This Day in Jewish History / Estee Lauder Dies, at Some Age or Other

Born Josephine Mentzer, she may not have finished high school but working with her uncle in developing things from chicken-lice remedy to suppositories led Estee Lauder to revolutionize the world of cosmetics.

World Journal Tribune photo by Bill Sauro / Wikimedia Commons

On April 24, 2004, Estée Lauder, co-founder and longtime head of the cosmetics empire that bears her name, died, at the age of 95, or perhaps 97.

Like the founders of several American beauty-products companies, Lauder understood that the mythology she created around herself was a key weapon in selling her wares. However romanticized the image she fashioned around herself may have been, though, there is no doubt that Lauder was fascinated by the world of cosmetics from a very young age, and she never lost her passion about helping other women maximize their physical attractiveness. She referred to her beauty creams, the first line of products she made and sold, as “jars of hope.”

Josephine Esther Mentzer was born on July 1, 1908 (or possibly on the same date in 1906), at home in the working-class neighborhood of Corona, in Queens, New York. Both of her parents, Max Mentzer and the former Rose Schotz, were Hungarians who immigrated to the United States in the late 1890s. At the time Rose was married to Abraham Rosenthal, who had preceded her and their five children in making the trip to America.

According to Lauder’s 1985 memoir, “Estée, a Success Story,” her mother’s mother was French Catholic and only her father was Jewish. But when Rose married Max Mentzer, it was in a traditional Jewish wedding, and whatever uncertainty Lauder sowed about her Jewish roots, the family has always identified itself as Jewish.

Max owned a hardware and farming supplies store, above which the family lived. Josephine, who quickly earned the nickname Esty, acquired early business experience helping her father in his store, two of her aunts in the small department store they owned and, most important, working with an uncle, John Schotz, in his chemical laboratory.

Lauder’s formal education did not go beyond Newtown High School, in Elmhurst, Queens — and it’s not entirely clear whether she graduated — but she was an astute student in her uncle’s lab, where he made both cosmetic creams and such unglamorous products as suppositories and treatments for poultry lice and mange in dogs. She would try out Dr. Schotz’s Viennese Cream and other facial products on her friends, and then, based on their reactions, refine the formulas at home.

After Lauder married Joseph Lauter for the first time, in 1930 — they divorced and remarried — and they changed Esty to Estee and Lauter to Lauder and founded Estée Lauder Cosmetics in 1946, the practice of offering prospective customers free makeovers and samples of the company’s wares continued. The policy was so successful that eventually all her competitors adopted it.

Success did not come overnight, it was the result of years of very hard work. Lauder persuaded upscale department stores — first Saks Fifth Avenue, then Neiman-Marcus — to stock her products. Once they agreed, she would spend a week at individual stores in order to guarantee the success of the introduction of the line.

From creams she moved on to Youth Dew, a scented bath oil that doubled as a perfume. By 1984 sales had reached 150 million bottles a year. Eventually Estée Lauder offered makeup, perfumes and every imaginable lotion and potion. They included lines designed for men (Aramis), for women and men who preferred unscented products (Clinique) or ones with natural ingredients (Origins).

By the time the company went public, in 1993, its estimated value was $5 billion, a figure that would double within a decade. Revenues in 2014 were close to $11 billion.

Estée and Joseph (he died in 1983) had two sons: Leonard, born in 1932, and Ronald, born in 1944. Both worked in the family business. Leonard eventually became its CEO (today his son William is the company’s board chairman), whereas Ronald left in 1984 to become an assistant deputy secretary of defense and later the U.S. ambassador to Austria. Today he is the president of the World Jewish Congress and active in philanthropy, business and the art world.

Estée Lauder received the title of founding chairwoman when the company went public, and retired in 1995. She died of cardiac arrest at her Manhattan home on this day in 2004.