ESTEE AND JOE LAUDER
IN THIS 1983 INTERVIEW, THE LAUDERS TALK ABOUT THE SECRET OF SUCCESS — IN BUSINESS AND MARRIAGE.
Byline: Catherine Warren, January 1983
When Richard Nixon offered Estee Lauder the ambassadorship to Luxembourg, one of her biggest reasons for declining was the comment by her husband, Joe: “I’m not going along to carry your bags.”
The idea of going anywhere without Joe is incomprehensible, according to Estee, who emphasizes that, in all their years together, they have never been separated.
Estee never needs a walker. Unlike many of the Ladies whose husbands rarely escort them from party to party, the quiet Joe Lauder is always at his chatty wife’s side. Without him, stresses Estee, it is simply no-go.
“We lead a very, very secluded life,” says Joe. “We only go out seven nights a week. Maximum.”
“But,” adds Estee, “sometimes it’s six.”
Joe, who wears a tuxedo as he converses in the second-floor sitting room of their Manhattan townhouse, says he doesn’t like to dress up and rates the enjoyment potential for most nights out with a so-so turn of his hand. Still, his wife points to him as the more gregarious of the two. He, in turn, points to her.
Dressed and out by 8:30 each night, the Lauders are always home before midnight. Once an invitation has been accepted, they rarely change it. If there are no dinner party invitations, they don’t go out.
The Lauders do not leave home for “cocktails only.”
“You have to look just as pretty at a cocktail party as at a dinner party,” says Estee, as she offers a tour of her couture-filled closet and praises the new Cardin side-draped dress she is wearing because “it makes me look tall and thin — and green is my favorite shade because I have hazel eyes.”
When the Lauders entertain, it is always a sit-down dinner, usually for 22 or 24 guests, and it is always back-tie. The waiters wear white gloves to keep from smudging the silver, and there is live music for dancing and singing. The Duke of Windsor often danced with the aid of his cane at the Lauder parties. Estee says the Duke, who always conversed in German with her, liked her dinners because he detested buffets.
“We always served dinner at a long table with a high chair for him and the Duchess,” recalls their hostess. And the Lauder butler, who stands casually nearby, as do most of the servants from time to time, adds his own Windsor detail: “We put the big red runner down for him because he was royalty.”
Of the Duke, Joe says, “Nice fella. I liked him.” In keeping with his regular-guy impression of the Duke, Joe tells of going to the Windors’ suite in the Waldorf-Astoria for dinner. The butler, Sidney, let the Lauders in, but was not in the room when the Duke asked Joe if he would like a drink. The Duke rose to make it, but Joe, thinking it wasn’t appropriate, said he’d do it. The Duke insisted. “So the ex-King made me a scotch and soda,” says a bemused Joe. “It didn’t taste any different.”
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and his wife, Mary Lee, are frequent guests at the Lauder dinners. Fairbanks, who has sung Russian songs at the Lauders’ Christmas parties, calls the evenings “very agreeable,” with “a mixed bag of political, business, social and artistic” types.
Fairbanks thinks Joe has “a humorous slant on the world” which comes through in a dry, sly manner. He is not a jokester, stresses Fairbanks. Estee, he says, is “remarkably animated.”
Joe speaks when spoken to; Estee, on the other hand, places no such restrictions on herself, but she is cautious. Aware that her husband can be exceptionally candid, she asks him to be careful in his comments about society.
Estee’s robust appetite for living — “I love life, I love love, I love my husband, I love my children, I love my friends, I love clothes” — blended with an intense ambition marks everything she does. The family-owned business, which she started 37 years ago with a single jar of all-purpose cream, is approaching $1 billion in worldwide sales this year.
In addition to Joe, who oversees finance and operations, the business includes, as their mother is fond of calling them, “my special boys.” Leonard, the eldest, is the company’s chief executive officer and president; Ronald, who is rumored to be in line for a job with the Defense Department, is chairman of Lauder International. Daughters-in-law Evelyn and Jo Carole round out the Lauder staff.
“Leonard is more like me than Ronald is,” says Joe. “Leonard and I are much more conservative; Ronald is more like Mrs. Lauder, much less conservative.”
Whenever anyone asks Joe how the business started, he replies that it’s a long, long story, and hopes that’s the end of it. When Estee is asked the same question, she firmly answers, “I will tell you how I got started: not by dreaming or wishing about it, but by working for it. That’s how I got started.”
“I never saw anyone so motivated, so adamant and so insistent about things,” adds her husband. “And she gets her way, and nine times out of 10, she’s right.”
As the story goes, Estee, born Josephine Estee Menczer to a Czechoslovakian-German father and Viennese-Hungarian mother in the Flushing section of Queens, N.Y., started the business after the birth of her two sons — thanks to the proverbial Viennese uncle, with a formula for cream. Business really began to pick up when Estee cleared up the skin of a Saks Fifth Avenue buyer’s teenage daughter.
Before joining Estee in business, Joe, who learned shorthand at New York’s High School of Commerce — “but never used it” — says rather cryptically that he was in “the export-import business.” Estee adds that he later studied to become a CPA.
When Joe first met Estee, he was playing golf on weekends at the Rock Hill Lodge near Lake Mohegan in Westchester County, where her parents had a summer home. According to Estee, Joe tells her it was love the moment he first saw her in shorts and socks. She confides he was looking at her for a long time before a friend introduced them and she said hello. “I didn’t say hello to him because I was young and I thought it was a terrible thing; I didn’t talk to too many men, and my father was very strict.”
Leonard Lauder calls his parents’ marriage “classical” in structure — his father takes care of the finances, his mother the social events.” Their differences, he says, balance one another. “My father is thoughtful and works through problems very carefully; my mother is more impetuous, more intuitive.”
The difference between the senior Lauders, according to daughter-in-law Evelyn, is simply a matter of style.
“My mother-in-law is very energetic and very visible, while people have to make an effort to give my father-in-law some attention. When they do, they discover a wealth,” she says. And as far as the business is concerned, Evelyn notes, “If not for Joseph Lauder, there would be no Estee Lauder.”
The Lauder marriage, according to Joe, is built on compromise — his. For example, they both like their Manhattan, Palm Beach and Wainscott homes, but when they go abroad he prefers their London home to the one in the south of France, primarily because he doesn’t speak French. But Estee speaks French and adores being there. So, says Joe, “We compromise. I go where she goes. We always compromise like that.”
When the Lauders do get away, says Estee, “we like being left alone.”
“My wife likes to see Mr. Bunker [Archie], and she can watch the same news broadcast 12 times a night,” says Joe. As for himself, he likes war movies, mysteries, the fights, and football and baseball games. She loves books on the royal family, “things about England” and politics.
Estee likes things right. She is pleased that her hardwood floors are shining, that there’s no dust on an antique side table. “I love everything shiny and clean; there’s nothing nicer, it shows you care,” she announces in a motherly tone. She always wears gloves and a hat when she wears a suit. When she orders from couture, she buys an extra half yard of the fabric so she can have a matching hat made. “When you are not tall [she stands a very straight 5 feet 4 1/2 inches], it gives you a one-piece look.”
Commenting on her husband’s sense of humor, she confides that others sometimes misunderstand it. At a dinner party, a guest once remarked to Joe that she had just purchased a Lauder lipstick, and he responded, “I am glad you did. We need the business.” The guest then turned to Estee and asked if business was bad. She assured her it was not.
Of course, Estee is also known for her own sharply candid, funny remarks. One tale has a well-known decorator walking up the winding staircase of the Lauder townhouse, which Estee decorated herself. The decorator turns and says enthusiastically to Estee, “I could do wonders with this.” Estee, in turn, pats the decorator’s sagging cheeks and announces, “I could do wonders with these.”
When they are traveling, Joe goes to the plants and Estee goes to the stores. When they are in Paris, she attends the couture shows and he makes day trips to the plant in Belgium. He never goes to the shows. “Too hot,” he says.
But never, Estee stresses, are they separated for long. Because of the example, Estee concludes, “my sons are very happy with their wives. They have the same feeling we do. I think when children see their parents happy, they are happy.”