Forever Young: Estee Lauder’s Palm Beach era
Helen Boehm invited Estee out to Wellington for an afternoon at the polo matches when Helen said she told Estee: “You should sponsor a polo team; it would be good for business.” According to Helen, Estee replied, “But what if my team didn’t win.”
“MAD MEN” is back. Don Draper is still a mystery. And, while waiting to learn if Peggy Olson has reserved a weekend cabana at The Towers or The Colony, here is a hasty flashback to the Palm Beach when barefoot islanders twisted the night away, ga-ga over quiche, tail fins and turbans. And, what better social pillar expresses the Mad Men era’s leitmotif more than the enigmatic Estee Lauder, whose Tell-a-Woman and Gift-with-Purchase campaigns gave Madison Avenue a master class on the martial art of makeup marketing.
Having made a name for themselves, Josephine Esther (or was it Estelle) “Esty later Estee” Mentzer Lauder (1908-2004) and Joseph Lauder, once Lauter but originally Lauder, (1902-1983) engraved Palm Beach on their accomplished letterhead. Legends of their own making, the Lauders found themselves in a place where most had their places already made for them. Back then, Palm Beach, afloat between Camelot and Capri, was chaperoned by the likes of Mary, Betty, Brownie, Marjorie, Mary Lou, and Lilly.
“She never stopped being hands-on. I recall at one of our Café L’Europe afternoons she was trying to come up with a name for one of her latest scents, it became Beautiful, I think, and over and over again, it was all she talked about, coming up with the right name,” Agnes Ash said. “One-on-one she was fine but in more public situations, she became a bit stiff, almost scripted, very self-conscious, as if she had just read a book about how she should act.”
By the time the Lauders acquired the big house at 126 South Ocean Boulevard in 1964, Estee was center stage, holding her own with rival Charles Revson, having already taken down the Krakow lash queen Helena Rubinstein, or was it Madame or Princess Helena, and the more cashmere Derma-Lens promoter Elizabeth Arden, or was it Elizabeth Graham. In the dizzying elusive world of secretive brews of crèmes and oils, you can never stop reinventing yourself, especially when your Prescriptives and Re-Nutriv bottles uncap the promise of eternal beauty, or at least for twelve hours under certain lighting.
The Lauders’ Clinique app artfully transformed over-the-counter cosmetics into clinical trial labs where white-coated uniformed shop clerks practiced the science of cosmetology. Long before today’s needles, knives and lasers give women what Youth Dew could only promise, Estee Lauder’s signature blue products could be found in the world’s A-list ballrooms and bedrooms.
“She never stopped being a salesperson. If she could just touch the person, she thought she would always make a sale,” Ash remembered.
In between jaunts to their New York and Paris bureaus, and their ocean-block cottage at 144 Everglade Avenue, the Lauders spent their first Palm Beach seasons entertaining at The Colony Hotel. During the early 1960s, social columns referenced her as “Mrs. Joseph Lauder, known professionally as Estee Lauder,” and “…the well-known Estee Lauder,” until, resorting simply to “Estee” and “the cosmetics queen.”
In a 1971 newspaper article headlined “Woman Tycoon builds Colossal Cosmetics Empire,” Estee was portrayed as “the phenomenon of the 50s and 60s” who was a “woman of mystery of Viennese-Hungarian background.” Reporters complained about having to piece together the bits and pieces of her early life.
The backdrop for Pierre Salinger’s presidential press conferences, The Towers Regency Room was also the setting for the era’s prime guest lists and gowns. After Estee was honored for her work in advancing “the glamorization of women” by Italy’s most refined culturati and dukedoms, she jetted to Palm Beach, where as chair for the 1962 Red Cross Ball gift committee she provided her specially-wrapped signature gift packages that had become familiar tabletop favors at every Everglades Club or Celebrity Room black-tie gala. When not flawlessly costumed for an after-dark soirée, Estee could be found enjoying a casual poolside lunch with Joan Crawford at Frances Spingold’s Wells Road house.
“Joe and Estee really were a team. My husband and I were at the house for several of their parties. Do you remember when pigs-in-a-blanket first made it on the silver party trays? Estee had found a baker who cooked up the most delicate perfect buns for her Vienna sausages or whatever they were, and she really loved it insisting everyone had to down several of them. Imagine these tiniest of hot dogs being served in that big, kind of formal house.”
Designed in 1938 by Wyeth and King in the Neoclassical style and built for $115,000, 126 South Ocean was associated for many years with Michigan-native Mrs. Francis Shaughnessy, aka Jessie Hood Bassett Shaughnessy Swenson. After her first husband GM auto magnate Harry Bassett died, the Bassetts had lived at Villa Felice on Clarke Avenue next door to her sister, Mrs. Wiley Reynolds, she married banker Francis A. Shaughnessy. And after Mr. Shaughnessy died, she lived at 126 South Ocean as Mrs. Edward Swenson. The house was on the 1944 and 1962 House and Garden tours.
The Lauders bought the house from Jessie Swenson’s estate in 1964. Trosby Auction Galleries held an extensive estate sale of Mrs. Swenson’s furnishings. Ever since Mrs. Lauder was robbed at gunpoint at her NYC townhouse of reportedly more than $1 million in jewelry, 126 South Ocean has been known for its guards and gate. In 1984, Estee acquired 115 Flagler Drive from the estate of Ruth Lane, the adjacent Wyeth-designed Mediterranean-styled house to the north for $2.5 million. 126 South Ocean was locally landmarked in 1993.
Two years after her husband died, she wrote her autobiography “Estee: A Success Story,” published to dispel the myths that had always surrounded her origins. In the riveting passages I read, she meticulously unravels how Esther became Estee. Thus, when I glanced at Joe Lauder’s death certificate, being an archivist, I should not have been surprised to find that Estelle Mentzer is named as his wife’s name.
“Among Estee’s many secret formulas had to be her secret for salesmanship, as when she was selling something, you sensed she actually believed what she was saying,” said Agnes Ash.
County Road ramble
Ever since Palm Beach began redefining itself during the 1980s exclusively as a Mediterranean-inspired resort, much of the island’s Modernist style, architecture and ambiance has vanished. Somehow, as if in another dimension, several County Road venues have preserved their Space Age-Mad Men character.
Palm Beach, 1960.
Photographs by Augustus Mayhew.
Archival photographs courtesy of the Palm Beach Daily News and Palm Beach Life.