How the power players do it - by Fortune senior editor at large Patricia Sellers

Evelyn Lauder: How many lives did she save?

November 14, 2011: 1:22 PM ET

Evelyn Lauder, who died of complications from non-genetic ovarian cancer on Saturday, had a swarm of close friends throughout her life. Yet many close friends who attended her funeral today did not have a clue that she would die so soon.

Classic Evelyn. "It was never about her. It was always about you," Liz Robbins, a prominent Washington lobbyist, told me this morning over breakfast before she headed to the invitation-only funeral for her good friend.

You can read the news reports about Evelyn Lauder's contributions to cancer research: She founded The Breast Cancer Research Foundation, which has raised more than $350 million since 1993. She created the Pink Ribbon as a symbol to raise awareness about breast cancer around the world. She built, at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in Manhattan, a full-service haven for women with breast cancer--which Robbins used when cancer struck her two years ago. "She was constantly helping friends, helping people she didn't even know but heard about through friends, and she helped mankind," says Robbins, who spoke with Lauder by phone a few weeks ago and didn't realize that was dying.

"None of us knew how ill she was over the last four and a half years," adds Estee Lauder (EL) board member Lynn Forester de Rothschild.

Lauder, who was 75, had moved into a world of privilege from humble beginnings. She was born in Vienna, Austria, survived the London Blitz during World War II, and arrived in New York by boat with her parents, who were escaping Hitler's occupation. At 18, Evelyn was a freshman at Hunter College when she met Leonard Lauder, Estee Lauder's son, on a blind date. They married and were together for 52 years. "Evie," as people close to her called her, left a teaching job in New York's public schools to join Estee Lauder, where she helped develop brands such as Clinique and Aramis and rose to senior corporate VP and head of fragrance development worldwide.

Lauder, whom I last saw at Fortune's 2010 Most Powerful Women Summit, had serious business chops, but her greatest legacy will be the countless people she helped. De Rothschild, who is CEO of E.L. Rothschild Ltd. and has been an Estee Lauder director since 2000, told me a story yesterday about shopping for Bobbi Brown cosmetics at Neiman Marcus and asking a saleswoman how she liked working for Bobbi Brown, which is an Estee Lauder company. As de Rothschild recalls, "The saleswoman said to me, 'How do I feel about Estee Lauder? I owe my life to Estee Lauder. Twelve years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My supervisor was at a group-wide company meeting and somehow in a conversation with Mrs. Evelyn Lauder, my supervisor informed her of my condition. Mrs. Lauder did not know me from Adam, and yet I received a call from her. She talked to me for hours. She had her personal doctors consult with mine. And I am sure she saved my life.'"

"That was Evelyn Lauder," as de Rothschild says. "She saved lives and never asked for anything in return."

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