ESTEE LAUDER: Beyond the Magic; An Unauthorized Biography. By Lee Israel. Macmillan. 186 pp. $15.95; ESTEE: A Success Story. By Estee Lauder. Random House. 223 pp. $19.95.
BEST TO make one thing clear at the outset: Estee Lauder's autobiography is not chock-a-block with gossipy little stories about the rich and famous, although it does have its moments in that respect (a Christmas party given by the Lauders for Princess Grace of Monaco at which entertainment was provided by a Salvation Army band makes a scene to contemplate).
Nor is it, come to that, a detailed account of Estee Lauder's private life. While she is at pains to say that a prime motivation for writing her story is that "I've read so many myths about myself that it's time to set the record straight," she has no wish to be extensively revealing here. For the facts of the story -- the names, dates, and places -- one must turn to the biography. Lee Israel, by checking the New York State census records and past editions of the Manhattan telephone directory and by tracking down relatives, among other sources, has done her dogged spadework.
Estee Lauder was born Josephine Esther Mentzer in Corona, Queens on, according to Israel (Lauder isn't telling), July 1, 1908. Not much is ascertainable about her parents' lives before they immigrated to this country from Hungary. Her mother, Rose Schotz Rosenthal Mentzer (whether she was divorced, deserted, or made a widow by her first husband Abraham Rosenthal is something of a mystery), was a devot,ee of beauty regimens (she bought the largest jars of hand creme at the local pharmacy, went regularly to spas, never went out in public without gloves to cover her hands or a large black parasol if it was sunny, and began brushing her hair in the mrning "even before her eyes were open").
Estee Lauder's father, Max Mentzer (whom she says left behind a privileged life when he came to this country, bringing with him "valises filled with dapper clothes . . . and no profession that was meaningful on these shores"), became in turn the manager and proprietor of a hay and seed store, a cemetery, and a hardware store where, as a child, Lauder recounts, she would gift wrap the hammers and nails at Christmas time, in what amounted to her first foray into the world of "packaging" which was to play such an important part in her later business ventures.
LITTLE "ESTY" (the diminutive of Esther, and name of a favorite grand aunt) undoubtedly took her interest in cosmetics and beauty preparations from her mother, but it was her uncle John Schotz, a chemist who lived with the family when she was growing up, who introduced her to the preparation of facial creams. Esty was mesmerized by Uncle John cooking up his potions (he concocted paint removers and toothache drops as well as skin creams and other preparations) over a gas stove in the kitchen. She helped him in the preparation, peddling, and even naming of his skin lotion (she called it "Super-Rich All Purpose Creme," obviously wanting to leave nothing to chance), and the making, packaging, and selling of cosmetics now became her life-long work.
Several years later (Israel says she was perhaps 19) she met and married her life- long love and business partner Joseph Lauder. During the early years of the marriage Est,ee became increasingly determined to start her own cosmetics company. She prepared, bottled, packaged, and sold the lotions, spending more and more time pursuing success. A son, Leonard, was born, but the business commanded more and more of her time. Est,ee and Joe (who had involved himself in various enterprises, but was becoming known as "Mr. Est,ee Lauder") separated under the strain, then divorced.
The divorce didn't last: After four years, neither of them was interested in anyone else. They worked it out: Joe would give up his business ventures and come into her cosmetics firm as an equal partner: she would do the selling and promotion, he would mind the family store (which at that time consisted of two small factories in Manhattan). They remarried in 1942 (a second son, Ronald, was born two years later), and remained partners in family and business until Joe's death in 1982.
It is the business, rather than the private life, that is of interest here, and the emphasis should indeed be placed on How She Did It. If Israel gives us the where, when, and who, it is Lauder herself who tells us how, and sometimes why. It is in her descriptions of her business dealings -- whether it be the difficulty in getting her line of cosmetics into a small store or in keeping a new product's packaging a secret from the competition -- that we come to know her. By comparison all of the social lunches at Le Cirque and dinners at Maxim's, the faces at Ascot and polo matches in Palm Beach, all of the grand and royal parties come off as rather dull. (When someone asked her what she talks about at all the grand parties she attends, she answered merely, ''Everything . . . and nothing.")
SHE IS preeminently a business person of rare skill and unfailing energy, and takes little interest in private anecdotes. Even her account of being robbed at gunpoint (the interior decorator Mark Hampton was present, and unnerved by the experience) is not nearly so interestingly told as the opening of a factory in Belgium. The other big names in cosmetics are here of course: Helena Rubinstein (who looked like a Russian tsarina, but "the skin on her neck was less than perfect"), Elizabeth Arden ("not a nice woman, not a generous woman"), Charles Revson of Revlon ("my arch and implacable enemy from the earliest days of our competition") and Sam Rubin of Faberg,e ("patronizing even for those prefeminist days"), but not much time is wasted on them, except for Revson who appears to have been her bete noire and vice versa.
No, what Estee Lauder is interested in, and rightly so, are her achievements. "What makes a successful businesswoman?" she asks rhetorically. Talent? Intelligence? Education? It is persistence that Lauder credits. When she and her husband decided to go full time into the cosmetics business, both the family lawyer and accountant strongly argued against it. After the first year, when they found their savings eaten up and had made not one dime of profit, she was not dissuaded. Neither was she disheartened waiting eight hours in the outer offices of a merchandising corporation to see the cosmetics buyer, riding six hours on a rickety bus through searing Texas heat to sell her line to a small department store in Corpus Christi, or trying for two years before landing an account with the elite London department store Harrod's.
This is the drama of her life. Some sections of the book are little more than ads for Lauder products and private concerns often are glossed over in clich,es, but her business experiences are related simply and directly, and show by turns her sense of humor (her Super-Rich All Purpose Creme once was inadvertently used as salad dressing at a decidedly swell party) and her shrewdness (she got the chic Paris department store Galerie Lafayette to carry her perfume by "accidentally" spilling some all over the carpeting).
She says, and we have no reason to doubt her, that she has had a mission: "We were selling jars of hope," she suggests early on, and tells the women of the world (and, in the past decade, the men), "Time is not on your side, but I am!" As to the secret of her success, there is one, as it happens -- a refrain that runs through the book for those who must rely -- as we all must -- on the advice of experts, of committees, of those who would take us down their paths: "I wasn't interested in a committee vote. When I knew something was right, I ran with it."
In her career Estee Lauder has been ambitious and untiring, determined and evangelic in her belief that, as she puts it, "the pursuit of beauty is honorable." She would almost certainly agree with Cocteau that "a defect of the soul cannot be corrected on the face -- but a defect of the face, if you can correct it, can correct a soul." It might have been her motto.