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Gerald Gidwitz, 99; Helped Start Cosmetics Maker Helene Curtis

July 15, 2006|Trevor Jensen | Chicago Tribune

Gerald Gidwitz, who with a partner helped start the Helene Curtis cosmetics company with clay dug out of the Arkansas River that they put in jars and sold as "Peach Bloom Facial Mask," died Tuesday of congestive heart failure. He was 99, just six days short of his long-held goal of 100.

Gidwitz was chairman of Helene Curtis when the publicly traded business was sold to Unilever for $915 million in 1996. Although he had been with the company since his graduation from the University of Chicago in 1927, Gidwitz had only marginal interest in the soaps and shampoos that were the basis of its fortune, focusing instead on acquisitions and side businesses.

Among his start-ups was Continental Materials Corp., a building materials company still controlled by the family. "He was an extraordinary entrepreneur, and he had little patience for day-to-day business," his son Ronald said.

Outside business, Gidwitz was committed to educational causes, setting up after-hours classes for Helene Curtis workers in the 1940s and later funding literacy programs in conjunction with Roosevelt University, on whose board he served for many years.

Many of his educational efforts grew out of his conservative political beliefs. In the 1950s and '60s, he started the Education for Survival Foundation to impress upon children the dangers of communism, and he later funded literacy programs he hoped would help get people off welfare.

Gidwitz was born in Memphis, Tenn., and until age 12 lived in Mississippi, where his father owned a farm and a general store.

The family later moved to Chicago, where Gidwitz's father had intended to retire. But it was more expensive to live there than they had figured, so his father went back to work, starting a paper box business with his brother-in-law.

The family acquired a financially troubled beauty products company called National Mineral through a debt the firm owed the box company. "The company was essentially bankrupt," Ronald Gidwitz said. Gerald Gidwitz joined Louis Stein in starting it back up.

The company prospered in the 1930s with shampoo brands including Lanolin Creme, which did not last, and Suave, which did.

In the 1940s, the company was renamed Helene Curtis after Stein's wife and son. Gidwitz and his family bought out Stein about the same time.

While his brother, Willard, ran day-to-day operations as president, Gerald Gidwitz indulged his passion for buying and tinkering with other companies.

"He liked to find business, he liked to make the deals, he liked to negotiate," said Chuck Cooper, chief operating officer at Helene Curtis from 1984 to 1994.

Gidwitz's political leanings also sometimes influenced his business decisions. Ronald Gidwitz said Continental Materials was started as a uranium mining company in the 1950s when his father developed an interest in the mineral because of its potential in the nuclear race with the Russians.

Gidwitz turned over Helene Curtis to Ronald in 1979, and later transferred control of Continental Materials to another son, James.

Gidwitz is also survived by two more sons, Peter and Thomas; a daughter, Nancy; and nine grandchildren. His wife, Jane, died in 2001.

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