Estée Lauder Founder of cosmetics empire and epitome of gracious living

Estée Lauder, who has died aged 97, was a generation younger than those other cosmetic empresses Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein…

Estée Lauder, who has died aged 97, was a generation younger than those other cosmetic empresses Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein; and had less old-world imperial ideas as to how beauty could upgrade female status.

She proposed that a woman might, through managing her appearance, join the beautiful people, agelessly photographable in couture clothes, about to host the perfect house party on the Riviera or Palm Beach.

Lauder's advice suggested, without any contempt, that men were suckers ("You can get anything you want from men with perfume"), and that women should control their looks to control their lives ("Before you were married, you played at being glamorous and exciting, you were the greatest little actress in the world; now what are you? Nothing - go do something about it, honey"). Hers was a work ethic for the complexion. "Not by hoping or dreaming, but by working for it," was Lauder's slogan, and later her company's mission statement.

She was born Josephine Esther Mentzer, in Corona, Queens, New York, the daughter of Hungarian immigrants. Her father, Abraham, managed a hardware store, and, as a child, she gift-wrapped hammers at Christmas. Her mother, Rose, retained her Hapsburg empire faith in spa treatments and unguents; while Uncle John Schotz, a skin doctor who arrived from Vienna at the outbreak of the first World War, brought over "a little bottle of oil and told me never to use anything else".


In those days, perfumes were closer to hooch distilling in the bathtub than laboratory chemistry. So Schotz stirred his potions on the kitchen cooker, and flogged them locally. His young niece promoted one of them as Super-Rich, All Purpose Cream (which sounds like the brisk, unexotic labels of her Clinique brand more than half a century later), but her proper career began after she married an Austrian-born businessman, Joseph Lauter, in 1930.

She knew what she wanted, which was to be calmly rich in servant-run houses in Manhattan and Eaton Square; she did not then know how to achieve it - she even tried acting - and thought Joseph enough of a liability to divorce him in 1939, taking their son Leonard with her. Four years later, she rectified the mistake, remarrying Joseph, who had, by then, changed his name to Lauder, and having a second son, Ronald. The couple, as equal partners, founded the firm of Estée Lauder in 1946 - Estée was the Frenchified version of Jo's middle name.

When the adult Leonard joined them in the 1950s, they were still operating out of a room above the Stork Club in New York; Leonard recalled how his mother would put telephone callers on hold, then change her voice to pretend to be whatever department they demanded. If out-of-town buyers actually arrived, she would lead them out on to the terrace for a lunch served by waiters from the club.

Estée's original insight was to understand how the best shops filtered reality, responding artificially to the seasons and selling not so much goods as a temporary fantasy existence. Thus the Lauders wanted to retail the output of their two small factories, not through pharmacies, but in department stores. At Saks Fifth Avenue, the first store to stock her products, in 1949, Estée made up customers, 40 a day if that was what it took to shift product.

She once "accidentally" spilled Youth Dew, her pungent body scent, on the carpet in the Galerie Lafayette in Paris as an olfactory business card. Youth Dew was credited with transforming the company's fortunes; following its introduction in 1953, annual sales rose from $20,000 to $800,000 by 1958.

By the time Estée's name became familiar in the mid-1960s - after Leonard took out a loan to finance the firm going international - she was into her 50s, and knew how women used skincare and cosmetics as a psychological, as well as practical, defence against the marks of age: "Time is not on your side - but I am" was a Lauder slogan. She offered makeovers and advice even to hackettes conducting interviews - "White is a godsend, honey, it's black in a dimlit room that makes you look old and tired" - and concentrated on fragrances and compacts (her own were of gold and platinum).

The money rolled in, and, with it, the desired style of living - Lauder came to exemplify the American concept of graciousness she had dreamed about: starched collars on Paris dresses, tiaras at the New York Met, philanthropic foundations dispensing charity, chats with the Duchess of Windsor. A Lauder cream, the duchess remarked gratefully, put a girdle round your face. Estée loathed rival cosmetic baron Charles Revson; she thought he was vulgar.

President Richard Nixon offered her the post of US ambassador to Luxembourg, and, in 1978, the French awarded her a Légion d'honneur.

Joseph, who said his wife's epitaph should be "Here lies Estée Lauder/ Who made it/ And spent it", died in 1983, but their sons and the creative team kept updating the company image.

The firm added a male range, Aramis, in 1964, and, four years later, responded cleverly to the baby-boomers, who wanted beauty to be more scientific, by launching Clinique in outlets offering a quasi-medical consultation with white-coated saleswomen.

Clinique packaging remains a 20th-century classic: pharmacy bottles and full-metal-jacketed lipsticks, like silver bullets for the handbag. Prescriptives (1979) and Origins (1990) matched market changes towards playful colouring and earthy ingredients; in the mid-1990s, the firm shrewdly acquired two cult companies, developing cosmetic lines for high-fashion professionals.

The corporate face morphed with the times too - presciently when the then little known Elizabeth Hurley was chosen as model for a relaunch in 1995. Even half-dressed to shock, she looked like a lady by Estée's definition, and the grande dame herself stood by Hurley during a scandal, loyalty repaid when an image of Hurley romping with a dog sold gallons of an old-style Lauder scent.

The company went public the same year, and Leonard succeeded his mother as chairman.

Estée Lauder made her last spotlit public entrance at the firm's 50th anniversary party at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1996. By then, she had a personal fortune in the region of $400 million, and was listed in Forbes magazine among the 400 richest Americans. She was frail, but visibly proud of the family achievement - 9,900 employees in more than 100 countries, turnover of $3 billion a year - and equally of grandson William (head of Clinique) and granddaughters Aerin (head of development) and Jane (Clinique). "My body is inside her," Estée said of each of the girls.

But in the photographs of that party, Estée herself glows brighter than her descendants. She always was a dab hand with rouge, since, without it, "We blondes fade at night."

Estée Lauder (Josephine Esther Mentzer): born July 1st, 1906; died April 24th, 2004 .