NEW YORK — She was surely beauty’s grandest dame, and befitting that status, Estée Lauder was celebrated by this city’s elite from the stage of the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center Monday morning in a final farewell.
Lauder, who died April 24, was warmly praised and richly remembered in a memorial service that featured Gov. George E. Pataki; Mayor Michael Bloomberg; Richard Parsons, chief executive officer of AOL Time Warner; Barbara Walters, ABC-TV broadcaster, and Marvin Traub, former Bloomingdale’s chairman and ceo and partner of Financo Inc.
And it was a farewell to remember, with more than 2,000 people filling the theater, flowing into the upper boxes. As Walters observed, “Oh, Estée, all the way up to the rafters — you would have loved this.”
Personal remembrances came from Carol Phillips, who spearheaded the creation of Clinique, plus reminiscences from Estée Lauder’s sons, Leonard and Ronald, and her grandchildren, Jane, Aerin, Gary and William. A musical interlude was provided by legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman, playing Fritz Kreisler’s “Liebesleid” and Christoph Gluck’s “Mélodie,” accompanied on piano by Rohan De Silva.
“Even in this city of giants, Estée Lauder stood out,” said Pataki, who added that in the process of teaching her family the value of philanthropy and civic duty, Lauder “created from a dream an enterprise that today reaches across the globe. Her name will be remembered in all four corners of the globe for years to come. Her legacy has yet to be written.”
Parsons noted, “Estée Lauder did more than build a business. She changed the way that women thought of themselves. She democratized beauty — she brought class to the masses.”
Bloomberg, who called Lauder’s “the quintessential New York story,” described her as “a native-born genius at business,” adding “she was devoted to beauty, and her life was her most dazzling creation.”
Above all, what came through was genuine affection and overwhelming respect for a mother, a grandmother and a friend who was remembered as warm, open, devoted and loyal, as well as irrepressible and unflappable.
Walters recalled being the frequent recipient of advice about everything from makeup to men. “She’d say, ‘Never get divorced. The only thing that changes about a man is his face.’” Walters then dropped her gaze and confessed, “I didn’t take her advice — twice.”
Phillips brought out Lauder’s playful and festive side. “She didn’t have a private jet, but she had a private orchestra,” Phillips said, adding that Lauder employed a collection of musicians to play for her various parties and events. People may have thought of Lauder as a feminist, but Phillips insisted the title should have been “humanist.”
That assessment resonated with the family. Leonard and Ronald Lauder described her maternal side. Leonard Lauder, now chairman of The Estée Lauder Cos., remembered being sent to sleepaway camp at age 7. Rather than carrying a typically sized box lunch to camp, Lauder recalled arriving with a lunch packed in a huge dress box from Bergdorf Goodman. Apparently, his mother’s strategy was “feed the counselors and they will be good to my kid.”
Leonard Lauder also recalled that during a three-year stint as a naval officer, his ship docked in Edinburgh and he went on leave to London to visit family friends. His hostess presented him with a cashmere sweater, saying his mother worried he needed it in the chilly North Atlantic. “She was a teacher of social graces,” he continued. “She taught me that if you have something bad to say, don’t put it in writing.” He added she believed in giving bad news in person or over the phone. Writing was for thank-you notes.
Leonard Lauder also emphasized his mother’s sentimental side. “When her father died, she cried because [she said,] ‘[Now] I don’t have anyone to call when I come home from a trip to say I’ve arrived safely.’” Her son then paused and said, his voice breaking, “Mom, now I don’t have anyone to call to say I’ve arrived safely, but I know you are up there watching us all.”
Ronald Lauder, now chairman of Clinique Laboratories, made a joke about the mystery surrounding his mother’s true age. “My mother always guarded her age,” he said. “I feel I should tell you that she was 73.” That remark drew a wave of laughter from a crowd that knew she was at least 95, and perhaps 97.
Jane Lauder, vice president of Lauder’s new Beauty Bank division, recalled how her grandmother would send chocolates to her dorm once a week to keep her strength up when she was going to college in California. After she made a case that weekly chocolate deliveries were not healthy for a freshman, a huge fruit basket arrived.
Her sister, Aerin, vice president of global advertising for the Estée Lauder division, called Estée “one of the strongest women I will ever know.” She then added, “While she was creating a legacy, she was always there as a caring grandmother.” Aerin told a story about how, when she was young, she snuck into her grandmother’s closet to try on her finery, outfitting herself from head to toe in dress, hat and gloves. Rather than reprimanding the youngster, her grandmother decided to do her makeup.
Grandson Gary, now managing director of Lauder Partners LLC, called Estée “a typical Jewish grandmother,” noting “she had quite a heart.” His brother William, now chief operating officer and soon-to-become ceo of The Estée Lauder Cos., indicated he’d learned a great deal from his grandmother, particularly one of her multitude of Estée-isms: “There’s no such thing as bad business, just an opportunity for good business.”
But it was Traub who offered what may be Lauder’s most enduring gift to the beauty business. “Forty years ago, beauty was another accessory in department stores,” he said. “Today, it is a vital part of the department store business. Estée changed the dynamics of the industry.”