By People Staff
May 10, 2004 12:00 PM

There was little point in saying no to Estée Lauder. In the 1960s, after Galeries Lafayette in Paris declined to carry her perfume, she deliberately spilled a bottle on the floor. So many customers inquired about the scent that the store was soon forced to place an order. Pioneering other unconventional tactics, such as free samples and gifts with purchases, Lauder built a cosmetics empire that became one of the world’s leading manufacturers of skin-care products, makeup and fragrance. When she died of heart failure at her New York City home April 24—at 97, according to her family, though she refused throughout her life to divulge her age—Lauder left behind a company worth an estimated $10 billion. “She was a little powerhouse,” says Paulina Porizkova, a Lauder model in the ’80s, of the 5’4’/2″ mogul, “a Hummer engine stuck in a Volkswagen Beetle.”

Lauder, born Josephine Esther Mentzer, began in Queens, N.Y., selling a face cream created by her Hungarian uncle, then setting up concessions at New York City beauty salons. Working with her husband, Joseph, who died in 1983, she eventually infiltrated every major department store around the world with what she dubbed her “jars of hope.” Since her retirement in 1995, son Leonard has run the business, which now encompasses a range of labels including Clinique, M.A.C, Stila, Prescriptives and Bobbi Brown, and represents 45 percent of department-store beauty sales in the U.S. “Her legacy,” says Bobbi Brown, “is that every woman is beautiful.”