My first memory of her was probably her scent,” Aerin Lauder recalls of her grandmother, cosmetics pioneer Estée Lauder. Not a specific scent, she clarifies, as Estée was forever test-driving perfume samples for her eponymous company to make sure they fit her exacting standards. One day, she’d spritz on “Youth Dew” (which, by 1984, had reached over $150 million in sales); another time it would be “Azurée” (a portmanteau of “Azur” and “Estée”). “I remember as a little girl having her come into a room, or into the car and the whole space would smell of whatever fragrance that she was working on,” Aerin adds.
75 years ago, Josephine Lauder (neé Mentzer), a Queens-born daughter of Hungarian-Jewish immigrants, founded Estée Lauder. (Josephine was too long of a name to put on a bottle—plus Estée, she thought, sounded more European.) She sold four products: cleansing oil, skin lotion, super-rich all-purpose creme, and a creme pack. Soon, Lauder had a bustling counter at Saks Fifth Avenue. In the following decades, she turned her namesake brand into a billion-dollar company, thanks to her shrewd business acumen and a keen sense of women’s desires. Her most successful marketing measure? Including a gift with purchase, a tactic still used widely throughout the beauty industry today. Marvin Taub, the former CEO of Bloomingdale’s, once called her “the world’s finest salesperson.”
On November 9, a new book published by Assouline aims to chronicle the fabulous, fantastic life of Estée Lauder. Put together by her two granddaughters, Aerin and Jane, Esteé Lauder: A Beautiful Life is both a professional and personal story: interwoven between archival advertisements for her alligator compacts are tales of her legendary parties thrown everywhere from the Museum of Modern Art to her house in South of France. One page shows Lauder in an evening gown; the next at a department store counter, giving a customer a makeover.
There’s also a whole section dedicated to her role as a mother and later, grandmother. When her son Leonard went off to summer camp, Lauder wasn’t satisfied by merely packing him a boxed lunch per instructions. Instead, she filled a giant Bergdorf’s box with 15 homemade sandwiches so her son could make friends.
On its surface, Esteé Lauder: A Beautiful Life is a book of visual eye candy as well as a high society chronicle, with her friends including everyone from Princess Diana to Hubert de Givenchy. But it’s also a book about perseverance. Lauder, it reminds you, launched a company as a first-generation immigrant woman in 1946. She rode trains across the county shilling her product and didn’t take no for an answer, despite the many hurled her way. “It’s one thing becoming successful, but it’s hard to stay that way. Who helped me? I helped myself. I have done every job in the company,” she once said.
Below, photographs of the trailblazing businesswoman Estée Lauder—and her products—throughout history.