The Jewish Queen of Makeup

Estée Lauder became a legend in her time; Fifth Avenue Glamour Girl (Berkeley, $17.00) unpacks the life of the very real woman behind that legend.  Novelist Renée Rosen talks to fiction editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about the ways in which she adhered to the facts—and the important reasons why she didn’t. 

Yona Zeldis McDonough: What first drew you to Estée’s story?

Renée Rosen: I remember I had just finished writing The Social Graces and had no idea what I wanted to do for my next book. A friend of mine had just finished working on a documentary film project with some members of the Lauder family and casually suggested that I take a look at Estée’s life.  One quick Google search later and I was hooked.

I’m always drawn to strong women, especially when they start out as the underdog and the odds are stacked against them. It’s that struggle, coupled with their determination and outright chutzpah that I’m drawn to. Estée had so many obstacles to overcome, I just couldn’t resist telling her story.  

YZM: How closely did you stick to the facts and how much did you invent? 

RR: When writing about such a well-known figure like Estée Lauder who has such a robust legacy, I made certain that all the major incidents in the book were rooted in fact. It was important to me that I tell the full story of her rise in the cosmetic industry. And yet, at the end of the day, I’m still writing a novel, rather than narrative non-fiction. It’s my job to entertain as well as inform which is one of the reasons why I decided to make the narrator of this book someone other than Estée herself. 

In other words, there are places here and there where I simply had to take a bit of creative license for the overall sake of the book. However, I included an extensive author’s note at the end where I clearly spell out what is fact and what is fiction. 

YZM: Estée had two strikes against her—being a woman and being Jewish.  How did she overcome them both? 

RR: Honestly, I don’t know that Estée ever saw being a woman as a liability. She certainly had more drive and ambition than her husband, and possibly more than most men. Estée was secure enough in her womanhood to not fear coming across as being too brash or assertive. I don’t think she let her gender influence her approach in the business world at all.  

In some ways, because she was in the cosmetic industry which is inherently feminine, I think being a woman actually helped her. She could relate to the concerns of other women, and I think she was able to win their trust precisely because she was another woman. Also, not that they were ever friends, but Estée did have Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden as role models.

As for her being Jewish, the answer here isn’t quite as simple. I think Estée learned early on that anti-Semitism was going to be a hurdle for her.  C.Z. Guest, a prominent Palm Beach socialite, almost lost her country club membership after taking Estée for lunch. That stung and it left a big impression on Estée. Some say Estée denied being Jewish, others say, she simply embraced other religions. Supposedly she attended church every Sunday while she was in Palm Beach. We’ll never really know the truth here, but Estée undeniably owes some of her success to the countless Jewish women, especially Hadassah members, who purchased her products and supported her brand in those early days.  

YZM: Estée Lauder was not the only Jewish women to become a huge presence in the cosmetic industry; how did she compare to some of the others, like Helena Rubinstein and Georgette Klinger?  

RR: This is a great question, but I must be careful in how I answer it as so not to giveaway any spoilers. But what I can say is that I think all three women were probably more alike than they’d would have ever admitted. In terms of heritage, there’s a shared immigrant story among them and they all claimed to have European-inspired skin care products. And in most cases, that was absolutely true. 

They were all undeniably strong-minded, overly ambitious businesswomen. In their own ways, they were each self-made success stories. I can’t say if this next part applies to Georgette Klinger, but I know that Estée and Helena Rubinstein viewed one another as rivals. Maybe not to the extent that Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden were (as portrayed in the book and Broadway musical War Paint), but there was a lot of intense competition between the two.  

YZM: Friendship between women is an important element in this novel; did this friendship actually exist? 

RR: Since Gloria Downing, the narrator, is a fictional character, that friendship between the two women grew rather organically during the writing. Gloria sprang out of my own imagination and isn’t based on any of Estée’s actual friends, which brings me to a rather regrettable realization on Estée’s behalf.

She was extremely guarded (and with good reason) and I’m not sure there would have been many women she would have trusted.  Sadly, I think Estée had a limited and skewed view of friendship. I’m not convinced that she had any true-blue friends. Instead, I think Estée saw other women as vehicles who could endorse her products and help expand her business. From everything I could gather, I’d say her closest friend was her husband. I’m not sure she had much need for female camaraderie outside of that. 

YZM: Historical fiction seems to be your jam—what’s next on your horizon? 

RR: Historical fiction is definitely my jam and right now I’m working on a new novel that I’ve wanted to write for a very long time. It’s about Ruth Handler, the creator of the Barbie doll. Ruth was another headstrong, Jewish businesswoman, way ahead of her time. Truly a fascinating figure. 

She got the idea for Barbie after observing her children at play. She noticed that while her son, Kenneth, had toy soldiers and toy guns to play with, her daughter, Barbara, only had baby dolls. Ruth believed this perpetuated the limiting belief that girls could only grow up to be mothers and homemakers. She created Barbie to empower young girls, giving them license to believe they could do and be anything. 

I know that Barbie can be controversial but as I’ve said all along, whether you loved Barbie or shaved off all her hair in a fit of protest, this book will speak to the feminist in all of us. That is my promise to my readers.