Estelle Rubinstein, Marketing Pioneer
By Ashraya Gupta

“The key word today is collaboration. If you don’t have it in this community, if you don’t have that collaborative spirit, you don’t make it.” Estelle Ellis Rubinstein pronounces these words with a quiet decisiveness, bringing the tips of her fingers together. She sits in the sunroom of her house on Surf Road in Ocean Beach, where she’s been spending summers for over half a century. By now, she must be in her 80s, but her every action has a precision and grace that reveals an innate sense of balance and control.

She calls Fire Island her “oxygen tank.” Asked if it’s changed, she says, “The bay’s still where it was and the ocean’s still where it was.” But she knows she’s “a last survivor of sorts.” Her house is one of the original cottages of Ocean Beach. Her two children, Ellis and Nora, grew up here. When her husband, Sam, died, she sought refuge at the beach.

She is something of a legend in the marketing world—her work has been archived by the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Advertising History, part of the National Museum of American History. Barely out of college, Rubinstein helped launch Seventeen magazine, serving as Promotion Director for its first five years. Along with editor Helen Valentine and art director Cipe Pineles, Rubinstein then went on to create Charm magazine, which, due to its success, was bought out by competitor, Glamour. She then founded Business Image, Inc., a creative marketing agency, that has worked with numerous Fortune 500 companies and done all advertising and marketing for Conde Nast, publisher of Vogue, House & Garden, and Glamour. Never losing steam, she has published three books and is at work on a fourth.

But Rubinstein begins her story by saying, “Well, it was an accident.” A first-generation American, Rubinstein says she had no mentor in terms of how to pursue a career. Instead, Hollywood provided her with a model: the “girl reporter.” The first in her family to attend college, Rubinstein graduated in 1940 from Hunter College with a degree in political science and a minor in journalism.

Newspapers, however, weren’t quick to hire (women, Rubinstein adds), so she wound up working at Popular Science Publishing Company. And so began her introduction to the world of marketing. “The operative word then was public relations,” says Rubinstein, “I suddenly understood that there was such a thing as a place, professionally, for someone who translated what a magazine was all about to the world of business and to the consumer; to sell the magazine to the reader, but also to sell the magazine to the advertiser.”

At this time, Godfrey Hammond, president of Popular Science, became “very jealous of the fact that Street & Smith had a magazine called Mademoiselle that was identifying the critical importance of college girls.” Mademoiselle was revolutionizing the magazine and manufacturing industry. At that time, “Magazines were just important because they were important.” They didn’t seek to define their readership or shape industry. Mademoiselle, however, recognized a demographic: the college girl.

And they sought to serve that demographic not only through publication, but through retail. Department stores began catering to college girls, creating college shops. Rubinstein began to understand “this link, the connection between the retailer and the magazine.”

Godfrey Hammond saw the link, too. He commissioned Rubinstein to edit the very short-lived Design for Living, a magazine aimed at teenage girls. Like Popular Science, it was intended to find its base through the classroom—in this case, Home Economics. Only four issues were released when Hammond, pressured by the high price of paper during the war years, sold the publication, leaving Rubinstein unemployed.

While job-hunting, Rubinstein says she was “led to” a woman with some important advice: “‘Estelle,’ she said, ‘You just can’t be another college girl going in and saying I want a job. You really have to set yourself apart.’” The woman recommended Rubinstein create a scrapbook, detailing how she believed a magazine ought to be edited to appeal to a specific audience.

Sure enough, she got a job at an ad agency. Unfortunately, she was fired for not keeping a neat desk. “And believe me,” she says, “I’ve always had a neat desk from that point on.”

Realizing that she preferred magazine work to ad agencies, Rubinstein reached Triangle Publications, owned by Walter Annenberg. She created women’s articles for screen publications like Stardom and Screen Guide. At that time, however, Hollywood magazines were not very successful. The “visual age” had just begun and the public sought out image-driven publications like Life and Look. Annenberg decided to rejuvenate one of his “barbershop publications,” Click, and instated Rubinstein to develop a women’s interest section in the magazine. If a magazine could appeal to both men and women, it would draw both advertisers and readers. Annenberg then turned his attention to some of his struggling screen magazines. In search of a new editor for Stardom, he asked the legendary Dr. Agha, art director at Condé Nast, for advice. Agha said, “There’s one lady who should be the editor of that magazine and it’s Helen Valentine.”

At the time, Valentine was Promotion Director at Mademoiselle. Rubinstein had closely followed Valentine’s work and yearned to work with her. Fondly, she says, “I thought she was just the cat’s meow.”

Ultimately, Valentine accepted the job, but told Annenberg “I don’t want to do a thing for another screen magazine, but if you’ll give me the paper, I’ll give you a magazine that’s needed now—a magazine for teenagers.”

The result was Seventeen, the first magazine to speak for and to teenage girls. It was an immediate success, hitting a million circulation in only a year and a half and creating what Rubinstein calls “a youthquake.” Rather than presenting marriage as the ultimate aim, Seventeen promoted education and empowerment to its readers. Articles covered politics, music, art—and of course, fashion. Before Seventeen, teenage girls were “an invisible segment of our population.” They had no age-specific clothes or cosmetics; Seventeen revealed that they were “not only important consumers, but important citizens.”


Rubinstein may have had very little to do with that story if it were not for a chance encounter with Helen Valentine. Although Rubinstein has tried repeatedly to meet Valentine through business channels, it took a late night meeting at the elevator to start the lifelong partnership. Rubinstein told Valentine how much she admired her work; Valentine asked to see her scrapbook. The next day, she was hired. Soon, Valentine enlisted Rubinstein as Promotion Director, believing she was young enough to articulate the needs of the youth. Cipe Pineles, who had already made her mark on Vogue, joined them as Art Director.

Together, the three women effectively revolutionized an industry, changing the approach to business, marketing and design. Pineles’ use of fine art in a commercial context and Valentine’s insistence on educating their readership met with what Rubinstein calls her ability to translate, to make editorial concepts understandable to a business community.

Rubinstein says Valentine and Pineles helped her understand “the critical and ethical value” of such work. “Promotion wasn’t just selling something, it was selling a value, a valued product and a valued audience. And I was doing it in a way that respected my readership and I made the business community understand and respect this readership.”


It was Valentine and Pineles who first brought Rubinstein to Fire Island. Pineles had a house in Ocean Bay Park; Valentine lived in Ocean Beach. “We were a troika,” says Rubinstein, “Our lives became intertwined on a personal and professional level. We raised our children together, shared birthdays—our lives grew together.”

It was this support, both professional and personal, that Rubinstein says guided her success. At home, she had the support of her husband, “a young man unlike most young men of his generation who accepted the fact that I was a crazy lady who wanted to work,” her mother, and a housekeeper Rubinstein calls “our third grandmother.” It was a “tribal family,” Rubinstein says. They shaped their schedules so they’d see their children every day. Due to the support of her family and friends, Rubinstein was able to balance both career and family.

Many working women, however, did not have Rubinstein’ good fate. Although one in every three women worked, they received little acknowledgment or support. Recognizing another underrepresented demographic, Rubinstein, Valentine, and Pineles created Charm, “the magazine for women who work.” Again, they met immediate success. Department stores began catering to a working woman’s schedule; New York declared June Working Women’s Month.

Unfortunately, the women who spearheaded these publications met little success themselves. Rubinstein says, “One of the saddest parts of that whole storyboard is that Helen Valentine was of a generation of women who didn’t know how much she was owed for what she did.” Recognizing the injustice, Rubinstein decided to leave, eventually creating her own company, Business Image, Inc. Always responsive to change, Rubinstein asked every new client one simple question: if you went into business today, what business would you go into?

One wonders where Rubinstein would go. These days, she’s still doing what she’s always done: writing. She was drawn to write her first book, At Home with Books, while working with the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library. The idea was to describe how booklovers live with their passion. Now into its 9th printing, the book’s success led to a sequel, At Home with Art. The third, however, is her favorite. Called The Booklover’s Repair Kit: First Aid for Home Libraries, she worked closely with artist bookbinders and editors to create the beautiful box set which includes tools and instructions. Now, she’s working on a new book about archival work and conservators titled “Saving Grace: A Book of Recovery and Discovery”. Again, she’s focusing on the people involved, saying, “We talk about what they save, but we don’t know who they are.” Rubinstein’ research has led her to Els Rijper, an archivist at Corbis, who is visiting Rubinstein now.

Rubinstein glowingly describes Rijper’s work and tries to persuade her to speak. It’s clear that Rubinstein lives by her belief in collaborative efforts. She insists her success is the result of the people she’s known and the support they’ve given her. “I was blessed,” she says, “Do not underestimate the love factor in all of this, dear.”

Rubinstein’ house shows it to be true: “Happy House” cottage is filled with a lifetime of objects and memorabilia, several walls lined with snapshots. Looking carefully, one sees a photograph pinned to the fireplace mantle; Its Sam and he’s building a fire. The love factor is ever present.

Or separate ending:

Rijper starts clearing the table; Rubinstein rises to help her, doing what she does best: working together.