Who is Estee Lauder?

Karyn Maier

Estee Lauder has been an icon in the beauty industry for decades, particularly in connection with quality fragrance and makeup products for women. The woman behind the name was honored by Time magazine as one of the 20 most influential people in business of the 20th century in 1998, and was the only woman to make the list. Eventually, Estee Lauder would grow to become a $10 billion dollar business. However, that business had humble beginnings, as did Estee Lauder herself.

In addition to fragrances and makeup, Estee Lauder also makes shower gel, bubble bath and other products.
In addition to fragrances and makeup, Estee Lauder also makes shower gel, bubble bath and other products.

Born in 1906 in the Corona section of Queens in New York City, Estee came into the world as Josephine Esther Mentzer. Growing up in a traditional Italian neighborhood, Estee was exposed to a variety of cultural backgrounds and values. Her father, Max Mentzer, was a Czechoslovakian who eventually abandoned his trade as a tailor to open a hardware store. Her mother, Rose (Schotz Rosenthal), was of French and Hungarian descent. While Rose was Catholic, Estee was raised in the faith of her Jewish father.

Makeup is applied to a woman's face.
Makeup is applied to a woman's face.

It may have been Estee’s mother that sparked an early interest in skin care since she warned her daughter to always guard her skin from the sun. While Estee heeded this advice, she was embarrassed by the fact that her mother always wore gloves and carried a parasol. In fact, Estee was slightly embarrassed by her parents ethnic speech and mannerisms and was determined to achieve a thoroughly American identity.

Working at her father’s hardware store gave Estee valuable experience in merchanidising and customer service, two traits that would become synonymous with the Estee Lauder name. However, it was her uncle, John Shotz, that changed the future course of the girl who would someday be known as Estee Lauder. A chemist, John produced skin creams from natural ingredients in a room at the back of her parent’s quarters above the family hardware store. In fact, it was one of these simple formulas that Estee would later refine and market herself. While the business wasn’t officially launched until 1946, Estee debuted her first skin care cream in New York City during the Depression.

At the age of 19, Estee met Joseph Lauter, whom she would eventually marry in 1930 and again in 1942, after divorcing him in 1939. The reconciliation led to a successful marriage and business partnership. In fact, Joseph left his job to attend the cosmetic factory and financial matters, leaving Estee free to focus on the marketing side of the business. In the late 1930s, the couple decided to change the name Lauter to Lauder.

Since those early days, the name Estee Lauder has become associated with many other achievements and honors other than securing a large share of the cosmetics industry. For instance, Estee Lauder herself received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor given to a civilian in the U.S. She was also bestowed with France's Insignia of Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. A devoted philanthropist, Estee supported several charities, a tradition which the family continues to follow.

After more than 40 years, the woman who became known for her ingenious marketing strategy of giving away free samples, handed the company reigns over to her son, Leonard. At the age of 97, Estee Lauder died of cardiopulmonary arrest at her Manhattan home on 24 April 2004.

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