Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Evelyn Lauder and BCRF

Evelyn Lauder started the Breast Cancer Research Foundation a little more than eleven years ago, motivated by what to her was quite obviously a growing and life-threatening medical problem for women in their prime.

The wife of cosmetics executive Leonard Lauder, and daughter-in-law of the dynamic empress of American cosmetics, Estee Lauder, Evelyn approached the task of raising money to fund research to find a cure with the perspicacity and focus of the executive that she was in her family’s business.

Aside from her enormous fundraising and consciousness raising achievements, in her own community, Evelyn Lauder is privately known to be one of those rare ”friends in need” to so many many women --  friends, friends of friends, and even strangers -- who have been confronted with the possibility of having contracted the disease. Sudden phones calls by frightened individuals, at all times of day and night, have interrupted her own life, always to be met with sympathetic counseling, connections to medical experts, and even the occasional accompanying of a distraught patient to a medical exam. The results of her tireless efforts have been spectacular. The pursuit of a ”cure” has already met with enormous statistical success.

Several weeks ago, Sian Ballen, reporting for NYSD, sat down with Mrs. Lauder to learn a bit more about this indefatigable woman who with a certainty of purpose and an angel’s resolve, approaches the task of helping women (and men) survive and recover from this terrible affliction.
Evelyn Lauder can do a pretty good impression of British financier Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, which, apart from being unexpected, is all the more interesting because, as it turns out, he is her namesake. “My mother said that she chose that name for me in the hopes that I would be just as fortunate in life.” And then she pulls in her chin and mimics his posh, suppressed British astonishment, recalling the moment she informed Mr. de Rothschild of this fact. “He’s a friend now, in fact he’s coming to dinner this evening,” she adds.

Evelyn and Leonard Lauder at last night's “The Hot Pink Party Goes Cool”
It’s a revealing moment, occurring as it does towards the end of the interview. Suddenly, this very serious woman is being funny, if only for a few seconds, and a little irreverent, something other than the immaculately made-up, media-savvy deliverer of her mission, not to mention the wife of Leonard Lauder, daughter-in-law of the late cosmetics queen Estée Lauder and now Senior Corporate Vice President of The Estée Lauder Companies, as well as Founder and Chairman of the The Breast Cancer Research Foundation. It’s some list – and it’s far from complete.

This is a woman who in 1992, along with co-creator Alexandra Penney, the then editor of Self magazine, took a mere strip of pink ribbon and turned into a meaningful worldwide symbol, not an easy task in this age of ubiquitous logos and emoticons.

“I’m a marketer,” she says  “You don’t have a product, you create it! This was my product.” She goes to on explain how her involvement with breast cancer began in the 1980s when “the B-word was not mentioned in the media.”

Once she had found out that twice as many women were dying of breast cancer than were dying of AIDS and that there was no charity involved in research, she decided there was “a hole in the market.”

There wasn’t exactly a hole in her life because she was, and still is, involved in several other charities,  but she took it on anyway and made a staggering success of it. The money (almost $170 million for research to date), the awareness campaigns (everything from bake sales to the Global Landmark Illumination Initiative that lights up landmarks all over the world in pink during October, Breast Cancer Awareness month) and the treatment centers all followed as she pressed her own energy and the muscle of her huge company into service. Products were dreamed up, sold and the money they generated poured in (and still does). The Breast Cancer Research Foundation spends less than 12 cents of every dollar contributed on administration and other costs, possibly a record for non-profits where costs of fundraising can be staggering.

The cumulative efforts of those who became involved resulted in a significant sea of change in the ways in which breast cancer is detected, the way it is treated and the way it is viewed in our culture.
At the "Hot Pink Party Goes Cool" on Tuesday night April 24th at the Waldorf: Alexa Clarke and Gillian Miniter; Gail Hilson; Jamee Gregory, Jamie Figg, and Hilary Geary Ross.
Breast cancer kills more than 40,000 American women each year. “Why is it so pink and frilly?” some might ask.  “Give me a color that’s feminine. It’s the most obvious color in the whole world that relates to women,” is Mrs. Lauder’s reply.

She is not easy to argue with. She knows her stuff, she is charming and then, $170 million buys a lot of laboratories and scientists to make a difference in saving lives. It is clear she has no time for anything but a positive attitude. So what of her own sufferings?

Truly personal inquiry is resisted, understandable perhaps for someone who spends so much time in the public arena. The subject of whether or not she herself has had breast cancer is considered, at least by her, to be irrelevant. In this interview she said that she has not had breast cancer. “My own situation doesn’t really matter …The fact that I’m an activist is what’s important.”

Oh, and to make yet more money for breast cancer research, she’s launched In Great Taste, a ‘delightful book of recipes’ – all her own, and she cooks them too. A piece of her advice on, say, snacking is to “Cut a piece of cheese into dainty triangles. Arrange these treats on a pretty plate with a folded paper napkin on the side.’
Peter Lyden and Jamee Gregory; Muriel Siebert; Ann Sitrick and Anne Eisenhower Flottl.
It is when she speaks of the actual ravages of the disease and the brutal side effects of the treatments, that a real sympathy that helps drives this whole juggernaut forward becomes apparent. When she describes, with such engagement, how trained volunteers at treatment centers show women how to draw in their eyebrows, how to use eyeliner on eyes that have no lashes and how to best to combine a scarf and a hat ‘because a hat doesn’t cover the sides of the head if it’s bald’, there is a terrible poignancy to it all, to the attempt to make women feel, if only a little, better about themselves with a few cosmetics. This particular form of cosmetics counseling may be only a small part of the whole, re-thought approach to breast cancer patients, but it conveys a telling and touching image.

Largely thanks to Mrs Lauder’s vision, treatment for breast cancer patients became softened by the inclusion of physical therapy, libraries, nutritional and psychological counseling, even boutiques. Call it a girl thing, or maybe just a human thing, it has to help.

So pink and extraordinary the show that Mrs. Lauder has put on the road may well be, in the end it really is about the individual women who suffer the disease. For all the uplifting exhortation, even she acknowledges we don’t go on forever. “When they do my obituary I do hope that that will be a feature that I changed the way hospitals treat patients. That’s the thing of which I’m most proud.” Whether it’s a sudden and human intimation of mortality or a marketing sound bite, there’s no denying the substance of it –it’s an amazing legacy.
Christy Ferrer, John Loeb, and Sharon Handler
Larry Graev and Ann Sitrick
The Wathne Sisters
The table setting
Vera Wang with Matthew and Stacey Bronfman
Tom McGrath and Anka Palitz
Randy Jones and Barbara Taylor Bradford
Paul Wallace and Diahn McGrath
Bob Bradford and Sandra Whitney
Etan Merrick and friend
Karen LeFrak and Peter Gregory
Lorna Graev, Harry Slatkin, and Mariana Kaufman
Jeanne Leff and Herb Siegel
Betsy Green and Dottie Herman
Cetie Ames
Chuck Close and Christy Ferrer
Joanne de Guardiola
Laura Slatkin