Creating beauty was something my mother had been doing ever since she was a young child.
The woman who would become Estée Lauder was born on July 1, 1908, as Josephine Esther Mentzer, the daughter of Rose Schotz Rosenthal and her second husband, Max Mentzer. Rose had emigrated from Hungary and Max from Slovakia; both ended up in Corona, Queens, where Max ran a hardware store and they lived above the shop.
That part of Queens then was a loud and lively place, crowded with a rapidly growing population of Italian, Eastern European, German, and Irish immigrants and noisy with ongoing construction. It was in a constant state of flux, with new industries and roads springing up in the wake of the 1909 completion of the Queensboro Bridge. The Brooklyn Ash Company and other businesses used the marshland adjoining Flushing Bay to dispose of cinders and garbage from nearby boroughs. Heaps of refuse piled up more than sixty feet high and were referred to as “Corona Mountain.” The area was later immortalized by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby as “the Valley of Ashes.”
But it was also pulsing with vitality and purpose. All of those immigrants had come to the United States to make a better life for themselves and their children, and they were pouring their energies into that goal. Their children, born in America, tended to shun their straitlaced European backgrounds and threw themselves into assimilating. My mother later wrote in her autobiography, Estée: A Success Story, “I wanted desperately to be 100 percent American.” That meant learning to speak unaccented English and to spot and seize the opportunities that would enable her to leave Queens and explore a wider world.
Like many little girls, Esty, as her family called her, liked to play with her mother’s skin creams and comb her girlfriends’ hair. But her interest in beauty makeovers went far beyond most little girls’ experiments. Family, friends, and later classmates — anyone who sat down long enough — was subject to one of her “treatments,” to the point that Max expostulated, “Esty, stop fiddling with other people’s faces.” But, as she wrote, “this is what I liked to do — touch other people’s faces, no matter who they were, touch them and make them pretty.”
After school and on weekends, Esty helped out at her father’s hardware store. Her special job was creating the window displays that would attract customers. For the Christmas holiday season, she would decorate a hammer or a set of nails with extravagant bows and gift wrap, then place it under an artificial tree. Customers responded, and she learned an important lesson. “Packaging required special thought,” she would write. “You could make a thing wonderful by its outward appearance. There may be a big difference between lipstick and dry goods, between fragrance and doorknobs, but just about everything has to be sold aggressively.”
She also helped at another family business, a neighborhood department store run by Fanny Rosenthal (the wife of Esty’s older half brother, Isidor Rosenthal) and Fanny’s sister, Frieda Plafker. Plafker & Rosenthal was, my mother remembered, “my gateway to fancy. It was Dress-Up Land for me. I loved to play with the beautiful clothes, touch the smooth leather gloves, pull the lace scarves around my shoulders.” (As a little boy, I used to play hide-and-seek with my cousins in the shoe storeroom in the back.)
It was also an education in salesmanship. Like most department stores at the time, Plafker & Rosenthal was predominantly a woman’s world. Women came as much for the fun of ogling the goods and the thrill of buying them as to meet with their friends in a comfortable setting that was a combination of emporium, playground, and sorority clubhouse. At Plafker & Rosenthal, female customers were waited on by saleswomen who literally spoke their language; Fanny and Frieda could chat in Yiddish with Jewish shoppers and rattle off idiomatic Neapolitan to their Italian clientele. They kept the store open six and a half days a week and stocked it with everything from menorahs to Communion dresses.
My mother learned how to talk to everyone and relished it. With her bubbly personality and genuine interest in women’s lives — and their complexions — she fit right in.
As my mother happily immersed herself in an atmosphere created by women for women, she observed what women liked, how they liked it, and how to sell it to them. “I whetted my appetite for the merry ring of a cash register,” my mother would write. “The ladies came to buy, and smiled and bought more when I waited on them. I knew it. I felt it. I learned early that being a perfectionist and providing quality was the only way to do business.”
My mother learned a valuable lesson at an early age: even though women still couldn’t vote, they could run a successful business, make money, and use it to surround themselves with beautiful things.
From the book THE COMPANY I KEEP by Leonard Lauder. Copyright © 2020 by Leonard Lauder. Reprinted courtesy of Harper Business, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
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