Feature

Evelyn Lauder, 1936–2011

The survivor who campaigned with pink ribbons

After her own bout with breast cancer in 1989, Evelyn Lauder wanted to raise awareness of a disease too often whispered about rather than confronted. The daughter-in-law of cosmetics magnate Estée Lauder worked with a friend to launch the pink ribbon campaign in 1992, paying for free pink bows to be handed out at department store makeup counters to remind women to get breast exams. There was confusion about the meaning of the ribbon at first, said the Associated Press, but Lauder’s efforts and influence soon made it a symbol recognized around the world. Lauder knew the symbol was catching on when a flight attendant pointed to the pink ribbon on her lapel and said, “That’s for breast cancer.” After that, “it became ubiquitous,” Lauder said.

Lauder and her parents fled her birthplace, Vienna, soon after Hitler annexed Austria, in 1938, and eventually landed in New York, where the family opened a chain of dress shops. As a freshman at New York’s Hunter College, Lauder went on a blind date with her future husband, Leonard Lauder, whose family then owned a small cosmetics business, said The New York Times. She managed to quickly impress Leonard’s formidable mother, and soon after the wedding she left her public school teaching job and joined her husband’s family business. “Having had a childhood like the one I had, I was much more tough than a lot of people. I was one of the few people who spoke my mind to Estée,” Lauder later recalled. As an executive for Estée Lauder Companies, she headed global fragrance development and helped launch the Clinique cosmetics line.

Lauder had a head for business, “but her heart was in helping others,” said Women’s Wear Daily. She founded the Breast Cancer Research Foundation in 1993 to “address a crucial lack of funding” for breast cancer research, and the organization has since raised more than $350 million. Her advocacy and fund-raising also helped establish a namesake center for breast cancer at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Lauder “was not just a philanthropist,” said Dr. Larry Norton, who oversees the center. “She was a guiding spirit.”

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