Josephine Esther Mentzer started a small business making beauty products in her kitchen and turned it into an international cosmetics empire worth $10 billion.
The Queens, N.Y., native was always called “Esty” by her family. A school administrator once spelled it “Estee,” and the new name stuck. She wed businessman Joseph Lauter (later changed to Lauder) in 1930, and joined forces with her uncle John Schotz to create her first make-up products. Soon Estée began experimenting with her own blends of creams, ointments, perfumes and powders.
In 1939, Estée and Joseph divorced. They reconciled and remarried in 1942, then went into business together. Joseph handled the administration of the cosmetics company, and Estée worked as the product creator and saleswoman.
Estée Lauder gave free demonstrations at beauty salons for women waiting under hair dryers, and hawked her wares to women walking down Fifth Avenue in New York City. Then in 1948, she persuaded a buyer at Saks Fifth Avenue to place an order. She and her husband cooked up all the creams and delivered them to the department store. Within two days, Saks sold out.
Several department stores, including Bloomingdale’s, Marshall Field, Neiman-Marcus, Harrods in London and Galeries Lafayette in Paris, placed orders for Lauder’s cosmetics. Lauder traveled to each new store to design her counters and personally trained the saleswomen. Because she couldn’t afford an advertising campaign, she gave away a free gift with each cosmetic purchase and hoped word-of-mouth would spread.
By 1953, Estée Lauder was a household name. Over the next 50 years, Lauder created 2,000 new products, such as White Linen and Cinnabar perfumes, the Clinique line of allergy-tested products and the Aramis line of men’s toiletries.
The Lauders’ two sons joined the business as well. Leonard A. Lauder took over as CEO in 1982, just after his father died, and nearly quadrupled annual sales by 1995. Ronald S. Lauder left his position as chairman of Lauder International to serve in defense and ambassador posts during the Reagan administration. After a failed bid for New York City mayor, he returned to the family business. This year, Forbes magazine estimated the net worth of Lauder’s sons at $5.1 billion.
When the company went public in 1995, she was given the title of founding chairman. Last year, Estée Lauder sold its products in more than 130 countries and controlled 45 percent of the cosmetics market in U.S. department stores.
Lauder received France’s Legion of Honor in 1978. The astute businesswoman published her autobiography, “Estée: A Success Story,” in 1985, and spent her final years giving parties and contributing to various philanthropic causes. She was the only woman listed on Time Magazine’s 20 most influential business geniuses of the 20th century.
Lauder died on April 24 from cardiopulmonary arrest. She was 97.