The Queen of Corona – Estée Lauder’s Magic Touch
By Ellen Gilbert
When Calvin Klein introduced “Obsession” in 1985, it was swooningly described as a “compelling, potent, powerful and intensely provocative scent.” Christian Dior’s “Poison,” which also came out that year, was no less effusively hailed as a “true magical formula…an irresistibly seductive fragrance, characterized by spectacular appeal.” Clearly, Yves St. Laurent’s “Opium,” an earlier (1977) entrant in the fragrance competition, hadn’t cornered the market on rave reviews: “rarely in the history of fragrance has a creation embodied such enchantment, mystery, magic, and exoticism,” said one reviewer.
Although they may have had the lead on overheated names and descriptions of their products, the truly “obsessed” in the world of fragrance and cosmetics was, many believe, one Josephine Esther Mentzer (1908- 2004), a.k.a. Estée Lauder, the American businesswoman who, along with her husband, Joseph Lauter (later Lauder), founded her eponymous cosmetics company in 1946.
Without a beauty business as an alibi, Estée (pronounced ‘Esty’) Lauder might well have gone to jail for aggravated assault with deadly face powder or lipstick,” writes author Joshua Kendall in America’s Obsessives: The Compulsive Energy that Built a Nation, his examination of driven personalities who made it big (Steve Jobs, Charles Lindbergh, and Henry J. Heinz are among his subjects.) His chapter on Lauder contends that “for this cosmetics tycoon, putting makeup on women’s faces was not a chore; it was all that she ever cared about.”
For doing the only thing she cared about, Lauder racked up some impressive achievements: inducted into to the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 1988, she was the only woman on Time magazine’s 1998 list of the 20 most influential business geniuses of the 20th century. In 2004 George W. Bush posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She hobnobbed with world leaders and counted the Duke and Duchess of Windsor among her good friends.
ONCE UPON A TIME…
Josephine Esther Mentzer was born in Corona, Queens, Lauder’s autobiography, Estée: A Success Story, published by Random House in 1985, is divided into three sections: “Dreaming the Dream,” “Making the Dream Come True,” and “Living the Dream,” and reads, not surprisingly, like a fairy tale. She was the “cherished, rather fragile, coddled baby” of the family, whose “very first memory” was “of my mother’s scent, her aura of freshness, the perfume of her presence.”
Little Estée got her first taste of business by helping out in her family’s hardware store where she created window displays that would attract customers. Her affinity for making things beautiful found its ultimate outlet during a visit from “Uncle John Schotz,” a Hungarian “skin specialist” who “also loved touching faces.” Enchanted, she watched as he “produced miracles” from “a magic cream potion with which he filled vials and jars and flagons and any other handy container.” This fabulous elixir “magically made you sweetly scented, made your face feel like spun silk, made any passing imperfection be gone by evening.” She was, in short, “irrevocably bewitched by the power to create beauty.”
“Deep inside,” she writes, “I knew I had found something that mattered much more than popularity…my future was being written in a jar of snow crème.” With Uncle John as a mentor, young Estée used a retrofitted “stable behind the house” as a “sort of laboratory” for creating ever-larger batches of her uncle’s “Super-Rich All Purpose Crème.” She began by giving “away gallons of cream to friends.”
Lauder’s habit of giving away her products, she believes, helped pave the way to success. Calling it her “big secret,” Lauder routinely made a point of giving a woman a sample of whatever she had not bought as a gift. “Perhaps I’d shave a bit off the tip of a lipstick and tell her to apply with her fingers. Perhaps, in still another envelope, give her a bit of glow. The point was this: a woman would never leave empty-handed.”
Lauder’s do-it-yourself work ethic and uncanny merchandising sensibility enabled her to move from giving touch-ups to women sitting under the hairdryers in the local beauty parlor, to working larger groups at Long Island hotels, and finally becoming, by the 1960s, a mainstay in high-end department stores where salespeople were duly trained in her give-them-something-freeto- take-home merchandising technique.
“A CRAZY AMERICAN LADY”
Brilliant? Pushy? Arguments could be made for both. In her dedication of Estée, Lauder thanks (“most especially”) the “women of the world who have allowed me to reach out and touch them with beauty.” To hear some of the stories, “the women of the world” didn’t have much choice.
The title of Kendall’s chapter on Lauder, “The Woman Who Couldn’t Stop Touching Faces,” is wonderfully apt. On a train to Salt Lake City where she hoped to drum up business in Auerbach’s Department Store in the early 1950s, for example, Kendall describes Lauder spotting a young woman wearing a Salvation Army dress. “Just because you’re in the service of the Lord, doesn’t mean you can’t be beautiful,” Kendall reports Lauder thinking. The hapless young lady did not want to be made up at first, but Lauder eventually prevailed, whisking her “into a roomette, where she dabbed on some cream a drop of Honey Glow face powder, and a hint of turquoise eye shadow.” Unfortunately, we aren’t told about the consequences of this particular makeover, if any.
“Estée Lauder rarely took no for an answer as she sought to break into exclusive stores,” agrees writer Geoffrey Jones in Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry. When the cosmetics buyer at Galeries Lafayette in Paris refused to meet her, Lauder befriended a salesperson there instead. Introducing her to Youth Dew, Lauder “accidentally” spilled “a good bit of” it on the floor. “As shoppers began to ask the saleswomen where they could buy the product,” Jones reports, “the buyer relented, and within a few weeks Lauder opened her first counter at Galeries Lafayette.”
Pierre Robert makeup creator Knut Wulff described another act of Lauder bravado when he recalled how his father, German hairdresser and perfumer Gustav Wulff, came home from work one day in the 1960s and complained that “a crazy American lady is here giving away lipsticks for free!”
Note that Wulff was not referring to just any “crazy American”; it was a crazy American lady who was getting his father’s customers’ attention. In the 2011 book, Ugly Beauty: Helena Rubinstein, L’Oreal, and the Blemished History of Looking Good, Ruth Brandon points out the paucity of men involved in the early years of the cosmetics industry. “Even when everyone knew that women did use rice powder, or face cream, or rouge, or whitened their skins with the notorious and poisonous ceruse made from white lead, these preparations still had to be obtained discreetly and applied in strict privacy. Men averted their eyes from such arrangements…long after Helena Rubinstein, Elizabeth Arden, and Estée Lauder had all made millions out of cosmetics, men remained noticeably absent from the beauty business.” She concludes that Helena Rubinstein, Elizabeth Arden, and Lauder, “the great names in twentieth-century cosmetics, got where they did because men hadn’t yet cottoned on to beauty’s commercial possibilities.”
By now, of course, they have, and Lauder’s two sons, Leonard (b. 1933) and Ronald (b. 1944), are A-list businessmen, philanthropists, and political activists. Their interest in art collecting is particularly noteworthy: in 2001 Ronald founded The Neue Galerie Museum for German and Austrian Art in Manhattan featuring works from the early 20th century, and in 2013, Leonard donated a cubist art collection worth $1 billion to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH DEW
The real turning point for the company was Youth Dew, a bath oil that doubled as fragrance, introduced in 1953. It was priced at just $5 a bottle, an affordable luxury for most women at the time. “Sales zoomed from a few hundred dollars a week to several thousand,” writes one observer, and “by the mid-1950s, Youth Dew accounted for 80 percent of Estee Lauder’s sales and had transformed the fledgling company into a multimillion-dollar business.”
Lauder’s passion for improving women’s faces apparently knew few, if any, bounds. In one frequently repeated story (originally told by Lauder herself, although in her version she refrained from identifying her subject), the legendary designer Sister Parish was surveying Lauder’s Manhattan apartment when she muttered, “Oh, what I could do with this house.” Lauder patted her guests sagging cheeks and didn’t miss a beat: “Oh, what I could do with that face.” Lauder’s impulse to improve a face was still going strong in the 1980s when she attended a school conference for a granddaughter and couldn’t resist whipping out some products during the parent-teacher discussion.
Perhaps one of the most withering profiles of Lauder was “As Gorgeous as it Gets,” written by Kennedy Fraser for the September 15, 1982 issue of The New Yorker. Following Lauder on a tour to promote the company’s new scent, “Beautiful,” Fraser observed Lauder working a room: “Estée Lauder understood the Ceremonial; you’d think she had watched the Monarchy at work. She lifted one arm and moved her hand back and forth, in her own version of the Royal Wave.” Stopping to talk about the fabulous attributes of the new scent, “Lauder’s “monologue gathered momentum as it rolled along, a stream-of-consciousness performance incorporating slogans, exhortations, memories, tales of glows natural or artificial.”
When it was all over, reports Fraser, Lauder “left word that waiters clearing the fast-emptying tables might keep some of the uncollected free samples for their girlfriends and their wives. Not for nothing,” concludes Fraser, “was Upstairs, Downstairs one of her favorite television programs.”
In another New Yorker piece almost 20 years later, New York Times scent critic Chandler Burr also dished about Lauder, claiming that although Estée Lauder has long been celebrated for her perfumes (she was supposed to have a proverbial “nose” for great perfume), the truth is “she did not create them—they were created by professional perfumers. (White Linen, for example, was created by Sophia Grosjman, a senior perfumer at International Flavors & Fragrances, a company based in New York.) Lauder was a discerning and involved client, but saying that she created her own scents is like saying that Pope Julius II painted the Sistine Chapel.”
Whatever the case, Estée Lauder Cosmetics continues to thrive. Youth Dew still sells, but so do the myriad other products the firm has developed. In Don’t Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me (2012) writer Paula Begoun devotes 27 pages to Estée Lauder merchandise that includes cleansers; toners; scrubs; sun care; foundations and primers; powders; and concealers. The longest list includes daytime and nighttime moisturizers, eye creams and serums. Potential customers may be interested to know that Ms. Begoun finds “strengths” in the company’s “state-of-the art moisturizers and serums; excellent sunscreens; some good cleansers.” It is reassuring to know that their “long-wearing lip color and some of the lipsticks (including DoubleWear) are supremely good.” It may come as a surprise to some that product “weaknesses” include several “highly fragranced” items; incomplete and/or problematic products for anyone battling blemishes,” and “some superfluous specialty products.”
“Weaknesses” notwithstanding, the company reportedly earns over $9 billion a year.
“Let’s face it, we all want to look good,” ad executive Alvin Chereskin (Lauder was his client) told Kennedy Fraser in 1986. “Old means ugly. It means depending on other people. It means losing control…Staying young is going to stay with us, believe me.”
With millions of baby boomers turning 60, he’s probably still on the money.