Estée Lauder’s story is familiar to many, that of a New York woman born just after the turn of the twentieth century who revolutionized the cosmetics industry as one of America’s most successful businesspeople. Estée Lauder’s name was omnipresence as a brand, and as she ascended in popularity and fortune, she was persistently written and talked about. She also wrote a memoir, in addition to being the subject of several biographies, including one by Lee Israel.
It is the publication of that 1985 autobiography, “Estée: A Success Story” and Israel’s 1985 biography “Estée Lauder: Beyond the Magic,” that provides the impetus for Renée Rosen’s historical novel “Fifth Avenue Glamour Girl.”
In Rosen’s story, Israel hunts down the novel’s narrator, Gloria Downing, as the veteran reporter frantically tries to publish her book-length exposé before Estée’s own personal account reaches the public. This serves as a device that allows Gloria to retrieve a warehouse of memories regarding her close friendship with the woman who would become a household name and A-list celebrity.
The action resets to almost a half-century earlier, pre-World War II New York. Gloria Dowaziac finds herself a young woman suddenly bereft of family and fortune, the daughter of a recently convicted Ponzi scam artist. Lost is her luxurious lifestyle; her family whom she opposes in their support of her imprisoned father; and the rich, perfect fiancée whose own family count as victims of the Ponzi scheme. The biggest loss is Gloria’s good name, and she fears, with some justification, that she will be scorned and ostracized throughout society. In a blink, Gloria goes from entitled to impoverished.
Gloria adopts a new name and new hair color, and she struggles with realities heretofore unknown to her, namely supporting herself. Gloria is plopped into Depression-era Manhattan with no skills, no work experience and a besmirched reputation. She’s recently been evicted from temporary lodgings and is very near out of money. She’s desperate, afraid and alone. Homeless. By chance, she meets Estée Lauder at a beauty salon. This begins a tumultuous but mutually enriching relationship with two women who aren’t what they seem on the surface.
As a history, Estée Lauder’s story is intriguing, but almost by nature distilled. As a public figure, Lauder projected an image and created a narrative that enhanced her ability to sell cosmetics and befriend influential, powerful people. Along the way, the gap between that persona and the real Estée Lauder all but vanished, a case where she became what she said she was.
As fiction, the author, through narrator Gloria, is able to explore that gap. The framework, though a weak construct in the book’s overall success, draws the reader into the gap. Who was the real Estée Lauder? And for that matter, who was the real Gloria?
We find out. Gloria’s adjustment to her new, hardscrabble life and Estée Lauder’s grassroots business maneuvering forms an intersection at which the two become almost codependent. Friends, yes, but friends with secrets. In fact, the two harbor, through their invented public personas, dark secrets, though they refuse to confide their big truths to one another. The novel’s tension naturally builds around the Estée Lauder success story. (Like all histories, we know the ending but not always the beginning and middle.) But it’s also maintained through the lurking threat that Gloria will be exposed, and Estée Lauder’s sheer determination will be insufficient to realize her ambitions.
Through Gloria, we learn about a raw, sometimes mercurial Estée Lauder, a climber and conniver and hustler, but also a true believer in her products. We see in Estée Lauder raw and brash qualities not appreciated in the upper echelons of the industry she hopes to penetrate. We see a woman willing to use confidantes and a woman struggling with loyalties that do not support her dreams.
Gloria’s story parallels Estée’s in time and place, and is an equally compelling American success story. With no formal education or training, no connections, and as a woman, Gloria manages to forge an independent lifestyle that only much later includes a spouse. Her internal struggle with the idea that her family association would make her a pariah leads Gloria to perpetuate lies she feels she can no longer set straight.
Predictably enough, the story speeds toward a resolution in which Gloria must come out as her true self and Estée must hurdle all obstacles to become the woman we already knew she became. In the build-up to these defining moments, the hypersensitive narrator encounters and comes to understand the natural inclination for all people to apply cosmetic enhancements to their own personal identities and stories. The sometimes-quick-to-judge Gloria reflects often on her own glass house.
As has become her hallmark, Rosen provides a highly worthwhile story that is equal parts edification and entertainment. She uses historical benchmarks and research to reshape a tale infinitely more interesting and with a decidedly different focus than the recorded history. In the process, she injects the joys and sorrows of the period, including the United States’ entry into war and all that entails for those joining the fray or fretfully following it from home. This novel expands our understanding of a long-gone era; partly through its precise detailing of the beauty-enhancement landscape, it delves into issues of appearances versus reality, surface shine versus hidden depth. Rosen’s even-handed treatment of the subject allows for an open-minded immersion into a culture not necessarily ideal but for sure prevalent. As far as American heroines go, Estée Lauder is a pretty good one; Gloria Downing is even better.
“Fifth Avenue Glamour Girl”
By Renée Rosen
Berkley, 432 pages
Donald G. Evans is the author of a novel and story collection, as well as the editor of two anthologies of Chicago literature, most recently “Wherever I’m At: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry.” He is the Founding Executive Director of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.