NEW YORK -- Estee Lauder, who started a kitchen business blending face creams and built it into an international cosmetics empire, died of heart failure Saturday at her home in Manhattan, a company spokeswoman said. She was 97.
In 1998, Ms. Lauder was the only woman on Time magazine's list of the 20 most influential geniuses of business of the century.
Her company placed 349 in the 2003 ranking in the Fortune 500 list of the nation's largest companies, with revenue at $4.74 billion.
Ms. Lauder sold her products primarily through department stores -- Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale's, Marshall Field's,
"Beauty is an attitude," she once said. "There's no secret. Why are all brides beautiful? Because on their wedding day they care about how they look. There are no ugly women -- only women who don't care or who don't believe they're attractive."
Estee Lauder, Clinique, Aramis, Prescriptives, and Origins were company product lines.
A favorite selling tool was the gift with purchase -- customers who bought a certain amount got an additional item free.
The giveaway began out of necessity. The budget she could afford for advertising in the beginning was too small to attract an agency, so she used the money instead for free samples.
She courted the rich and famous, such as Princess Grace of Monaco, who became a friend.
"If you have a goal, if you want to be successful, if you really want to do it and become another Estee Lauder, you've got to work hard, you've got to stick to it, and you've got to believe in what you're doing," Ms. Lauder said.
She enjoyed entertaining in the grand manner, in her Upper East Side townhouse, her oceanfront home in Palm Beach, Fla., her London flat, and in her villa in the south of France. But that was not how she grew up.
Born Josephine Esther Mentzer in the working-class Corona section of Queens, she was the daughter of Max and Rose Schotz Mentzer.
Ms. Lauder said her family always called her Esthy (pronounced ES-tee). When a public school official spelled it Estee, it stuck.
In 1930, she married a garment center businessman named Joseph Lauter (later changed to Lauder), and they had a son, Leonard, three years later.
During the 1930s, she began selling face creams that her uncle John Schotz, a chemist, mixed in a makeshift laboratory in a stable behind the family house. And she began experimenting with mixes herself.
While in her home kitchen, "during every possible spare moment, [I] cooked up little pots of cream for faces. I always felt most alive when I was dabbling in the practice cream," she said.
Ms. Lauder went to beauty salons and gave free demonstrations to women waiting under hair dryers. More often than not, they became customers. Sometimes she stopped women on Fifth Avenue to try her products.
"If you put the product into the customer's hands, it will speak for itself if it's something of quality," she said.
Eileen Ford, cofounder of Ford Models, said Ms. Lauder's success lay in her ability to connect with the average American woman. "Mrs. Lauder understood all women and what their beauty needs were," Ford said.
In 1939, Ms. Lauder divorced and moved to Florida. Years later, she explained why: "I was married very young. You think you missed something out of life. But I found out that I had the sweetest husband in the world."
She and Joseph remarried in 1942, had a second son, Ronald, and went into business together. Her persistence in selling paid off in 1948 when she persuaded a buyer at Saks Fifth Avenue to place a sizable order.
She and her husband filled the order themselves, cooking up the creams in their factory, a converted restaurant, and bottling them in attractive jars. In two days, Saks sold out and the company was on its way.
While her husband handled the business at home, she traveled to each new store that took her line and personally selected and trained the saleswomen.
Packaging developed by Ms. Lauder in a delicate shade of greenish blue -- chosen because it complemented virtually any bathroom decor -- became a trademark.
Estee Lauder became a household name in 1953, when the company debuted Youth Dew, a bath oil and perfume. Over the years she added lines and products, fragrances such as White Linen and Cinnabar, the Aramis line of men's toiletries, and the Clinique line of fragrance-free, allergy-tested products.
She dueled with archrival Charles Revson, who built the
"She was the one competitor he set out to beat but couldn't," wrote Revson biographer Andrew Tobias.
As the privately held company grew, Ms. Lauder and her husband involved their sons in the decision-making. Leonard Lauder took over as chief executive officer in 1982, the year before Joseph Lauder died, and nearly quadrupled annual sales by 1995. Ronald Lauder left the business for several years in the 1980s, serving defense and ambassador posts in the Reagan administration and making a failed bid for mayor of New York. He then returned to the company.
In 1995, the company, long tightly held by family members, announced plans to raise $335 million in an initial public stock offering.
Earlier this year, Forbes magazine estimated the net worth of Ms. Lauder's sons at $5.1 billion total, ranking them both in the top 300 richest people in the world.
Ms. Lauder's assets, including her company stock and much of her real estate, had been put in recent years into a trust administered by her two sons and a longtime lawyer. Her public life dwindled after she broke her hip in 1994.
After being vague about her background for years, Ms. Lauder rushed her autobiography, "Estee: A Success Story," into print in 1985. Typically, she was out to beat the competition: in this case Lee Israel's unauthorized biography, "Estee Lauder: Beyond the Magic."
Ms. Lauder and her husband were active in philanthropic work, including contributions to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York and the University of Pennsylvania, the site of the Joseph H. Lauder Institute of Management and International Studies.