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NEW YORK — Almost 1,500 people filed into Central Synagogue here Monday for a private funeral service recalling the triumphant life of Evelyn Lauder, who died Saturday at age 75.
Emotional remembrances of Lauder’s warm personality, unceasing philanthropy and successful business career were given by her family members, including her grandchildren, her sons William and Gary, her daughter-in-law Laura and, last, her husband of 52 years, Leonard.
This story first appeared in the November 15, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Those present at the service included Terry Lundgren, chairman and chief executive officer of Macy’s Inc.; Fred Langhammer, former president and ceo of the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc.; Michael Gould, chairman and ceo of Bloomingdale’s; Burt Tansky, the former chairman and ceo of the Neiman Marcus Group, and Barbara Zinn-Moore, senior vice president and general merchandise manager, cosmetics and home for Lord & Taylor.
The entire event was planned by Evelyn Lauder before her death, including the musical selections played during the service. A public memorial service will be held in January, and the Empire State Building was lit pink Monday night in her memory.
News of her death from complications of nongenetic ovarian cancer stirred an outpouring of reminiscences, tributes and memorials to her, both as a businesswoman and an anticancer crusader.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former President Bill Clinton said in a statement, “Our friend Evelyn Lauder was a tireless advocate for women’s health. Her courage, creativity, and steadfast commitment to her cause made her efforts to raise awareness about breast cancer and advance the search for a cure all the more effective.
“Every time we see a pink ribbon — which people around the world now wear because of Evelyn — we think of Bill’s mother, who died of breast cancer in the second year of his Presidency. Hillary also thinks of the day in 1993 when Evelyn delivered more than 200,000 Pink Ribbon Petitions to her to ask for more government funding for research. Evelyn got the world closer to a time when no family will have to endure the pain of losing a mother, a wife, a sister, a daughter, or an aunt to this terrible disease. We will never forget how much she did to improve the lives of others.”
Her business role — as senior corporate vice president and head of fragrance development worldwide at Lauder — was intertwined with her fierce dedication to helping those suffering from breast cancer. She founded the Breast Cancer Research Foundation in 1993, and to date the organization has raised more than $350 million for research. BCRF supports 186 cancer researchers globally.
“My mother carried the torch of our company heritage and the values that were passed to her by my grandmother, Mrs. Estée Lauder,” William Lauder, executive chairman of the Estée Lauder Cos., said Saturday. “My mother and father were life partners as well as business partners. They nurtured the culture and growth of the Estée Lauder Cos., and as we grew, my mother was our creative compass and pillar of strength. Together my family and the company celebrate the beautiful person she was.”
Also on Saturday, Fabrizio Freda, president and ceo of the Estée Lauder Cos., said, “Evelyn embodied the heart and soul of the Estée Lauder Cos. She was one of the pivotal architects of our vision, values and culture. She was dynamic, creative, smart, endearingly warm, generous and incredibly gifted at connecting with people. Her enthusiasm was contagious.”
Although she pursued her anticancer mission in a highly visible way, she never drew attention to the fact that she herself was a cancer survivor, surviving both early-stage breast cancer and ovarian cancer. It was not until an interview in 2009 with WWD that she even acknowledged having had the disease, and then she discounted her case as merely “a scare,” in deference to those who she felt had suffered much more.
Tommy Hilfiger praised Lauder for not only her warmth of personality, but also her “great taste and great talent,” as well as her relentless pursuit of a cure for breast cancer. He recalled sitting with her 20 years ago, during a meeting in which she had to give approval for Hilfiger’s first women’s scent. Lauder asked him what was the name and Hilfiger said he was still working on it. He recalled her replying, “The name has to be Tommy Girl.” His answer? “You are absolutely right.” He also recalled her depth of generosity and kindness, as well as true grit in “pounding the pavement” for fund-raising, even when she wasn’t well. “She was an American icon,” he said.
As for her tenacity, Donna Karan agreed, “the word ‘no’ did not exist.” The designer noted that Lauder epitomized so many circumstances and values that the two women shared. “We co-wrote the journey from the world of beauty and fragrance to the world of cancer,” she said, adding that cancer has been a presence in her life since her days working at Anne Klein. Back in those days, “you didn’t even discuss the word,” Karan said. Lauder, however, created a whole building in the form of the Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where women with the disease could go for help. “Evelyn was a manifester,” Karan declared. She praised Lauder for bearing great burdens “with such grace and style. I never heard Evelyn complain. She truly made a legacy for herself.”
Another person who worked by her side in the cancer fight was Elizabeth Hurley. “Evelyn Lauder was an amazing woman and her phenomenal work for breast cancer will never be forgotten,” the actress said. “She inspired me in so many ways and I learned so much from her. She was a wonderful friend to me for over 17 years and I will miss her terribly.”
“Evelyn was the consummate juggler — a devoted wife, mother and grandmother, an incredible philanthropist with great compassion for others, a brilliant businesswoman with a constant sense of optimism and a fabulous sense of humor,” said Michael Kors. “A dinner with her was always full of laughter, charm and great stories. She was a true one of a kind.”
“There’s no greater gift in life than the gift of friendship,” said Bloomingdale’s Gould. “And that is what Evelyn Lauder gave me.” Referring to the packed crowd at Monday’s service, Gould noted, “Everyone in that synagogue thought that she was their best friend. Evelyn always wanted to make everything better,” adding that is a trait she shared with her husband. “Leonard never saw a personal problem he didn’t want to fix. I was blessed by being touched by them. I was blessed by having been in their home. It was that zest for life they had. They were always young.”
Lundgren paid tribute to Evelyn Lauder, the corporate marketer and innovator. But that persona paled beside Evelyn Lauder, the tireless foe of breast cancer, whose work through her BCRF actually saved people’s lives, he noted. And then there was the personal side, such as a month ago, when her illness forced her to miss her cherished BCRF awards luncheon. Lundgren sent her a goodwill note and she found the strength to send back a reply. “She dictated a warm and loving e-mail,” Lundgren recalled. “I will always cherish that.”
Robert Mettler, retired president of special projects at Macy’s Inc., said, “She was an unbelievable force.” Mettler, who has known the Lauders for 49 years, said even though Lauder had a voice within the Lauder corporation, it was her role as a fund-raising superstar that ultimately gave her a global voice, which enhanced her presence within the company.
Sir Lindsay Owen-Jones, the retired chairman of L’Oréal, said, “I have always thought that Evelyn Lauder was an exceptionally elegant ambassadress for the Estée Lauder family and company, but also for our industry. I share the grief of all those who admired her.”
“Evelyn will be forever remembered for her energy, passion, and enthusiasm for life and all she did to make the world a better place,” Pamela Baxter, president and ceo of LVMH Perfumes and Cosmetics, said. “As an Estée Lauder alum and survivor of the infamous market visit van trips with Leonard, the first question we would ask [was]: ‘Is Evelyn coming?’ As she was our buffer. Her favorite phrase was ‘Now Leonard, leave the kids alone. They got your point. Let’s stop for milk and cookies.’”
Terry Darland, president of North America for Christian Dior Perfumes LLC, said, “A few years ago, my mother gave me Evelyn’s cookbook, ‘In Great Taste for Christmas,’ knowing how much I admired and loved her as a mentor and woman of strength and warmth. As a member of the Estée Lauder management team for over 20 years, I will always feel a part of this great company and its family. I am so very saddened by her loss and will savor my memories of her as I cook the wonderful dishes that she loved serving her family and friends. She was the ultimate mother.”
Lauder had been part of the beauty business founded by her mother-in-law, Estée, since shortly after her marriage to Leonard Lauder. She was born Evelyn Hausner in Vienna and survived the London Blitz during World War II. She emigrated to the U.S. with her parents during the Nazi occupation, settling in New York City. Lauder would later recall that she was asleep when the ship bringing them to the United States arrived in New York Harbor, and her mother woke her up to see the Statue of Liberty — which, she always said, served as a source of inspiration for her for the remainder of her life.
She met Leonard Lauder on a blind date at age 18, while a Hunter College student, and they married in July 1959.
Before joining the Estée Lauder Cos. and after graduating from Hunter College, Lauder taught school in Harlem. Her teaching experience came in handy for her first official job at Lauder, creating the company’s training programs. She also served as new product director and marketing director, and was named to her last role, senior corporate vice president and head of fragrance development worldwide, in 1989, and worked on such blockbuster fragrances as Beautiful, Happy and Pleasures. When the company began creative work on what became Clinique in 1968, Lauder thought of the name and became the first to wear the now-ubiquitous Clinique white lab coat after she was appointed the brand’s first training director. She also was the brains behind the acquisition of Bumble and bumble in 2000. “I went and fell in love with the salon, the product mix and with Michael [Gordon] and his leadership and philosophy,” Lauder told WWD in 2002. “I introduced him to Leonard and the other powers-that-be, and the rest is history.”
In 1964, Lauder, working with her powerhouse mother-in-law, helped to create Aramis, a best-selling men’s scent and now the namesake of one of the company’s larger divisions, Aramis and Designer Fragrances. “When we were working on the fragrance, it was the aramis root which gave it a distinction,” she recalled. “It’s also one of the names of the Three Musketeers, and the root itself comes from Turkey and is said to be an aphrodisiac.”
She also professed to go by her nose — and not by extensive research — when it came to creating scents. “We had a fragrance launch where they over-intellectualized everything, and the test results were good,” she remembered, declining to name the scent. “I was the only voice who said this is never going to sell and I was right. You don’t sell fragrance on intellect. You sell fragrance on your nose. It’s an immediate response. You either like it or you don’t. It’s like food — you either like beets or you don’t. Leonard still can’t get me to drink beer.”
Despite her wealth and prestige, Lauder remained down-to-earth and approachable, serving as a mentor for many within the company. She recalled that her mother-in-law had done the same for her, passing on valuable business advice while they worked together. “The most important lesson I learned was to do whatever you need to do yesterday,” she recalled in 2002. “Having been an academic, that was not my speed. But it became my speed — quickly.” Lauder also refused to rest on her laurels. “You always have to be dissatisfied. If you are completely happy, you’re complacent, and that’s not good.”
Rose Marie Bravo, the former ceo of Saks Fifth Avenue and Burberry who now sits on the board of the Estée Lauder Cos., told WWD in 2002, “Even when I was at I. Magnin, Evelyn was always interested in what we were doing. She kept pace with the changes we were making in the store and was curious to know what designers were on the rise and which ones were subsiding. She was very involved, very caring about the company and the work I was doing, and was curious in all of the developments that were happening and how Estée Lauder could work within that framework to create more business for the store and the brand.”
Speaking Monday, Bravo said, “Evelyn Lauder was an extraordinary woman. She exemplified the mantra of the Estée Lauder Companies, ‘bringing the best to everything we touch.’ That is exactly what Evelyn did. She set a standard for women. She showed us that you can do it all — she did it all and did it so perfectly, from being a wife and a mother to business and philanthropy. In the end, she fought her battle so valiantly. Women owe her a lot and she left a beautiful legacy. It was never about her — it was always about how she could help others, whether that was with career advice, mother-in-law advice or advice in dealing with an illness. She was there for others in every way. She was a great friend and she will be so missed.”
Her head was clearly in the business, but her heart was in helping others. And she applied the same amount of brain-power to both. To Dr. Larry Norton, Lauder was far more than a philanthropist raising money for cancer research. She “reinvented” the sphere of fund-raising, patient care and scientific research that she operated in by bringing to bear a “comprehensiveness” that he saw as “the work of a total visionary.” Her Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, which Norton oversees as deputy physician in chief overseeing breast cancer programs at Sloan-Kettering, is both beautiful and functional, he maintains, which is highly unusual. By putting together such a strong presentation — with so much care taken to perfect so many facets and details — Norton noted, it sends an intended brick-and-mortar message to the patients. “The building conveys the feeling to the patients that they are the center of our professional lives,” he said.
The same goes for the creation of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, which Norton helped Lauder lead for 20 years as scientific director and chairman of the executive board of scientific advisers for the organization. She brought that same comprehensiveness by uniting laboratory researchers and clinical physicians, who both did valuable work but did not talk to each other. She put deep research and clinical science on an equal footing, he said, then decided that the people doing basic research should be treated more like artists than contractors in handing out grant money since they dabble in the unknown and cannot guarantee what they will find. That kind of insight, sensitivity and support was not given before, Norton noted, adding during a phone interview on Sunday, “I’m sitting here getting e-mails from all over the world.” He said he was overwhelmed by the outpouring from the scientific community as evidenced by adjectives ranging from “friend” to “warrior.”
“She was not just a philanthropist,” Norton said, “she was a guiding spirit.”
In 1992, Lauder and the then-editor in chief of Self magazine, Alexandra Penney, developed the pink ribbon as a symbol of breast cancer awareness. Lauder organized the distribution of hundreds of thousands of ribbons and breast self-exam charts at Lauder counters across the U.S. To date, more than 65 million pink ribbons have been distributed. That year, she also launched the Estée Lauder Cos. Breast Cancer Awareness campaign, which each year raises funds through the company’s brands, employees and retail partners globally. The pink ribbon and Breast Cancer Awareness campaign have since been adopted by companies in industries worldwide, from fashion to food.
“Each October, it is extraordinary to see the absolute dedication of our employees around the world to see the BCA campaign,” said Freda. “Evelyn’s mission became our mission; her passion became our passion. She inspired all of us, and we will continue to move forward with her vision to rid the world of breast cancer.”
In 1993, Lauder established the BCRF to address a crucial lack of funding for research. Under her leadership, the organization has become the largest national group devoted exclusively to funding research related to the causes, treatment and possible prevention of breast cancer.
Years before, Lauder had begun raising money for the cause. In 1989, as a member of the Board of Overseers at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, she spearheaded a fund drive that raised more than $18 million, providing the funds to initiate and equip her namesake center. The center serves as a worldwide model for offering coordinating supportive services under one roof for one disease.
“I wanted to have the mall of medicine,” Lauder told WWD as the center was opening in October 2009. “I wanted everything under one roof. I was on the board at Memorial Sloan-Kettering and at the time, the doctor who was in charge of the hospital said they were building a breast center. And I said, ‘Oh, this is fabulous. What are you going to have in the breast center?’ So he said, ‘We’re going to have oncology and we’re going to have mammography. I said, ‘Is that it?’ He says, ‘Well, what else do you want?’ And I said, ‘Well, I would want physical therapy, psychological counseling, an education center so that we could pick up information in either leaflets or online, nutritional counseling, a pharmacy so you don’t have to go running around the city to get everything, a boutique that might sell all the needs of a woman while she’s waiting for reconstruction to get the right bra and do whatever is necessary — bathing suits, you know?’” The 150,000-square-foot facility is a brick-and-mortar testament to her vision.
During a September interview, she talked about how much progress the scientific community has made. “Let’s say we are getting closer to refined treatment that makes the disease chronic, rather than fatal,” she said. “Just like people can live with diabetes. Now there are targeted therapies. There are certain drugs women can take and they can stay alive for many more years with the cancer not moving anywhere.”
But philanthropy defined her far beyond cancer awareness. Through the Evelyn and Leonard Lauder Foundation, she was instrumental in presenting the concept of Adventure Playgrounds to New York. From 1967 to 1973, the foundation replaced outmoded facilities by building three creative play areas in Central Park that were designed to challenge children’s skills and stimulate their imaginations while placing an emphasis on safety and physical fitness. At the time of her death, Lauder was also a board member of the Central Park Conservancy and the Evelyn and Leonard Lauder Foundation. A number of other charities also benefited from her guidance and renowned generosity, including nonprofits devoted to health and human services, education and inner-city schools, the environment, women’s causes and the arts.
Lauder also became widely noted for her photography, publishing three books and having her photos hang in galleries such as the Gagosian Gallery in London and the Whitney Museum in Manhattan, as well as numerous private collections. Using an IS-30 Olympus camera, Lauder captured such images as rainbows rising from the Pacific Ocean and sculptural snow scenes in Colorado. All royalties from her photography career and her books were donated to the BCRF.
In 1999, Lauder was featured in Crain’s New York Business as one of New York’s 100 Most Influential Women in Business, and was honored with Cosmetics Executive Women’s prestigious Inner Beauty Award in 2003. She was also the recipient of a Fragrance Foundation Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.