.
Richard: Of course.
Zibby: Do you feel like your columns added to that, or not?
Richard: I always tried to have a balance between old money and new money. I thought that was really interesting. That was important. I'd never tried to only cast a net against one group of people. I would say that I just hit the cultural zeitgeist in a certain sense. I exposed behavior. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. As an example, I created a word for people who took selfies but did it in front of private planes and things like that and coined it “the wealfie.” The New York Times picked up about it. Then they wrote this article it. It got international press. It’s true. People, like makeup, they want to present the best version of themselves. They’ll snap a photo in front of, if they're flying private. They’ll try to do some ridiculous thing by trying to portray this wonderful, idyllic world. I think that's funny. Did I add to it? Perhaps, but I think it’s funny.
Zibby: Back to the book a little bit, this one. How long did it take you to write Rouge? Where and when did you write? You already run a whole branding boutique firm and a private equity firm associated with it where you invest in companies. It’s not like you're sitting around all day with tons of time to have your creative outlets let loose. When do you do everything?
Richard: I'm a mad person. I go to bed at two or two thirty. I wake up at six thirty. I write from six thirty to eight. Then I’ll go to work. I’ll work. One or two days a week I’ll do a writer’s lunch by myself. I usually go to Irish bars and fun places named The Thirsty Skull or something, which motivate me. Then I’ll do a private lunch in a good restaurant.
Zibby: A private lunch with yourself and your laptop?
Richard: Yeah, with myself and my laptop. Then I’ll go back to work. I’ll have a client dinner. Then I’ll come home. Generally, twelve to one, I’ll write again in the bathtub. I always write in the bathtub. The bathtub is where I write.
Zibby: No way.
Richard: Yeah, completely.
Zibby: [laughs] I didn't read that about you anywhere. That's awesome. I love it. You have kids too.
Richard: I have three children.
Zibby: Are they grown kids now?
Richard: My youngest is fourteen. My twins are nineteen.
Zibby: I have twins.
Richard: You do?
Zibby: Their birthday is today.
Richard: Gemelli, as they say in Italian. How old are they?
Zibby: They're twelve today.
Richard: Wow. You really have your hands full. Boys or girls?
Zibby: I have four kids, but they're my oldest kids. They're a boy and a girl. Nineteen? Oh, my gosh. Anyway, you don't need the sleep? You're not tired?
Richard: When I first had the twins, I was complaining. My second wife Jamie said to me -- I loved what she said. She said, “Richard, you'll never get sleep again until they are all out of the house. Get used to it. Buck up.” At that moment, a lightbulb went on. I said, “I'm not going to get sleep. It’s not going to happen. I might as well just make the best of it.”
Zibby: Now you don't even need it?
Richard: I do need it. It’s really hard in the mornings, but I have adapted to it. It’s crazy. My children came home from their first year in college. They're coming in at three and four o’clock in the morning. The dog barks. I'm not getting any sleep. It’s really hard.
Zibby: I read once that most successful people, the one thing they have in common -- super, uber successful people -- is that they don't sleep that much.
Richard: Is that true?
Richard: Maybe I’ll hopefully be in that group. [laughs] I can join that group.
Zibby: I feel like you're in that group. You need to work on the self-confidence part here. [laughs] I had a question about Constance and Josie based on the book. If you were putting them in the one percent today, describe their lives to me. Where would they live?
Richard: You have to see who these women are. Constance, as I said, is the high WASP, belle of New York and Palm Beach society, the horse woman, the blond beauty who has a secret, her lesbian life. Josephine is the Polish-Jewish émigré who is a more voluptuous, dark brunette, but beautiful in her own way and commanding, as she's written in the book, and more international. Constance strives for social acceptance and to create an old-money persona. If she were living in New York which I placed her, she’d be living in a townhouse, a red brick, federal townhouse in the seventies between 5th and Madison. She would like the privacy. It would be done by one of the interior designers who could give it an old-money look. She would like the privacy. She would create the illusion that it’s been in the family for years and years even though she's not from that background, but her husband is.
Josephine would absolutely be living in the penthouse because she needs to be at the top. She wants the view. As the outsider who’s conquered New York society with her husbands, she wants to bring in this café society. Of course, she would have a terrace. She would do entertaining. She would probably live in a Park Avenue building in the sixties, would probably be the ultimate for her. In the book when she's rejected from the co-op board, she actually buys the building, which is a fun fact which is actually based on a true story. That happened to Helena Rubinstein who at the time was the richest woman in the world. That's where Josephine would live. I think that they would see each other but not see each other. They would intersect somewhat socially. That's also part of the book as well.
Zibby: It’s kind of a small town, New York City, in some circles. I feel like with the two of them being the heads of their industry...
Richard: Yes. They do intersect.
Zibby: They do. I know. Yes. Would you ever launch the brands that you wrote about in the book as actual makeup brands? Would you collaborate with a makeup company?
Richard: Here's the really hard thing about writing this book and maybe the reason why some other people never did it. If you're writing a book about the cosmetic industry and you're writing about the first mass-market mascara, you have to have a product name. The product cannot be, let's say, Great Lash, because it already exists. It was very true to what I do in my real career, my working career, which is about product and naming and advertising. I needed to actually create the products, create the campaigns. I actually had to find a name that was available. I did trademark the name. Mascara is Lashmatic, which is very true to the period.
Zibby: You actually went and patented it? That's so funny, just like in the book.
Richard: Yes, I did. It was available. I did trademark it. I don't know. We’ll see if someone wants to do it. Then I had to come up with the advertising campaigns around each of the launches and things like that. That was easy for me because that's what I do. I could see where if someone were writing a book like this, it would be somewhat more challenging for them because it’s quite difficult.
Zibby: It’s a gift. It’s awesome. Do you have any parting advice to aspiring authors?
Richard: Yes. I certainly do. One of the best things that I learned through this process and was really an epiphany is that if it’s going to be hopefully great, if you have well-defined characters who write the book, in a certain sense you're writing the book, but in some senses, the characters write the book. If you create these defined characters and you place them in a certain part of history or let's say it’s a modern-day book, if they're well-defined and they have a motivation -- I’ll give you an example of that -- then the characters will tell you how they want to solve that chapter or where they want to go. I’ll give you a really fun example of this. Not to be indiscrete, but let's say you're writing a sex scene. I was writing a sex scene for these women. There is one man in the book who also founded a cosmetic company. He did it in a brothel in LA in the 1930s. That's a whole other story. Let's say you're writing a sex scene for a character. You're writing about these amazing, powerful, incredibly dominant female entrepreneurs. How would they act in a sex scene? There's really only two ways to play it. Let's say I was writing Josephine’s sex scene. Can I say this on air? Is this fine?
Richard: Either she would go against type and she would be submissive, but that's not Josephine’s personality, or she would be on top, which is how I wrote that sex scene. She was calling out orders and telling the man what she wanted and how to do it. That was Josephine’s personality. Now again, that was very clear to me on how Josephine needed to write that. Josephine actually wrote that scene because I had developed this very dominant female personality. Does that make sense?
Zibby: Excellent. Woman on top, that's the secret to writing. [laughs] No, I'm kidding.
Richard: It’s the secret to always. Of course, because that's the character.
Zibby: Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” I really appreciate it.
Richard: Zibby, you're the best. I love your name, by the way.
Zibby: Thank you.
Richard: Thanks for having me.