Estée Lauder, creator of cosmetics empire, dies aged 97

Estée Lauder, the child of immigrants from central Europe who created an international cosmetics empire and became one of the most influential women in America, has died at her home in Manhattan, a company spokeswoman said. She was 97.

Born Josephine Esther Mentzer in the New York borough of Queens in 1908, Lauder was the daughter of a Hungarian mother and a Czech father, who learnt the basics of business in the hardware store he ran below the apartment where the family lived.

She began her business career by selling skincare products developed by her uncle John Schotz, a chemist, to beauty salons and hotels. In 1930 she married Joseph Lauder who became her partner, as the company that was now known as Estée Lauder (Estée was a variant of her family nickname of Esty) took off in earnest after the Second World War.

There were two keys to her success: a gift for selling things, coupled with tireless energy and a determination never to accept second best. By 1948 she gained her first counter at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York. Deals with other department stores soon followed, and by 1960 the Estée Lauder flag was planted abroad for the first time, at Harrods in London.

In 1953 the company introduced its first perfume, Youth Dew, precursor of a range of now more than 70 fragrances. They include Aramis, a line of products for men, launched in 1964. Clinique, a range of odourless, allergy-tested and dermatologically based cosmetics, followed in 1968.

By the time she retired in 1995 - the same year the company went public - Ms Lauder was presiding over a multibillion-dollar enterprise, which now ranks number 349 in the Fortune 500 list of largest US companies. In 1998, she was the only woman to feature in Time magazine's selection of 20 most important business geniuses of the last century.

Even after her retirement in 1995 the age of 89, Ms Lauder remained closely involved. Beauty, she believed, was the most important thing in life.

"There are no ugly women. Only women who don't care or who don't believe they're attractive," she said.

She wrote in her 1985 autobiography, Estée, a Success Story: "In a perfect world, we'd all be judged on the sweetness of our souls. But in our less than perfect world, the woman who looks pretty has a distinct advantage and, usually, the last word."

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