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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Evelyn Lauder

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-10-03

Mimi Hausner of Vienna once told her daughter Evelyn that she could feel her kicking in the womb whenever opera music was played in their Austrian household.

"Much later in life, I would get a great kick out of giving my mother the gift she liked best - tickets to the opera," the daughter said.

Her mother couldn't have known it at the time but the imagery of an energetic baby in the womb responding to music was to become a metaphor for Evelyn Lauder's life in America, where Mimi and Ernest Hausner came with their daughter after escaping Nazism and surviving the London blitz.

The daughter's life was to be filled with music in a new land where Jews were not hunted. It would be nourished by the rich love that her mother and father, Ernest, lavished on their only child, inspiring her to be a scholar at Hunter College High School and then Hunter College. Perhaps her parents' harrowing experiences may have also accounted for the fact that, after graduation, Ms. Lauder chose to teach at a Harlem school and motivate disadvantaged students toward success.

It would be a life in which the spirit of inquiry and industry that her parents instilled in her would lead to formidable accomplishments at the Estee Lauder Companies, where she instituted sales training programs, and helped developed innovative color lines that have made the company - which has 22,200 employees in dozens of countries, and whose 2004 revenues were $5.7 billion - the world's fifth biggest cosmetics enterprise.

It would be a life where Ms. Lauder's philanthropy and passion would bring breast cancer and women's health issues to the forefront of public awareness in a campaign that now girds the globe. (October has been declared Breast Cancer Month, mostly on account of Ms. Lauder's efforts.) She would do more in this field: in 1993, she would create the Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York City. The center has since become a much-replicated model for offering coordinated supportive services all under one roof for one disease.

In those turbulent days in Vienna, Mimi Hausner could scarcely have predicted that her daughter would also excel in the arts. Her photographs are enshrined in well-received books, and exhibited at prestigious galleries across America, and in London, Paris, Madrid, Beijing, and other cities.

Indeed, in a few weeks her latest show will be featured at Manhattan's Pace/MacGill Gallery, which has exhibited icons such as Robert Frank, Irving Penn and Alfred Stieglitz. Ms. Lauder's photographs capture nature, landscapes - and head vases from her own extensive collection. She has gifted sales from her pictures - more than $1 million to date - to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, which she started 12 years ago and for which she has helped raise $119 million.

"I've been very, very lucky in life," Ms. Lauder, who holds the title of senior corporate vice president of the Estee Lauder Companies Inc., said. The title doesn't suggest her influence and innovativeness; it's a bit like saying Laura Bush is a resident of the White House. Ms. Lauder's husband, Leonard, is chairman, and her older son William is president and CEO.

Her life has been played across such a vast a panorama of issues and institutions in contemporary American life that one cannot help but ask Ms. Lauder what animates her.

"Energy, I have lots of energy - and energy breeds energy," Ms. Lauder said. "My goal has always been to make it better for everybody in the next generation. In the best of Judeo-Christian tradition, I believe that one must leave the world a better place than you found it. That's ultimately what I'm about. But I don't believe the speed with which life has passed."

What about her turbulent infancy in Vienna? How did memories of those terrible times, however distant, drive her?

Ms. Lauder doesn't necessarily consider the past as prologue.

"For years I had a great weight on my head and shoulders - the weight of a brutal war, the weight of Vienna, the weight of sadness over the genocide of Jews," she said. "That weight will never truly be lifted - although the end of the war in 1945 ended a particularly brutal era. You know, my parents never took me back to Europe, and certainly not to Vienna. Once we were in America, we were in America."

Mrs. Lauder paused, and then said:

"If my life truly began anywhere, it was in America. Even now I can remember the sight of the Statue of Liberty as our ship came into New York Harbor. It was October. The sun was shining, and the sky was blue. I was far too young then to understand what coming to this country meant for those who escaped tyranny and injustice - but I do now."

She very nearly didn't make it to America.

The Hausners had sailed across the Atlantic in a convoy of three ships. The vessel ahead of them hit a German mine and sank. Mrs. Lauder remembers how her parents accommodated rescued survivors in their own tiny bunk room.

They made their home on Manhattan's West Side, and Ms. Lauder's parents developed a clothing retail business that grew into six stores. Early in life, she understood the importance of meeting the customer's needs, and of dealing with an assortment of people. When her father began taking her to the American Museum of Natural History on weekends, she developed a fondness for anthropology, which Ms. Lauder retains to this day. At Hunter College, she would major in anthropology, with a minor in education.

Even as she was progressing in her Harlem teaching job, a mutual friend introduced her to Leonard Lauder, who was then in the navy.

Mr. Lauder's mother, Estee, had already founded her cosmetics company. She took immediate liking to Evelyn Hausner. And Ernest Hausner took a similar shine for Leonard Lauder. After their first date, after Mr. Lauder had dropped her at home, the conversation between father and daughter went something like this:

"I just want you to know that he's a nice boy," Mr. Hausner said.

The daughter was only 18, and she interpreted his remark as subtle pressure to get married - which she wasn't ready to do.

"If you like him so much, why don't you go out with him," she tartly told her father.

In any event, the parents got their wish. Mrs. Lauder now jokes that Leonard only married her in order to retrieve a copy of a rare book that he'd loaned her.

Their marriage developed into a remarkable professional relationship as well. Because Ms. Lauder had taught school, she decided to start training courses for the Estee Lauder staff. She would frequently stand behind counters at department stores that featured Estee Lauder products, and show saleswomen the art of dealing with customers.

She also enhanced the Estee Lauder range by adding many colors and treatment products that appealed to a wider range of complexions and skin types. A color she created - alfresco brick - is still the best-selling lipstick in the brand. She was heavily involved in the creation of the brand's Clinique line, and also in the introduction of lip gloss in the form of lipstick.

Wasn't it, well, a bit sticky working with a husband and his famous mother?

"It was actually a great delight," Ms. Lauder said. "My mother-in-law and I were especially close. She would always say that I was the daughter she'd never had. It was she who asked me to join the family business."

That business prospered in ways that Estee Lauder could not have imagined when she started it in 1946 with her husband Joseph. By the time she died last year at the age of 97, the enterprise controlled 45% of the cosmetics business in U.S. department stores, had market capitalization of $10 billion, and was a Fortune 500 company.

It is striking how frequently in her conversation with a reporter Evelyn Lauder returned to issues such as her enduring love affair with her husband, family solidarity, parental love, and the importance of humanitarian values.

"If I am a success as a person it's largely because I never lost a day being with my two boys in bringing them up as independent, honorable people," she said. "I always said to them: 'You have to be who you are. Money comes and money goes. But what you do have with you forever is your character and education. Use your imagination and skills - and you will be able to do anything you want." (Her younger son Gary is a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley.)

And despite her accomplishments in business and marketing, among other things, Ms. Lauder still sees herself as a teacher at heart. She makes it a point to spend as much time as possible with her four grandchildren, students, and young employees.

"I love working with young people, helping them with networking, making introductions," Ms. Lauder said. "I tell them that the most important thing is to acquire a great education, and not to squander opportunities. Follow your heart. And experience as many things as you can, eliminating those things that don't truly resonate within you."

"A person should enjoy waking up every morning," she said. "A person should always give back to the community - and not always be taking. I'm proud of being a good wife and a good mother. I'm proud of being in a position to help those who aren't as fortunate. That's what gives me inner tranquility. That's what infuses me with spirituality."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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