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Monday, April 26, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Estée Lauder, founder of cosmetics empire, dies at 97

By The Associated Press and Los Angeles Times

AP, 1988
Estée Lauder fixed face creams in her kitchen in the 1930s.
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NEW YORK — Estée Lauder, who started a kitchen business blending face creams and built it into a multimillion-dollar international cosmetics empire, has died. She was 97.

Mrs. Lauder died of cardiopulmonary arrest late Saturday at her home in Manhattan, said Sally Susman, a company spokeswoman.

In 1998, Mrs. Lauder was the only woman on Time magazine's list of the 20 most influential business geniuses of the century. In 2003, her company was ranked No. 349 on the Fortune 500 list of the nation's largest companies, with revenue of $4.74 billion.

In explaining her success, the cosmetics queen once said: "I have never worked a day in my life without selling. If I believe in something, I sell it, and I sell it hard."

Mrs. Lauder sold her products primarily through department stores — Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale's, Marshall Field's, Neiman-Marcus, Harrods in London, Galeries Lafayette in Paris — the tonier the better.

"Beauty is an attitude," she once said. "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."

The company's product lines have included Estée Lauder, Clinique, Aramis, Prescriptives and Origins. A favorite selling tool has been offering a gift with a purchase — a giveaway that began out of necessity. Mrs. Lauder started off without enough of an advertising budget to attract an agency, so she used the money instead for free samples.

She also courted the rich and famous.

"I don't know her very well, but she keeps sending all these things," said Princess Grace of Monaco, who became a friend.

Said Mrs. Lauder, "If you have a goal, if you want to be successful, if you really want to do it and become another Estée Lauder, you've got to work hard, you've got to stick to it and you've got to believe in what you're doing."

She enjoyed entertaining in the grand manner, in her Upper East Side town house, her oceanfront home in Palm Beach, Fla., her London flat, her villa in the south of France.

But that was not how she grew up.

She was born Josephine Esther Mentzer, one of six children of Max and Rose Schotz Mentzer, 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.

Mrs. Lauder never disclosed her birth date, but a company spokeswoman said she was 97.

Mrs. Lauder said her family always called her Esty (pronounced ES-tee). When a public-school official spelled it Estee, it stuck.

In 1930 she married a garment-center businessman named Joseph Lauter (later changed to Lauder), and they had their first son, Leonard, three years later.

During the 1930s, she began selling face creams that her uncle John Schotz, a chemist, mixed up in a makeshift laboratory in a stable behind the family house. And she began experimenting with mixes herself.

While in her home kitchen, "during every possible spare moment, (I) cooked up little pots of cream for faces. I always felt most alive when I was dabbling in the practice cream," she said.

Mrs. Lauder went to beauty salons where she gave free demonstrations to women waiting under hair dryers. In those days, no one else was doing such a thing, and hair salons themselves were in their infancy.

And Mrs. Lauder didn't just sell. She chatted as she massaged, patted, soothed and smoothed — rippling her fingers gently over the skins of women marooned under huge metal hair dryers and desperate for distraction of any kind. In most cases the women would leave with at least one purchase.

"If you put the product into the customer's hands, it will speak for itself if it's something of quality," she declared.

In 1939 she got a divorce and moved to Florida. Years later, she explained why: "I was married very young. You think you missed something out of life. But I found out that I had the sweetest husband in the world."

She and Joseph remarried in 1942, had a second son, Ronald, and went into business together. Her persistence in selling paid off in 1948, when she persuaded a buyer at Saks to place a sizable order.

She and her husband filled the order themselves, cooking up the creams in their factory, a converted restaurant, and bottling them in attractive jars. In two days, Saks sold out and the company was on its way.

While her husband handled the business at home, she traveled to each new store that took her line and personally selected and trained the new saleswomen.

Packaging developed by Mrs. Lauder in a delicate shade of greenish blue — chosen because it complemented virtually any bathroom decor — became a trademark.

Mrs. Lauder revolutionized the American fragrance industry in the late 1940s with her creation of Youth Dew, a sweet, sensuous bath oil formulated so it could double as a perfume.

In those days, most fine perfumes were expensive French imports, packed in jewellike bottles, sealed with wax, ribbons and gold-mesh wire.

Middle-class women considered it extravagant and self-indulgent to buy such items for themselves. They waited to receive perfume as gifts, and then used the precious fluid only on special occasions.

Mrs. Lauder developed an inexpensive bath oil with a twist-off cap and a warm, heady scent that clung to the skin for hours. Women bought millions of bottles of the stuff, and became eager customers for the Youth Dew colognes and perfumes subsequently marketed by Mrs. Lauder and others who copied her.

The American fragrance industry benefited from Mrs. Lauder's coup.

She dueled with archrival Charles Revson, who built the Revlon empire.

"She was the one competitor he set out to beat but couldn't," wrote Revson biographer Andrew Tobias.

As the privately held company grew, Mrs. Lauder and her husband involved their sons in the decision making. Leonard Lauder took over as chief executive officer in 1982, the year before Joseph Lauder died, and nearly quadrupled annual sales by 1995.

Ronald Lauder left the business for several years in the '80s, serving in defense and ambassador posts in the Reagan administration and making a failed bid for mayor of New York. He then returned to the company.

In 1995, the company, long tightly held by family members, announced plans to raise $335 million in an initial public stock offering.

This year Forbes magazine estimated the net worth of her sons at $5.1 billion total, ranking them both among the 300 richest people in the world.

Mrs. Lauder's assets, including her company stock and much of her real estate, had been put in recent years into a trust administered by her two sons and a longtime lawyer. Her public life dwindled after she broke her hip in 1994.

After being vague about her background for years, Mrs. Lauder rushed her autobiography, "Estée: A Success Story," into print in 1985. Typically, she was out to beat the competition: in this case Lee Israel's unauthorized biography, "Estée Lauder: Beyond the Magic."

Mrs. Lauder and her husband were active in philanthropic work, contributing to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York and the University of Pennsylvania, the site of the Joseph H. Lauder Institute of Management and International Studies.

Mrs. Lauder's success lay in her ability to connect with the average American woman, said Eileen Ford, co-founder of Ford Models. "Mrs. Lauder understood all women and what their beauty needs were," Ford said.

In addition to her sons, Mrs. Lauder is survived by four grandchildren, including William Lauder, who will become chief executive of the Estée Lauder Companies on July 1, and six great-grandchildren.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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