Russian origins of French magazine Elle

It is a known fact to many people – Elle magazine was created by a Russian émigré.  For many, including me, it is a surprise. The woman, who published the first magazine in 1945 in post-war France, was Hélène Gordon-Lazareff (21 September 1909 – 16 February 1988).  She was born in Rostov-on-Don (or Rostov-na-Donu) in a wealthy Jewish family.

The family fled to France from the Bolshevik Revolution in 1920. It is said that Helen’s father was able to transfer all his money into European banks and the family continued to lead a very comfortable life in France. Helene was only 11 years old when they moved.

After finishing the famous Lyceum of Henry IV, she studied the ethnography at the Sorbonne.  The trip to Central Africa in 1928 changed her life.  During the expedition Helen made travel notes, which she decided to print upon return. With a letter of recommendation (I wonder from whom) in her pocket she came to the chief editor of «Paris-Soir» – her future husband (also with Russian heritage) -Pierre Lazareff.

After the outbreak of World War II the couple left Paris for New York where Helen easily integrated into journalist circles with her perfect English. She became an editor of the women’s page of the New York Times after working for Harper’s Bazaar.

As soon as Paris was liberated in 1944 Helene returned to France. She decided to use the experience she had and to start her own fashion magazine. A year later in October 1945 the first issue of Elle magazine was published “on paper so course that it reminded her of French bread”. (1)

While reading on internet the available information in English and Russian I continued wondering.  How come she knew what to do? Was there something in her heritage that gave her the necessary knowledge and confidence to start up the business?

It is known that her father was Boris Abramovich Gordon (1881-1952, New York).  He was also born in Rostov-on-Don and received an engineering education at a prestigious St Petersburg Technology university (Санкт-Петербургский государственный технологический институт).

In the past, the Institute (founded in 1828) was named Imperator’s Petersburg Institute of Technology. During the Imperial period, unlike most other Russian universities, the Institute did not require completion of gymnasium education as a condition of entry; the only requirement was to pass the Institute’s examination. Thus, it had one of the most democratic student communities at the time. (2)

After finishing his studies Boris returned to his home town and worked at the Rostov branch of the Russian-Asian Bank, made a quick and successful career and became the director of the Russian Shipping and Trade Company.  With his brother Noah (sometimes Nathan, Naum) Abramovich Gordon (1878 – 1948) was the co-owner of the tobacco company “V. Asmolov” and the co-owner of the printing company “A.M. Gordon and son”.  Hard work and fortunes helped Boris Gordon to become a Merchant of 1st Guild.

In addition, Boris Gordon was a patron of the arts, theatre fan and connoisseur of literature. In his printing-house he published unreleased Dostoevsky in a luxurious edition and the newspaper “Priazovskiy krai” (from 1910).   After his migration to France he continued the publishing career by producing the magazine “Illustrated Russia” between 1931 and 1939.  In the form of a book supplement to the journal he included various classical writings, including the collected works of Leo Tolstoy. (3)

A.M. Gordon, “the founder of the dynasty”, was Boris’s father and Helene’s grandfather – Abram Monasevich (Moiseevich) Gordon (1847-post 1917).   A merchant of the 1st Guild, he was also the owner of the paper mill and printing company “A.M. Gordon and sons” which was established in 1879.   In reference books published on internet the company “Gordon A.M. and sons” was registered as entry #4172 under the names of A.M. (merchant) and B.A. (engineer), produced the income of 200,000 rubles and had 100-130 labourers.  (4)

In addition to his business activities, Abram took an active part in the life of Jewish community of Rostov-on-Don. He was a well-known and established personality in the town.

Now it all makes sense.  The family’s involvement in printing and publishing for nearly a century, good education and fortunes explain Elena’s drive to become a publisher of the magazine. Do not forget that her husband was also a publishing magnate.

Just as I thought that I have found enough information for the article, I came across the Russian website which pushed the research even further.

Apparently, in the last pre-revolutionary months the town administration of Rostov-on-Don published “List of Guild merchants, who declared the capital in 1917.” Jewish representatives are researched on internet in the book by M.A. Gontmaher “ Jewish people on Don land. History. Facts. Biographies”, page 141.

In the above list 29 merchants were of First guild (12 of them or 41% were Jews) and 123 merchants of Second guild (39 or 31% Jews).  These lists are also interesting in that they give the opportunity to learn about the members of merchant families of Rostov-on-Don.

Please meet Gordon family of Rostov-on-Don (5):

  • Abram Monasevich Gordon , 70 years old.
  • Bogdaniya Osipovna, wife, 61 years old,
  • Son Noah,41 years.
  • Son Boris, 37 years old.
  • Daughter Lisa, 36 years old,
  • Daughter Sophia, 34 years old.

Now the opportunities to learn about the Gordon family in Russian archives are endless (I hope). Rostovskiy archive is the first point. You can learn about what is saved in the archive’s funds in the next article.






(4)Listing of factories in Russia, published in 1897 and 1910 (page 164)


Other interesting resources on Elle:

Do not miss this interesting video

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