Perhaps it’s fitting that the actual birth date of the woman who invented “Youth Dew” fragrance and “Time Zone” antiwrinkle cream remains a mystery. In a culture as youth obsessed as America’s, where having a youthful appearance is like money in the bank, Estee Lauder, like millions of other women, kept her age a secret as she built a cosmetics empire that made her name known worldwide. Her age? “The best kept secret since the D-Day invasion at Normandy,” she wrote in her autobiography.
Though no birth certificate can be found, Josephine Esther Mentzer was born at the right time (probably in 1906 or 1908 as nearly as anyone can figure), when the use of make-up and other enhancements to female beauty were just starting to become socially acceptable instead of the mark of a fallen woman. In the 19th century, no respectable woman wore make-up; that was a signal of deception or worse. By the end of the 20th century, a visual culture born of technology had valorized appearance and Esty Mentzer, now Estee Lauder, with her galaxy of cosmetic products, gave hope to every woman who wanted to look younger and better. As one of her advertisements would say, “Time is not on your side—but I am.”
She had been named Esty after an aunt, but the spelling morphed along the way to Esther and then into the French version. She had been lucky to have an uncle who was a chemist and taught her how to make face cream, which she eventually developed into an entire range of skin care products. Today the Estee Lauder Company she founded with her husband Joseph Lauder in 1946 is the premier cosmetics company in the United States, encompassing the original Lauder brand and four sister brands, Clinique (hypoallergenic), Prescriptives (multiethnic), Origins (organic, green), and Aramis for men. The company also acquired brands like MAC professional cosmetics, Bobby Brown, Tommy Hilfiger, Aveda, and Donna Karan.
Estee Lauder herself became one of the world’s richest women, named by Forbes magazine to its list of the 400 wealthiest Americans. In 1998, she was the only woman on Time magazine’s list of the 20 most influential names in business in the 20th century. Among many other honors, Estee Lauder was awarded the French Government’s insignia of Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, and was asked by President Richard Nixon to serve as ambassador to Luxembourg, an offer she declined.
What made Estee Lauder a change agent in the 20th century was the impact she had on women’s lives, giving them the tools to enhance their appearance and combat aging. In a culture where the glamour of Hollywood stars and wealthy socialites set the standards of female beauty, Estee Lauder and her cosmetics made it possible for every woman to feel beautiful. For the millions of American women who even today are caught up in a society that decrees young, beautiful women as the ideal, the notion that make-up or a skin care system can make a difference is irresistible.
In many species on Earth, for example in the bird kingdom, males have a more attention-getting appearance while females are less noticeable, even drab, the better to sit on the nest undetected. The bright red male cardinal flaunts his colors to attract a mate while his female partner wears undistinguished brown. In the human race, it is the females who are expected to be more openly attractive and showy in the mating game, an expectation that fashion designers and cosmetics companies have been happy to meet with all manner of dress and beauty aids.
Certainly cosmetics use has a long history among women, dating back at least to 3500 BCE and the Egyptians, where tomb excavations have found evidence that women applied stain to their lips and kohl to their eyes to enhance their appearance. In the Middle Ages in Europe, the church frowned on make-up, though many women still wore it. A pale complexion was prized, leading to the use of potions containing harmful chemicals like lead. In the 19th century, make-up was mainly an affectation of actresses or prostitutes. Respectable women shunned it, still intent on a pale complexion, and Queen Victoria in England condemned make-up as improper. It was not until the 20th century that using make-up became socially acceptable, perhaps because of the influence of Hollywood and its movie stars.
At any stage of history, women seem to learn at a very early age that their appearance is a highly important component of being female and attracting the attention of men. Critics say this emphasis on appearance has fostered an unhealthy narcissism in young girls that persists throughout their lives. Naomi Wolf, in her book, The Beauty Myth, decries the cultural emphasis on appearance that requires women to spend so much time and effort trying to improve their looks. It is all a myth, Wolf says, designed to keep women in their place and out of the power structure. Nonetheless, the worldwide beauty business shows no sign of slowing down, with consumers spending an estimated $20 billion annually on beauty products. The United States is the largest market for cosmetics, followed by Japan.
Estee Lauder’s egalitarian view was that “Beauty is an attitude”:
There’s no secret. Why are all brides beautiful? Because on their wedding day they care about how they look. There are no ugly women—only women who don’t care or who don’t believe they’re attractive.
One of Lauder’s best-selling fragrances is called, simply, Beautiful.
For all her success, Estee Lauder faced fierce competition from two other cosmetics entrepreneurs, Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden, both of whom preceded Lauder in establishing their cosmetics business. Rubenstein, born in Krakow, Poland, started out as did Lauder, making and selling her own face cream. She married an American journalist who worked abroad and she was able to establish Paris and London salons for her cosmetics before World War I precipitated her move to the United States. There she expanded her cosmetics empire and competed for the attention of American women with Elizabeth Arden, a Canadian who had worked for E. R. Squibb Pharmaceuticals where she too learned about making face cream and skin care. Both Arden and Rubenstein were strong competitors, with each other, and eventually with Estee Lauder who was also contending with Charles Revson of Revlon for customers and accused him of spying on her company.
In the 21st century, beauty is now more than a $330-billion business, with the baby boom generation moving into middle age and beyond and even preteens now into make-up. Even in hard times it seems, women will still allow themselves to buy a new lipstick or mascara. Indeed, as the country struggled to emerge from the Great Recession of 2008–2009, the Estee Lauder company was reporting double-digit earnings with net sales of more than $2 billion, a 14 percent increase over the previous year. In its report to investors, the company cited “worldwide demand” for its products and the “momentum” built by its “targeted advertising.” Skin care, especially antiaging products, led the way. Despite increased competition and some fallout from the recession, the company forecasted future earnings to increase at 9 percent yearly or more. The Estee Lauder brand includes foundations, eye make-up, lipsticks, nail polish, hair care products, and fragrances. The company has adapted its offerings to suit multiethnic customers.
The secret to Estee Lauder’s early—and later—success seems to have been her insistence on direct contact with her customers. She demonstrated her face cream first in the beauty salon on West 72nd Street in Manhattan where she used to have her hair done (“House of Ash Blonde”), and even after 40 years of solid success, whenever a new cosmetics counter or store opened around the country, she made a point of being there. Her major coup in this regard was in 1948 when she persuaded the upscale New York City department store, Saks Fifth Avenue, to carry her line of cosmetics, a move that brought her name and her products into the mainstream. Estee worked behind the Saks counter, making up customers herself to show them how to use her beauty products. “Touch your customer and you’re halfway there,” she said.
Estee Lauder was certainly a master marketer, almost instinctively so. “If you don’t sell,” she said, “it’s not the product that’s wrong, it’s you.” She gave samples of her beauty products to her friends and sent them to celebrities. The idea was to generate valuable “word of mouth,” more persuasive than an advertisement in a magazine. Her marketing motto: “Tell-A-Gram, Tell-A-Phone, Tell-A-Woman.” She sent samples to famous women like the Duchess of Windsor and to Hollywood stars like Grace Kelly in the hope that their comments to their friends would generate interest and sales. Estee Lauder also introduced the now-ubiquitous cosmetics offer of gift-with-purchase, giving customers who bought a cream or lotion “gifts” like a cosmetics bag filled with samples.
She was born in Corona, Queens, New York, on July 1, 1906 (as nearly as can be determined) to Hungarian Jewish immigrants Rose Schotz Rosenthal and Max Mentzer. As one of seven children, she had to help out in her father’s hardware store where, among other tasks, she wrapped hammers as Christmas presents. Her uncle, Dr. John Schotz, was a chemist and skin doctor who left Hungary in 1900 and came to the United States, where he made face cream and other potions, sometimes in the Mentzer family kitchen in Queens, teaching Esty how. She went a step further and promoted the cream as a superrich, all-purpose face cream, selling it at beauty parlors and beach clubs. A petite blonde, she had beautiful skin herself.
When she was 24, Estee Mentzer married Joseph Lauter, an Austrian-born businessman. They had a son, Leonard, three years later. By this time, she had had the name Lauter changed back to the original spelling of the family name, Lauder. But in 1939, Estee moved out, took her son, and went to Florida. She divorced her husband, then remarried him in 1942, and had another son, Ronald. Leonard would eventually take the helm of the Estee Lauder company that she and her husband founded in 1946, headquartered in the beginning in a room over the Stork Club in New York.
When Saks Fifth Avenue agreed to sell Estee Lauder products two years later, the business began its upward trajectory. Her introduction of the skin perfume Youth Dew in 1953 gave company earnings a huge boost, with annual sales rising from $20,000 to $800,000 by the end of the 1950s. “If I believe in something, I sell it, and I sell it hard,” she explained. Company fortunes kept rising. Estee Lauder dreamed of being rich and living a glamorous life. She wanted to escape her immigrant background and hinted at an aristocratic past. Eventually her cosmetics business did make her wealthy and she became a familiar face on the New York social and charity scene. She had homes in Manhattan, London, the south of France, and Palm Beach, the perfect settings for her quest for social position. Her husband Joseph said her epitaph should be “Here lies Estee Lauder/Who made it/And spent it.”
The Estee Lauder Companies were worth $10 billion by the time she died in 2004 at the age of 97. Both of her sons became billionaires. The younger, Ronald, worked for a time at the company but went on to serve as a U.S. ambassador to Austria and at the Pentagon as deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO affairs in the 1980s and was active in political and philanthropic circles. Her son Leonard retired in 1999 after 27 years as chairman and CEO of Estee Lauder. Her granddaughter Aerin carries on as creative director and senior vice president of the Estee Lauder Companies.
Israel, Lee. Estee Lauder: Beyond the Magic. New York: Macmillan, 1985.
Lauder, Estee. “Behind the Labels.” New York Magazine, October 21, 1985.
Lauder, Estee. A Success Story. New York: Random House: 1985.
Severo, Richard. “Estee Lauder, Pursuer of Beauty and Cosmetics Titan, Dies at 97.” New York Times, April 26, 2004, A-1.