Byline: Bob Colacello
Governor Pataki declared her "one of the giants not just of this great city but of the world." Mayor Bloomberg compared her to the inventor of the telegraph, Samuel Morse. Marvin Traub, the former head of Bloomingdale's, said, "She revolutionized an industry and was without a doubt the world's greatest saleswoman." For Barbara Walters she was a proto-feminist: "She turned 'No, you can't' into 'Yes, I will.'" As her onetime corporate lawyer Richard Parsons, the chairman of Time Warner, put it, "I never met a woman with more force."
The lady these speakers were eulogizing, at a memorial in New York City in May 2004, a month after her death, entered this world in 1906 as Josephine Esther Mentzer, the daughter of a Queens hardware-store owner, and left it 97 years later as Estee Lauder, the creator of a $10 billion cosmetics empire. Probably the most successful and famous self-made woman of her time, she lived in grandly decorated residences in Manhattan, East Hampton, Palm Beach, London, and the South of France and counted the Duchess of Windsor, Princess Grace, and the Begum Aga Khan among her close friends. Brilliant, driven, and a master of using social connections to push products, she had started out emulating Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein, and Charles Revson of Revlon, but the business she founded had long surpassed theirs, and unlike them she had established a dynasty: two more generations of Lauders dedicated to keeping the company that bears her name No. 1 in quality fragrances and cosmetics. A year after the memorial, Lauder's granddaughter Aerin, one of the company's vice presidents, persuaded the hottest name in fashion, Tom Ford, to make his first post-Gucci venture a collection of beauty products called Tom Ford for Estee Lauder.
Estee's sons, Leonard, 72, and Ronald, 61, and all four of her grandchildren-William, Aerin, Gary, and Jane-also spoke at the memorial, a two-hour extravaganza held at Lincoln Center's New York State Theater. Skitch Henderson led the New York Pops in a medley of Estee's favorite songs as invited guests filed in-Alma Powell, the wife of then secretary of state Colin Powell; Libby Pataki; former ambassadors William Luers, Edward Ney, and Donald Blinken; New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., Advance Magazine Publishers heads S. I. and Donald Newhouse, and Washington Post heiress Lally Weymouth; bankers Ezra Zilkha and Donald Marron; designers Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera; billionaires Alfred Taubman, Jerry Speyer, and Gustavo Cisneros; grandes dames Kitty Carlisle Hart, Liz Fondaras, and Casey Ribicoff; virtually the entire boards of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art (which are chaired by Leonard and Ronald, respectively); and 2,500 impeccably outfitted, coiffed, and made-up employees of the Estee Lauder Companies Inc.
"She was our mother, boss, and colleague-in that order," said Leonard Lauder. Jane Lauder recalled her grandmother's fondness for chocolate-covered marshmallows, which she ordered by the case from a company on Long Island and offered to family and friends at every opportunity. "If we always listened to her wishes," said Gary Lauder, the only grandchild not involved in the family business, "we'd all weigh 300 pounds and be all bundled up even on the hottest day of summer."
"She loved to cook, and she always cooked with her hat on, a purse, and blush," said Ronald Lauder. "Her specialties were onion rings, French toast, the best chicken soup, and a special spaghetti sauce that required about a half-pound of sugar. As a child, the thing I dreaded most were the parent-teachers conferences." He went on to tell the story of his mother's meeting with his English teacher, who eschewed makeup, kept her hair in a bun with a net, and always wore dark dresses with heavy black stockings and shoes. "The next morning," Ronald said, "I and the rest of my English class were stunned when our teacher walked into the classroom. Her hair had been done, her face was completely made up-including blush-and she was wearing a flowered-print dress with nylon stockings and high heels. When I asked my mother about it after school, she denied that she had anything to do with this transformation."
In the 1970s, when I started working at Andy Warhol's Factory, as editor of Interview, Estee Lauder was one of the three reigning divas of the New York fashion world, along with Diana Vreeland and Eleanor Lambert. Vreeland, the eccentric former Vogue editor in chief who ran the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute with an iron hand and an army of rich-kid volunteers, was the undisputed Empress of Fashion; Lambert, the peripatetic publicist who controlled the Coty Awards and the International Best-Dressed List but pretended she didn't, was its turbaned Queen; and Lauder, a few years younger than her septuagenarian cohorts and not yet widowed, was the Duchess with the Mostest. She had the power of the purse: with the Estee Lauder, Aramis for Men, Clinique, and Prescriptives brands, her company probably spent more on advertising than any other fashion or beauty business. As she once told me after I started working at this magazine, "Si Newhouse is one of my best friends. Seventeen million a year in advertising-of course he's one of my best friends."
As the wild, creative 70s gave way to the money-minded, formal 80s, Estee reached her social and business apogee. Her conservative, matronly style-she dressed mainly in couture from such established Paris designers as Hubert de Givenchy and Marc Bohan of Dior-was in keeping with the sedately glamorous look favored by Nancy Reagan, and she was very much part of the First Lady's New York inner circle, which included man-about-town Jerry Zipkin, Pat Buckley (the wife of the conservative columnist William F. Buckley Jr.), Cecile Zilkha, and the Herreras. Estee was one of the first to give a dinner for the new …