People tend to ignore trite maxims like “beauty is but skin deep? or “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.? Not Estée Lauder. She built an empire on those prosaic themes, an empire worth more than $9 billion, with 23,000 employees selling cosmetics in 130 countries and producing more than $6 billion in annual sales. Josephine Esther Mentzer was born in 1908, the ninth child of Jewish-Hungarian immigrants. She grew up in Queens, N.Y., where she lived above her father’s hardware store. Although she alludes in her biography to the aristocratic bearing of her parents, it is more likely the daughter’s rosy view of their old-world mien. There was little charm in her neighborhood, an area F. Scott Fitzgerald called “Valley of the Ashes.? Enchanted, if not obsessed, by beauty from early childhood, Estelle could trace the beginning of her focus on cosmetics to her uncle John, a chemist who introduced her to the facial creams he formulated in a tiny laboratory set up in the stable behind the Mentzer house. Even while in high school, Esther peddled his creations to beauty salons with the zest and passion that would become the hallmarks of her genius.