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New York bid a touching farewell to one of its most compassionate daughters during a two-hour, emotion-packed tribute to the late Evelyn H. Lauder, held Monday morning at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center.
More than 2,000 were present at the service, including former New York Governor George Pataki, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.), Saks Inc.’s Stephen I. Sadove, Bloomingdale’s Michael Gould and designers Tommy Hilfiger and Michael Kors. Members of the Lauder family, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Barbara Walters, Elizabeth Hurley and Dr. Larry Norton shared memories of Evelyn Lauder’s life during the service.
This story first appeared in the January 24, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“She knew this was the endgame, but she protected us,” said an emotional Leonard Lauder, chairman emeritus of the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc., flanked at the podium by sons William and Gary. “Up until the very end, she was smiling, always up.…I thank God for lending me this beautiful soul, who gave me laughter, brightness, beauty and unconditional love. Evelyn saw life through a different prism than most — flowers to her were symbols of all that was beautiful.…To her, orchids were the ultimate symbol of life. She said, ‘The orchid is the strongest flower; it will survive any tempest. Their beauty comes from within. And when they die, they always come back to life.’
“Evelyn, my love, you are my perennial orchid,” he continued. “You will be with me — with us — always. I love you, forever.”
Leonard Lauder told of the many women his wife had helped, including a Bobbi Brown counter manager at Neiman Marcus, a breast cancer survivor whom Evelyn reached out to, helping to connect the manager’s doctors with the doctors at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. “She is alive and well today because Evelyn Lauder cared enough to pick up the phone and call. Nothing was impossible with Evelyn around. I lost the love of my life.”
Leonard Lauder noted that he has received more than 2,700 letters of condolences since his wife’s death on Nov. 12. “I cherish and embrace each of them,” he said. “Evelyn wasn’t a head of state, but reading those letters, it made me feel that she was.”
Evelyn Lauder was born Evelyn Hausner in Vienna during World War II and emigrated with her parents to New York City to escape the Nazis, noted Bloomberg. “No one showed this city more passion than Evelyn,” he said. “It is fitting that we are at Lincoln Center, one of the city’s most cultural landmarks, to celebrate Evelyn Lauder, one of the city’s great cultural icons. Because if anyone’s life is worthy of celebration on a great stage like this, it is Evelyn’s. She taught for years in an elementary school in Harlem. She gave back to her family and helped build a business with just five products into the powerhouse it is today. She was a fiercely devoted mother and adoring grandmother and a Jewish grandmother to countless honorary Lauders. She had a warmness, a kindness, a generousness that put everyone at ease, whether you were a supermodel or an average Joe. She also knew life had the bitter and the sweet, and the challenge was to find the right balance.
“After discovering she had breast cancer, she did not turn inward,” continued Bloomberg. “Instead, she launched a pioneering effort to raise awareness about a disease that wasn’t even talked about back then. And she didn’t just give a speech or write a check; she created a movement, the Breast Cancer Research Foundation [BCRF] that has raised more than $350 million for research and given us an iconic symbol, the pink ribbon.”
While acknowledging her many professional accomplishments as senior corporate vice president of the Estée Lauder Cos. and founder of the BCRF, Evelyn Lauder’s sons chose to share heartfelt personal memories of their mother.
“So many of us know about the dedicated and passionate crusader bridging awareness and funds for the cure for breast cancer, but I’d like to share a few stories about the passionate, dedicated and fun-loving mother she was,” said William P. Lauder, executive chairman of the Estée Lauder Cos. He recalled going to day camp with his younger brother, Gary, and having his mother row across a lake — rather than drive — to pick the boys up at the end of the day. He also recalled being scheduled to launch Origins in Boston days before his oldest daughter, Rachel, was scheduled to be born, and his mother offering to fill in for him in Boston. “My mother decided she would leave for the airport to catch the last shuttle for Boston, and she was in the car on the way to LaGuardia when the phone rang in the car. It was my grandmother, Estée, who said, ‘Turn around. The baby’s here.’ She got back to the hospital,” he said, voice shaking with emotion, “in time to see me holding her in my scrubs. She wasn’t going to let the launch of a brand keep her from seeing the launch of her grandchild.”
“This jewel had so many facets,” said Gary Lauder of his mother. “She was quite a matchmaker. They say if you make three matches, you have automatic entry into heaven. I think she helped bring enough relationships to fruition to gain entry for the whole family.”
Kors called Evelyn Lauder “funny, elegant and inspiring.”
“Evelyn had energy, curiosity and intelligence,” said Kors, following a reception after the memorial. “There aren’t too many Evelyn Lauders walking around the planet. I remember being in Hawaii about three years ago, and seeing Evelyn and Leonard kissing by the pool. All I could think of was, ‘I hope, when I’m that age, I’m kissing by the pool.’”
“So many of us in the room felt like family,” noted Gould, chairman and chief executive officer of Bloomingdale’s. “Evelyn had 2,000 best friends in that room. Her kindness extended to everyone.”
A tearful Hurley quoted Henry Scott Holland: “‘Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was.…Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner. All is well.” Hurley recalls traveling with Evelyn Lauder over a 17-year period on behalf of the BCRF. “We’d be up at 4 a.m. to do TV, we’d go to department stores and sign lipsticks all day, we’d light beautiful buildings pink and we’d host big fund-raising dinners,” recalled Hurley. “We’d do this for weeks at a time, and it could be exhausting — but never once did I hear her raise her voice or hear a mean or spiteful word. She saw good in every person.”
“If you google Evelyn Lauder, you’ll see her described as a socialite and philanthropist,” said Walters, a longtime friend. “Philanthropist, certainly. Socialite? She couldn’t have cared less.…The fact that she fought breast cancer and died of ovarian cancer is one of the great ironies and tragedies.”
Evelyn Lauder penned a poignant poem on the day that she learned that her ovarian cancer was most likely terminal — Oct. 20, 2009. In the verse, reproduced in its entirety in the memorial’s program, she captured the dizzying emotions she felt that day: “Shock waves asking circles of questions/How far, how long, how good, how bad/How long? How long?/Shock waves of pain, not for me, but for the loves of my life.…” Seeking to make what she undoubtedly knew would be a hard time for her family a bit easier, before her death she chose the musical selections played by the Empyreal Strings. Among them: “Fascination,” played for the first dance at her wedding, and “Raindrops,” which mother-in-law Estée played to rouse newlyweds Leonard and Evelyn out of bed on a trip to the South of France.
Dr. Larry Norton, scientific director and chairman of the executive board of scientific advisers for the BCRF for the past 20 years, called Evelyn Lauder “a visionary.”
“She was not satisfied with state of the art; she had to push forward always,” said Norton. Speaking of their many spiritual conversations near the end of Evelyn Lauder’s life, he quoted Australian poet Adam Lindsay Gordon: “Life is mostly froth and bubble/Two things stand like stone/Kindness in another’s trouble/Courage in your own.”
“We’re all in this together,” Norton told the audience. “Her message is that we must all be healers.”
Evelyn Lauder’s grandchildren recalled their grandmother — whom they called Evie — having a passion for feeding them. “I’m a foodie,” said Rachel Lauder. “But I wasn’t always this way. When I was a child, I was a very picky eater — I would only eat four things: grilled cheese, bacon, strawberries and Evie’s chicken. Whenever I went over, she had it waiting for me.…She made it with love, love for her granddaughter.…The most loving memories I have of her are when as a family when we would sit down and have a meal together. I will miss her always.”
“Of all the meals I’ve had in my life, nothing will ever compare to a pancake breakfast made by Evelyn Lauder,” said Joshua Lauder. “She loved to watch me eat and grow, like every Jewish grandmother.”
“Grandmothers are like fudge — mostly sweet and a little nutty,” said Danielle Lauder. “This was my grandmother: awfully delicious and full of surprises. Evie was the perfect mixture of salty and sweet, soft and crunchy, and those ingredients that no one could quite pinpoint.…She was my rock and my inspiration, but above all she was my friend.” Danielle also recalled a dinner discussion concerning politics. In the middle of it, she remembered, Evelyn leaned over and whispered into her ear, “Have you ever kissed a boy?”
“I told what any granddaughter would tell their grandmother,” Danielle Lauder said to laughter from the crowd. “I told her boys have cooties and I’ve never interacted with them.”
“It has been just over two months since the passing of my grandmother Evie, but the gaping hole in my heart has yet to heal,” Eliana Lauder said. “Evie, this was your final bout with cancer, but you will and forever be a champion for overcoming adversities, because you never stopped fighting.”
Daughter-in-law Laura Lauder said she benefited from advice given by Estée Lauder to Evelyn Lauder: “Keep your mouth shut and your pocketbook open.”
“Those were words to the wise from Estée to Evie, to ensure the best relationship between mothers-in-law and their daughters-in-law,” said Laura Lauder. “Evie listened well. She was a generous, warm, adventurous and tender-hearted mother-in-law.”
The service closed with a touching video montage of Evelyn Lauder’s life, including family home movies.
“May her light be a gift which will abide for us forever; her memory will always be a blessing,” said Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein.