Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Estee Lauder

In Memoriam. May 11, 2004 - I got up especially early (for me) Monday morning to go to a Memorial Service at the New York State Theatre for the late cosmetics tycoon Estee Lauder (A Celebration of the Life of Estee Lauder), at 10 AM. I arrived two minutes after ten to find that the theatre already filled with more than 2400 people (SRO) and Governor Pataki at the podium speaking about this remarkable woman who died in her late nineties only two weeks ago.

I’d missed the musical prelude coming from the New York Pops orchestra in the pit, conducted by its founder Skitch Henderson.

On stage with Mr. Pataki were Mayor Bloomberg, Leonard Lauder (the eldest of Mrs. Lauder’s two sons), Marvin Traub, former chairman of Bloomingdale’s, Carol Phillips, a business associate of Mrs. Lauder, who founded the Clinique line for the Estee Lauder company, Barbara Walters and Richard Parsons, CEO of Time Warner, who once upon a time was Mrs. Lauder’s lawyer.

Pataki and Bloomberg reverently praised Estee Lauder’s business genius and paid tribute to her motherhood. Ms. Phillips fondly recalled working with this very dynamic woman who never took “no” for an answer, paid endless attention to detail in business as well as her employees and her family and exercised marketing genius at all times.

Marvin Traub recalled when Mrs. Lauder first got her line of cosmetics into Bloomingdale’s, she was unhappy with the location they had assigned her and wanted another, more visible one just outside the department’s parameters. His “impossible” eventually became, “oh all right,” and that location remains all these years later that of Estee Lauder products.

Barbara Walters’ recalled the Estee who was maternal and as prone to give advice as she was to promote her creams and lipsticks. They met for lunch early in Walters’ career when she was doing the “Today Show,” and she arrived still in on-camera makeup. “Never divorce,” Mrs. Lauder advised the young television star, adding: “the only thing that changes with the man is the face.”

At that same meeting Estee advised: “Always use a little more blush.” Walters admitted that she never took the divorce advice, but remembered the blush. She closed with another piece of sage advice the cosmetics empress gave her: “always wear white – it flatters your face.” Walters was wearing white this morning.

Estee’s son Leonard spoke about his mother, referring to her as Estee, as his mother, his friend, and his business associate. He recalled age seven when he was first sent to sleep-away camp. His mother had been instructed to send him on the train with a boxed lunch. She used a box which had come from Bergdorf Goodman holding new dress. A very wide box. She packed it so full, that he mused this morning that she was either worried about him not getting enough to eat or thinking that his counselors might share in it, starting her son off on the right foot with them.

She was, he added, a brilliant mother-in-law. She told him at the time that he was dating several girls including his now-wife Evelyn, that her “favorite” was Evelyn. “Mothers-in-law,” he also recalled her saying after he married Evelyn, “should keep their mouths shut and their pocketbooks open.” Once Evelyn and Leonard were married, Estee would then call Evelyn and ask how her son was treating his new wife.

Richard Parsons described a very focused businesswoman who always achieved what she set out to achieve and didn’t take “no” even from her lawyer.

After their talks, Itzhak Perlman came out to play Liebesleid by Fritz Kreisler and Melodie by Christoph Gluck.

The second set of participants followed: Mrs. Lauder’s grandchildren, Jane, Aerin (daughters of Ronald and Jo Carole) and Gary and William (sons of Leonard and Evelyn), each spoke affectionately of “grandmother,” adding another dimension to this woman’s life. She was close to all of her grandchildren and always in communication with them. Her two main concerns were their safety and health. “If we always took grandmother’s advice,” Gary Lauder reflected with amusement, “we’d be all bundled up and weighing 300 pounds.” With her granddaughters, she doted and encouraged the independence she lived by herself.

She was a woman who believed in what she was doing. Women, all women, could look beautiful, she once told a Budapest journalist (when she was opening the first Estee Lauder boutique in the Eastern bloc after the fall of the Soviet Union). “A woman is most beautiful on her wedding day when she has taken that time for herself.” Estee’s advice to all women was to take that time for herself everyday.

Her son Ronald recalled that when she got her first boutique in Saks – a great achievement– she was allotted a small space in the back of the department. Disappointed but undaunted, she asked if it would be all right if she sent out some cards announcing the opening to her friends. Her request was approved.

So she sent out some cards – 156,000 of them. The opening day, Adam Gimbel, then the chairman and owner of Saks arrived at the store to find thousands of women waiting for it to open. Soon her learned they all wanted to get to Estee Lauder’s space because she was “giving away free samples.” There were so many customers, the management decided she needed to be moved to a larger space temporarily. She suggested a spot in the front of the store. Temporarily. Forty years later, Estee Lauder Cosmetics still occupies that spot.

At the end of the service, the orchestra played a medley of songs that she loved, accompanied by a montage of snapshots and portraits from infancy to the end of her life. What they revealed illustrated the words of the speakers – a very pretty woman of style, always determined, attentive, ambitious, proud and regal. And always beautifully turned out, even in the most casual circumstances.

As the photos ran through the life, from the youthful Estee, in the embrace of her handsome young boyfriend (and then husband – Joseph Lauder) to the young mother, to the cosmetic saleswoman/executive, to tycoon and socialite to grande dame, one understood the amazing scope and brilliance of this energetic woman born Josephine Esther Mentzner in Queens, daughter of immigrants from Austro-Hungary, who had a rich, full life, inspired by the same sentiment and opportunity that inspired the career of Irving Berlin and his myriad American songs. This was Estee Lauder, and her legacy, under the distinguished guardianship of her beloved family, remains just that: a tribute to a remarkable (and beautiful) modern American woman.