Estee Lauder, founder of the international beauty empire that bears her name and queen of America's prestige cosmetics industry who pioneered the now ubiquitous "gift with purchase," has died. Her family said she was 97.
The doyenne of makeup died Saturday at her home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan of cardiopulmonary arrest, said her son, Leonard A. Lauder.
A self-propelled dynamo, Lauder raised cosmetics merchandising to an art form through incessant work, a passion for quality and creative sales techniques. From the start of her career, as a teenager in the 1920s, she ignored conventional wisdom and forged new paths, unabashedly marketing cosmetics as "jars of hope." By 1998, she was the only woman listed among Time magazine's 20 most influential geniuses of business of the 20th century.
Lauder, who was very protective of her birth date and other personal information, began life as Josephine Esther Mentzer -- one of six children of Jewish immigrants from Hungary who lived above the family's hardware store in the working-class neighborhood of Corona, Queens. She entered the beauty business armed only with a flawless complexion, an uncle's face cream formula and unlimited ambition to succeed.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday April 27, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Lauder obituary -- An obituary of Estee Lauder in Monday's Section A stated that most postwar lipsticks were packaged in plastic beginning in 1944, implying that World War II was over that year. The war ended in 1945.
Fifty years later, when she had begun delegating authority to her sons, Leonard and Ronald, she had become one of the world's richest women, according to Forbes magazine. (By the late 1980s, her personal assets were listed in excess of $233 million.)
And one of the most respected, as well, ranking tops in numerous polls along with Mother Teresa, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Nancy Reagan. President Nixon hoped to appoint her ambassador to Luxembourg, but she graciously declined.
Her company's labels -- Estee Lauder, Clinique, Origins, Prescriptives and Aramis -- became bestsellers around the globe. In 2003, net sales of all products sold in 130 countries by the Estee Lauder companies (which went public in 1995) reached $5.12 billion.
Lauder, who stood 5 feet, 4 1/2 inches tall, wrote in her 1985 autobiography, "Estee: A Success Story," (Random House) that she was interested in beauty even as a child and would comb her mother's long hair and pat her face with creams for hours. As a teenager, she was fascinated by the work of an immigrant uncle -- a chemist who lived nearby and had some basic formulas for face creams. He taught her about ingredients and how to formulate products right in her own kitchen. Then she struck out on her own, apparently before she finished high school. (An unofficial biographer could find no record of her high school graduation.)
At first, Lauder sold her creams and lotions at small beauty salons in her own neighborhood. In those days, no one else was doing such a thing, and hair salons themselves were in their infancy. And Lauder didn't just sell. She schmoozed as she massaged, patted, soothed and smoothed -- rippling her fingers gently over the skin of women marooned under huge metal hair dryers and desperate for distraction of any kind.
"Her restlessness would work for me," Lauder wrote of those first customers. After the woman's hair was dry, but before it was combed out, Lauder would whisk off the cream and quickly make up the woman's face with her limited selection of home-brewed products, which included one turquoise eye shadow and one lipstick shade, called Duchess Crimson (after America's fashion idol of the day, the Duchess of Windsor).
"I would send the woman off to get combed out. When she was finished, she would ask 'What did you do? What did you use? How did you do it?' " In most cases, Lauder wrote, the woman would leave with at least one purchase in her purse -- and one free sample.
From the start, Lauder shunned traditional ways of promoting her products, partly because she had no money for ads, but also because she instinctively understood the dynamics of hands-on demonstrations and of free gifts of her wares. She'd snip off the top of a lipstick, scoop up a spoonful of face powder, place them in little waxed bags and press them into the client's palm. Lauder rightly believed that these women would return to buy more of her products once they learned how good they were. "Rapture is feeling pretty," she wrote. And rapture was, in essence, what she sold.
Lauder was a perfectionist, by all accounts. As she expanded by starting cosmetics counters at more nearby salons, she hired only those women who could meticulously obey the techniques she had invented and already branded as her own. When offered the opportunity to expand with a counter at a shop in Brooklyn, more than an hour's travel away, Lauder declined. It was too far for her to properly oversee on a daily basis, she said.