My Lunch with Evelyn Lauder
This morning, as I was having my latte, I saw in the New York Times that Evelyn Lauder had died. How could anyone miss it? Not only was there an obit, but two ads commemorating her death taken out by the Estee Lauder Company. I never want to speak ill of the dead but it all came back to me when I saw her picture. And I couldn’t resist writing about it. I think of it as my lunch with Evelyn, but to use the fashionable new discourse, you could also think of it as a member of the 99% has lunch with the 1%. Which is just what happened to me back them, I think it was in 1986 or so.
I had just come out with my book Prisoners of Men’s Dreams and my editor at Little, Brown and Company had this idea — fantasy really — that the book would somehow go far among the women in corporate America. I can’t really remember all the details but she somehow sent a copy to Estee Lauder, or Evelyn or someone in corporate, who knows but suffice it to say, Evelyn Lauder saw a copy of the book and evinced an interest in having lunch with the author — i.e. me. I lived near Boston and she was in New York. Having lunch with Evelyn meant I had to come to New York. My editor thought it would be worth it. Her fantasy was that Evelyn would fall in love with me (literarily speaking that is) purchase thousands of copies of the book, distribute it to folks within Estee Lauder and voila — a bestseller is born. Having had some experience with the one percent, I was a bit more jaded and, dare I say, realistic. I told my editor that if Evelyn Lauder or Little Brown wanted to pay my way to New York to have lunch, I’d be glad to do it. No way was I spending any of my money on the trip. Enthrall to her fantasy, my editor said Little, Brown would fork out the money and off I went to New York for lunch.
The lunch was at the Four Seasons. Back then The Four Seasons, on Park Avenue, was a huge restaurant, with spacious rooms and elegant furnishings. It was one of THE hot spots for the literati and gliterati. My editor and I arrived early. As the Maitre d’ escorted us to “Mrs. Lauder’s Table,” I wondered if she had paid for it in full, so that no one else could ever sit at it, or if it was just borrowed, “Mrs. Lauder’s Table,” when Mrs. Lauder was the lady who lunched? The table was just like any other four seater, and I began to sit down at one of the chairs. Big mistake! As if an untouchable had just been about to sully the throne of a Brahmin, the Maitre d’ practically grabbed my arm to drag me away. “That is Mrs. Lauder’s chair!” he exlaimed. God, who knew that Mrs. Lauder not only had her table but her own chair at said table? Suitably chastened, I began to get the picture. Do not do anything here at the Four Seasons that Mrs. Lauder has not authorized.
Finally, the great lady arrived and, as I suspected, the slumming began. It was pretty clear from the very moment of introduction that my editor’s fantasy was not to be fulfilled. Evelyn had a free day with nothing of import and why not meet with some writer who might be of interest and to whom one owed absolutely nothing. We chatted about this and that — all of it imminently forgettable which is why I have forgotten it all. The waiter arrived with menus and began to tell us about the specials, one of which was lobster salad. Mrs. Lauder order lobster salad. My editor ordered lobster salad. I did not want lobster salad. As a foodie, I was perusing the menu to see what else The Four Seasons offered. Like the Maitre d’, the waiter took his status and hierarchy very seriously and had sniffed out who was who in the pecking order at this particular table. First came Mrs. Lauder, then my editor — a New York would be great lady dressed to play the part — and me, low woman on the totem pole, apparently also dress to play the part (although who knew?). The waiter grabbed the menu from my hands and whisked it out of sight before I’d finished scanning the appetizers and could move on to the main course. I guess I was having lobster salad too, like it or not.
As we ate our salads and made small talk, it became clearer and clearer that Mrs. Lauder had never had the slightest intention of doing anything to help promote my book. Suffering from a case of terminal denial, my editor could not fathom this very evident fact and kept quietly nudging. I wanted to kick her in the leg, but refrained. Salads finished, it was time for dessert. Same drill. Mrs. Lauder ordered, editor did same, I vainly tried to look at the dessert menu but the waiter knew who was who and what was what and I had what they had. I’d like to say that I had tea while they had coffee or some such but I honestly don’t remember and can’t imagine I was able to defy the court protocol in any way.
Finally, this entirely wasted lunch was over and I was out of there, glad only that the trip wasn’t on my dime.
The obit about Evelyn Lauder in The New York Times told of Evelyn’s struggles with the domineering grande dame of the Lauder clan, Estee Lauder, who was apparently a major piece of work. Over her years in the family, Evelyn definitely learned a thing or two about dominance and submission. That was what I remember from that day in New York. I was a member of the 99% and the people in the 1%, or who served the 1 % would never let you forget it. Like dogs marking their territory, it was all about status not about ideas, or good conversation, or, in this case, good works. Of course, Mrs. Lauder, like so many rich women before her, dabbled in philanthropy, or good causes and interesting people. Like other trophy wives whose families horde most of their millions (or billions), and give away a pittance, she did her fair share of good works. I suppose, given the alternative (say Steve Jobs who gave away almost nothing), it’s better that she did that than kept it all. I have only this one encounter to judge by. But once again, it highlighted that one immutable fact. The rich are different and they are determined to never let you forget it.