Jewish Library of Baltimore Explores Estée Lauder’s Jewish Roots


Estée Lauder is a well-known name to many, whether they have seen Estée Lauder-brand makeup on store shelves or have some of her products in their makeup collection. But what even the most devoted makeup collectors might not know about the eponymous businesswoman is her identity as a Jewish woman.

Renée Rosen (Courtesy)

On Tuesday, Jan. 9, the Jewish Library of Baltimore will be holding a book talk with author Renée Rosen about her recent novel, which focuses on a fictionalized version of the makeup tycoon. The event, “Glamour and Ambition: Step into the World of Estée Lauder with Author Renée Rosen,” will provide an opportunity for guests to meet with the author and discuss the book and its themes of hidden heritage and female friendship.

The novel, “Fifth Avenue Glamour Girl,” chronicles the relationship between Lauder and the fictional character Gloria Downing, who yearns for more in life and is swept up in the glitz and glamour of Lauder’s life as she gains success in the makeup and fashion industries.

A USA Today bestselling author, Rosen previously wrote several other female-focused historical fiction novels, including “The Social Graces,” about the feud between Caroline Astor and Alva Vanderbilt; and “Park Avenue Summer,” which centers on a young woman working for Cosmopolitan under its first female editor-in-chief, Helen Gurley Brown.

“Estée Lauder was such an underdog, and I’m always fascinated by strong women who beat the odds,” Rosen said of the inspiration behind “Fifth Avenue Glamour Girl.” “But behind her sheer drive and determination, I discovered a fascinating story filled with unexpected twists and turns, both in her professional and personal life. I couldn’t believe no one else had already written a novel based on her life.”

Born in 1908 as Josephine Esther Mentzer and nicknamed “Esty,” Lauder grew up in Queens, New York, in a family of Hungarian and Czech Jewish immigrants. But in her professional life, Lauder often hid her Jewish heritage — according to her biography on Jewish Virtual Library, she was embarrassed as a child by her parents’ thick accents and characteristically “immigrant” behavior. She wanted to be seen as an all-American girl rather than the child of immigrants.

She would change her name to the more French-sounding Estée Lauder after she married Joseph Lauter, whose family name had been misspelled at Ellis Island during his father’s immigration to the United States from Austria.

Lauder may not have been particularly vocal about her Jewish heritage, but she has been reclaimed as a Jewish figure in the years since her death in 2004. She is one of many Jewish businesspeople to leave a mark on the beauty industry, a list that also includes Bobbi Brown, OPI cofounder Suzi Weiss-Fischmann and Burt’s Bees founder Burt Shavitz.

“While Judaism is not a specific focus of [“Fifth Avenue Glamour Girl”], Lauder’s decision to hide her heritage does come out in the story,” said Jessica Fink, the executive director of The Jewish Library of Baltimore, on why the book might be of interest to readers who want to learn more about Lauder’s Jewish origins. “We hope this will lead to a thoughtful discussion on why people made such choices.”

Rosen, who is Jewish herself and has often touched on historical antisemitism in her other novels, puts a particular emphasis on Lauder’s role as a businesswoman during a time when women were discouraged from entering the business world, as well as the persisting importance of female friendship and solidarity.

“Back in the 1940s, women were still very much put and kept in their place. It took someone gutsy enough, like an Estée Lauder, to carve out a new path whereby other women could follow,” Rosen noted. “She was also the breadwinner and had more drive than her husband, which was very rare in those days.”

Currently, Rosen is hard at work on a new book focusing on the story of Barbie creator Ruth Handler, exploring the doll’s origins and Handler’s trials in getting her product to the market.

“I hope that readers will be inspired by Estée’s story,” she said of “Fifth Avenue Glamour Girl.” “I hope it will encourage people to dust off their own dreams and go for it. If they can turn that last page and think ‘Wow, if Estée overcame all those challenges and obstacles and claimed her dream, maybe I can, too.’”

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