Estée Lauder in the South of France, 1977.

Estée Lauder, the publicly discreet former beauty queen who was better known for her perfumes than for her private activities, had an impressive list of firsts attached to her name. She personally handed out the industry’s first-ever makeup samples in the Thirties, and her namesake company invented the gift-with-purchase in 1948, changing the way cosmetics counters hawk palettes and potions. Of course, she also built an empire at a time when female titans of industry were rare.

When Lauder published her memoir in 1985, she remarked to W that she wanted girls to know “you can be an Estée Lauder too.” Uncharacteristically, she also spoke of her romantic affairs, calling her brief divorce from Joseph Lauder (after a four-year split, they quietly remarried in 1943) her biggest regret. “I never told anyone I was divorced,” she said. “I didn’t believe in letting my personal life out with business friends.” Less diplomatically, Lauder added, “I have had a wonderful life. So many people are jealous.”

As part of that good life, Lauder spent time with Princesses Grace and Diana, among others. She entertained the stylish set at her homes in the South of France and Palm Beach but never emerged as a fashion icon. Rather, she had a penchant for classic pearls and chapeaus that matched her clothing. “You speak with authority when you wear a hat,” she announced to W in 1982.

Even in her 80s, Lauder was passionate about her profession. “When things are bad, if a woman has a little perfume and a new lipstick, she feels like a queen,” she told W in 1991. High-powered friends like Nancy Reagan were not exempt from her expert opinion. “I was never with her when she didn’t say, ‘You have the wrong lipstick,’” Reagan reminisced to W in 2004, shortly after Lauder’s death. “But you know, I took her advice. Everybody did.”

Photo: Guy Marineau/WWD archive