Queen of makeup turned face cream into an empire

Entrepreneur ignored conventional marketing, giving samples, gifts

Estee Lauder : 1906-2004

April 26, 2004|By Bettijane Levine | Bettijane Levine,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Estee Lauder, founder of the international beauty empire that bears her name and undisputed queen of America's prestige cosmetics industry who pioneered such concepts as the now ubiquitous "gift with purchase," has died. She was believed to be 97, although some sources list her date of birth as July 1, 1908.

The doyenne of makeup died Saturday at her home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan of cardiopulmonary arrest, said son Leonard A. Lauder.

A self-propelled dynamo, Ms. 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 teen-ager 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.

Ms. Lauder, who was very protective of her birth date and other personal information, began life as Josephine Esther Mentzer. She was one of six children of Jewish immigrants from Hungary who lived above the family's hardware store in the working-class neighborhood of Corona in the Queens borough of New York. She entered the beauty business armed only with a flawless complexion, an uncle's face cream formula and unlimited ambition to succeed.

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.)

She was also one of the most respected, ranking tops in numerous polls with Mother Teresa, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Nancy Reagan. President Nixon had hoped to appoint her ambassador to Luxembourg, but she graciously declined.

Her company's labels - Estee Lauder, Clinique, Origins, Prescriptives and Aramis - became best sellers around the globe. Last year, net sales of all products sold in 130 countries by the Estee Lauder companies, which went public in 1995, was $5.12 billion.

Starting small

Ms. Lauder wrote in her 1985 autobiography, Estee: A Success Story, 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 teen-ager, 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 create products in her kitchen. Then she struck out on her own, apparently before she finished high school. (An unofficial biographer tried but could find no record of her high school graduation.)

At first, Ms. Lauder sold her creams and lotions at small beauty salons in her neighborhood. In those days, no one was doing such a thing, and hair salons were in their infancy. Ms. Lauder didn't just sell. She chatted as she massaged, patted, soothed and smoothed.

In most cases, Ms. Lauder wrote, the women would leave with at least one purchase - and one free sample.

Ms. Lauder was a perfectionist, by all accounts. As she expanded by starting cosmetics counters at more nearby salons, she hired only women who meticulously could follow the techniques she had invented and branded as her own.

Wife-husband team

In 1930, she married Joseph Lauter, who was six years her senior and had studied accounting in trade school on the Lower East Side of New York. They changed their name to Lauder soon after and began working together.

Ms. Lauder did all the outside work while her husband toiled behind the scenes on production and finance - a pattern the couple were to maintain for the rest of their lives together.

When Ms. Lauder stopped selling in beauty salons and began to establish her presence in department stores, she came up with the successor to her informal free-product giveaways: the "gift with purchase." Her competitors called it "crazy" and sneered that she was "giving away her profits." But Lauder sales soared, and the competitors soon started copying her. To this day, the gift with purchase is standard in cosmetics and many other industries.

For more than a half-century, Ms. Lauder kept most of her personal information secret, hinting at an aristocratic lineage and childhood idylls in Viennese palaces with crystal chandeliers. Critics sniped at her for what they considered foolish vanity. But others said it was probably a wise marketing decision for her to create the illusion that she was born into the elegant social set to which she aspired.

In 1939, the Lauders divorced, but they were remarried in 1942. Their second son, Ronald, was born in 1944.

Estee Lauder, the corporation, was formed in 1946, at which point there were no employees and only four skin-care products and three makeup items. (Products now number some 2,000 and employees 21,500.)

`Done by hand'

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