Lauder, Estée (1910—)

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Lauder, Estée (1910—)

American cosmetics entrepreneur. Name variations: Estee Lauder. Born Josephine Esty (changed to Esther on her birth certificate) Mentzer on July 1, 1910, in Corona, Queens, New York; youngest of two daughters of Max Mentzer (a businessman) and Rose (Schotz) Rosenthal Mentzer; graduated from P.S. 14; married Joseph Lauter (later changed to Lauder), in 1930 (divorced 1939, remarried 1943, died 1983); children: two sons, Leonard and Ronald.

Named by Time magazine as one of the top "100 Builders & Titans of the 20th Century," Estée Lauder founded a "little business" in the 1930s that grew into a cosmetics empire that at the end of the 20th century controlled 45% of the cosmetics market in U.S. department stores and sold in 118 countries. An ambitious, hard-working woman who personally oversaw every aspect of her business from testing to packaging, Lauder has become part of American business folklore.

Born Josephine Esther Mentzer, Lauder was the youngest of two daughters of Rose Schotz Mentzer , a Hungarian beauty, and her second husband Max Mentzer, a Czechoslovakian who had given up a privileged life to come to America. Rose, who was ten years Max's senior, brought six children to her second marriage, so Lauder had five half-brothers and a half-sister, in addition to her older sister Renee Mentzer , to whom she was very close. Lauder was raised in Queens, where her father ran a hardware store and she attended public school. Even as a child, she was preoccupied with beauty rituals and spent hours brushing her mother's hair and applying facial "treatments" to any female in the family who would sit still long enough. Probably the most influential person in her young life was her mother's brother John Schotz, a skin specialist from Hungary who came to America for a visit and was forced to stay because of the war. "Maybe I'm glorifying my memories," writes Lauder in her 1985 autobiography Estée, "but I believe today that I recognized in my Uncle John my true path." In the stable behind the Mentzer house, John produced a glorious "snow" cream, which Lauder slathered over her face and the faces of all her friends.

The second influence on Estée's career was Joe Lauter (later changed to Lauder), whom she met on a holiday and married in 1930. The couple settled in New York City and started a family while Lauder continued to experiment with her uncle's creams, improving them with her own personal touches. She sold her first products, a Cleansing Oil, a Creme Pack, and a Super-Rich All-Purpose Cream, to the House of Ash Blondes, a beauty salon she frequented on West 72nd Street. Her outlets gradually grew to include shops in New York as well as the hotels and resorts of Long Island. Lauder's early technique of demonstrating her products and providing free introductory samples became the trademark of her selling style; to this, she added a dollop of aggressive charm. "You simply cannot say 'no' to her," said one buyer.

While Lauder was caught up in her career, her marriage foundered, and in 1939, she and Joe divorced, though they remained good friends. Lauder then embarked on a number of romantic interludes, including one with Charles Moskowitz, an executive at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, but her ties to Joe and her young son Leonard remained strong. Four years after their divorce, she and Joe remarried, vowing never to be separated again for more than a few days. Joe also gave up his job and became a partner in the Lauder enterprise, handling the finances and production aspects of the business while Lauder oversaw sales. In 1944, a year after renewing their vows, the Lauders had a second son, Ronald.

The company was not the overnight success that some have come to believe. "I cried more than I ate," Lauder wrote of those early years. "There was constant work, constant attention to detail, lost hours of sleep, worries, heartaches. Friends and family didn't let a day go by without discouraging us." By 1946, however, with four products and their first substantial order from Saks Fifth Avenue, the Lauders had established an office in New York. The business took a decidedly upward turn in 1953, with the introduction of Youth Dew, a bath oil that doubled as a skin perfume and was distinguished by its lasting scent. The product took the cosmetics industry by storm and put Lauder solidly into the fragrance business. In the years since, Lauder has had equal success with such fragrances as Estée, Azurée, Aliage, Private Collection, White Linen, and Beautiful, all personally formulated and tested by her. The cosmetics portion of the business also flourished under several product lines, including Clinique (a hypoallergenic line for women with sensitive skins), Prescriptives (a customized makeup line), and the classic Estée Lauder products. In 1964, she launched a line of fragrances and skin-care products for men christened Aramis, the first of its kind. A customized cologne, JHL, named for her husband, would later be added to the men's line.

Lauder attributes much of her success to the fact that the business is very much a family affair. What is not handled by the family is entrusted to a hand-picked cadre of employees selected from the best and brightest in the industry. "You have to hire surrogate bosses, responsible thinking people who are able to move fast, take risks, and make judgments that would be similar to yours," she says. Lauder's oldest son Leonard has been involved with the business since high school; he began working full time for the company in 1958, fresh out of the navy. Admitting that it takes a cooperative effort to survive and grow in business, Lauder credits Leonard with making the company one of international repute. Leonard's wife, Evelyn Lauder , a former teacher, began working for the company as a young bride, and became an integral part of the business. Lauder's younger son Ronald worked in the business for 17 years before moving on to international management. Lauder credits him with helping to expand the European markets and with introducing Prescriptives. Ronald's wife Jo Carole Lauder also worked for Estée before she took on museum work. As well, Lauder's grandchildren hold key positions in the company, insuring continuity if not innovation. But Lauder was never known as a trend-setter, writes Grace Mirabella in Time (December 7, 1998). "What you had with Estée Lauder was the quality of her view, of her demand for an ultrafeminine portrayal of the product. Every woman in every ad was the essence of femininity. Is that the kind of women we are talking about now? I'm not sure, but women know who Lauder is. Hers is a product with a focus—it's not MTV."

Lauder's passion for work was apparently balanced by a passion for living well. Her hard-earned compensations included homes in the south of France, Palm Beach, London, and New York, each elegantly decorated and complemented by an appropriate garden. "Being surrounded by color and fragrance is as important to me as eating," she writes. Even when she was working seven days a week, Lauder rarely turned down a social invitation; refreshed by an afternoon nap, she was out five nights a week on average. Lauder viewed her social and business life as complementary, one building on the other. She also liked to entertain in a grand manner, and her legendary parties, planned meticulously, honored such luminaries as Pablo Picasso, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor , the Aga Khan, and Monaco's princess, Grace Kelly .

Lauder, who turned the business over to her son in 1982 but remained chair of the board of Estée Lauder, Inc., has received numerous honors in recognition of her business achievements and philanthropy. Harper's Bazaar named her one of "100 American Women of Accomplishment" in 1967, and 575 business and financial editors recognized her as one of the "Top Ten Outstanding Women in Business" in 1970. Additionally, she has been awarded the Insignia of Chevalier of the Legion of Honor (1978), the gold medal of the City of Paris (1979), as well as the Crystal Apple from the Association for a Better New York (1977) in recognition of the three world-famous adventure playgrounds created through the Estée and Joseph H. Lauder Foundation. Lauder has also been active in National Cancer Care and the Manhattan League.

Lauder's husband Joe died suddenly in 1983, on the night of a gala celebration of the couple's 53rd wedding anniversary. Lauder was devastated. She remained active, however, until 1994, when she broke her hip. She has not been seen in public since that time, although her office at Lauder headquarters remains as she left it, as though she might return to occupy it at any moment.


Kaltenborn, Ruth. "Estee Lauder—The Sweet Smell of Success," in Palm Beach Life [Palm Beach, Florida]. December 1974.

Lauder, Estée. Estée: A Success Story. NY: Random House, 1985.

Mirabella, Grace. "Estee Lauder," in Time. December 7, 1998, pp. 183–184.

suggested reading:

Israel, Lee. Beyond the Magic, 1984.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts