Who Was Estée Lauder, The Face Of A Cosmetic Empire?

By | April 22, 2022

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Estee Lauder. (Evelyn Straus/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Although her birth name might not ring a bell, Josephine Esther Mentzer ruled the cosmetics section until the day she tragically died in 2004. During a time when female business owners were a rarity, the woman who became known as Estée Lauder built an empire.

Estée Lauder

As an adult, Lauder told people her mother was from Vienna and she was raised in a posh area of New York, but Rose Schotz was actually a Hungarian-Jewish immigrant who settled in Queens in 1898. Ten years later, Schotz and her new husband, Max Mentzer, welcomed a daughter who they named Josephine Esther but nicknamed Estée. She and her siblings all grew up working in their patriarch's store, but while she enjoyed learning to run a business, she was more interested in fashion and beauty and dreamed of being a glamorous movie star. She learned about skin care and cosmetics from her uncle, a chemist who sold products he mixed up in the kitchen to local women, and helped him get his company, New Way Laboratories, off the ground. In 1930, she married Joseph Lauter, and the couple soon changed the spelling of their name to "Lauder."

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Lauder with a customer in 1966. (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

The Estée Lauder Company

Lauder was still working for her uncle when, one day, a salon owner complimented her flawless skin. Spying an opportunity, she loaded up some of her uncle’s products and returned to give a demonstration, and the owner was so impressed that she began selling them from her salon. In 1946, the Lauders officially launched the Estée Lauder Company, initially selling in beauty salons but soon high-end department stores and then their own retail locations.

Lauder was a hands-on business owner: She personally attended the opening of each new store and worked closely with the staff on how to properly demonstrate the products. She was also heavily involved in research and development. In the early 1950s, Lauder developed her first fragrance, a perfumed bath oil called Youth-Dew, and by 1953, 50,000 bottles were sold every year. By 1984, that number more than tripled.

As her company grew, Lauder oversaw the introduction of five new product lines, including the Clinique skin care line. Her products earned a reputation for quality and prestige, and she herself became a sought-after dinner guest of New York City's rich and famous. She died on April 24, 2004, but her legacy of beauty and excellence lives on.