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Rose Marie Bravo, the former ceo of Saks Fifth Avenue and Burberry who now sits on the board of the Estée Lauder Cos., told WWD in 2002, “Even when I was at I. Magnin, Evelyn was always interested in what we were doing. She kept pace with the changes we were making in the store and was curious to know what designers were on the rise and which ones were subsiding. She was very involved, very caring about the company and the work I was doing, and was curious in all of the developments that were happening and how Estée Lauder could work within that framework to create more business for the store and the brand.”
Speaking Monday, Bravo said, “Evelyn Lauder was an extraordinary woman. She exemplified the mantra of the Estée Lauder Companies, ‘bringing the best to everything we touch.’ That is exactly what Evelyn did. She set a standard for women. She showed us that you can do it all — she did it all and did it so perfectly, from being a wife and a mother to business and philanthropy. In the end, she fought her battle so valiantly. Women owe her a lot and she left a beautiful legacy. It was never about her — it was always about how she could help others, whether that was with career advice, mother-in-law advice or advice in dealing with an illness. She was there for others in every way. She was a great friend and she will be so missed.”
Her head was clearly in the business, but her heart was in helping others. And she applied the same amount of brain-power to both. To Dr. Larry Norton, Lauder was far more than a philanthropist raising money for cancer research. She “reinvented” the sphere of fund-raising, patient care and scientific research that she operated in by bringing to bear a “comprehensiveness” that he saw as “the work of a total visionary.” Her Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, which Norton oversees as deputy physician in chief overseeing breast cancer programs at Sloan-Kettering, is both beautiful and functional, he maintains, which is highly unusual. By putting together such a strong presentation — with so much care taken to perfect so many facets and details — Norton noted, it sends an intended brick-and-mortar message to the patients. “The building conveys the feeling to the patients that they are the center of our professional lives,” he said.
The same goes for the creation of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, which Norton helped Lauder lead for 20 years as scientific director and chairman of the executive board of scientific advisers for the organization. She brought that same comprehensiveness by uniting laboratory researchers and clinical physicians, who both did valuable work but did not talk to each other. She put deep research and clinical science on an equal footing, he said, then decided that the people doing basic research should be treated more like artists than contractors in handing out grant money since they dabble in the unknown and cannot guarantee what they will find. That kind of insight, sensitivity and support was not given before, Norton noted, adding during a phone interview on Sunday, “I’m sitting here getting e-mails from all over the world.” He said he was overwhelmed by the outpouring from the scientific community as evidenced by adjectives ranging from “friend” to “warrior.”
“She was not just a philanthropist,” Norton said, “she was a guiding spirit.”
In 1992, Lauder and the then-editor in chief of Self magazine, Alexandra Penney, developed the pink ribbon as a symbol of breast cancer awareness. Lauder organized the distribution of hundreds of thousands of ribbons and breast self-exam charts at Lauder counters across the U.S. To date, more than 65 million pink ribbons have been distributed. That year, she also launched the Estée Lauder Cos. Breast Cancer Awareness campaign, which each year raises funds through the company’s brands, employees and retail partners globally. The pink ribbon and Breast Cancer Awareness campaign have since been adopted by companies in industries worldwide, from fashion to food.
“Each October, it is extraordinary to see the absolute dedication of our employees around the world to see the BCA campaign,” said Freda. “Evelyn’s mission became our mission; her passion became our passion. She inspired all of us, and we will continue to move forward with her vision to rid the world of breast cancer.”
In 1993, Lauder established the BCRF to address a crucial lack of funding for research. Under her leadership, the organization has become the largest national group devoted exclusively to funding research related to the causes, treatment and possible prevention of breast cancer.
Years before, Lauder had begun raising money for the cause. In 1989, as a member of the Board of Overseers at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, she spearheaded a fund drive that raised more than $18 million, providing the funds to initiate and equip her namesake center. The center serves as a worldwide model for offering coordinating supportive services under one roof for one disease.
“I wanted to have the mall of medicine,” Lauder told WWD as the center was opening in October 2009. “I wanted everything under one roof. I was on the board at Memorial Sloan-Kettering and at the time, the doctor who was in charge of the hospital said they were building a breast center. And I said, ‘Oh, this is fabulous. What are you going to have in the breast center?’ So he said, ‘We’re going to have oncology and we’re going to have mammography. I said, ‘Is that it?’ He says, ‘Well, what else do you want?’ And I said, ‘Well, I would want physical therapy, psychological counseling, an education center so that we could pick up information in either leaflets or online, nutritional counseling, a pharmacy so you don’t have to go running around the city to get everything, a boutique that might sell all the needs of a woman while she’s waiting for reconstruction to get the right bra and do whatever is necessary — bathing suits, you know?’” The 150,000-square-foot facility is a brick-and-mortar testament to her vision.
During a September interview, she talked about how much progress the scientific community has made. “Let’s say we are getting closer to refined treatment that makes the disease chronic, rather than fatal,” she said. “Just like people can live with diabetes. Now there are targeted therapies. There are certain drugs women can take and they can stay alive for many more years with the cancer not moving anywhere.”
But philanthropy defined her far beyond cancer awareness. Through the Evelyn and Leonard Lauder Foundation, she was instrumental in presenting the concept of Adventure Playgrounds to New York. From 1967 to 1973, the foundation replaced outmoded facilities by building three creative play areas in Central Park that were designed to challenge children’s skills and stimulate their imaginations while placing an emphasis on safety and physical fitness. At the time of her death, Lauder was also a board member of the Central Park Conservancy and the Evelyn and Leonard Lauder Foundation. A number of other charities also benefited from her guidance and renowned generosity, including nonprofits devoted to health and human services, education and inner-city schools, the environment, women’s causes and the arts.
Lauder also became widely noted for her photography, publishing three books and having her photos hang in galleries such as the Gagosian Gallery in London and the Whitney Museum in Manhattan, as well as numerous private collections. Using an IS-30 Olympus camera, Lauder captured such images as rainbows rising from the Pacific Ocean and sculptural snow scenes in Colorado. All royalties from her photography career and her books were donated to the BCRF.
In 1999, Lauder was featured in Crain’s New York Business as one of New York’s 100 Most Influential Women in Business, and was honored with Cosmetics Executive Women’s prestigious Inner Beauty Award in 2003. She was also the recipient of a Fragrance Foundation Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.