Josephine Esther Mentzer was born in New York City. Her parents, Rose Schotz, a Hungarian beauty, and Max Mentzer, a Czechoslovakian businessman who carried a cane and gloves on Sunday, called her Esty, which was changed to Estée when she enrolled in school. The name stuck, but one early detail was never officially pinned down: her birth date. “You ask my age? I tell you it simply doesn’t matter,” she’d famously say to dodge the question. “Glow,” after all—not a number—was the real essence of beauty, she believed.
“The first beauty I ever recognized was my mother,” said Estée. Some of her earliest memories were of her mother’s grooming ritual, which revolved around applying rich creams to her face and hands to keep her skin soft and smooth. “Hands [are] as telling as any written pedigree,” Rose would tell her impressionable daughter.
Estée toyed with becoming an actress, as she believed that “actresses were the epitome of beauty.” She even appeared on stage at New York’s Cherry Lane Theater a few years after she had her first son, Leonard, who would sit in the back of the theater and watch as she rehearsed. But in the end, acting didn’t satisfy her the way whipping up skincare solutions did. “I wanted to see my name in lights, but I was willing to settle for my name on a jar.”
While her father owned a hardware store where Estée would arrange window displays, she was more interested in taking after her uncle John Schotz, a chemist. He had taught her to cleanse her skin with oils rather than harsh soaps, and to mix up batches of his unique, all-around skin cream. “It was a preciously velvety cream, this potion, one that magically made you sweetly scented, made your face feel like spun silk, made any passing imperfections be gone by evening,” Estée recalled, and she soon dubbed it the Super-Rich All Purpose Creme. It was her first glimpse at something that provided “the power to create beauty.”
During a summer spent on Mohegan Lake in New York, Estée met “her first beau,” Joseph Lauter. Later, Joe changed his surname to Lauder, correcting a misspelling that had occurred when his father emigrated from Austria to the United States. The pair married in 1930 and soon moved to Manhattan. For her wedding, Estée carried pure white calla lilies and wore a satin gown with what she called “the world’s longest train.” And for the first time in her life—but certainly not the last—she applied a touch of lipstick.