On The Avenue

A Laudable Life

by Michael Gross Photographed by Annie Leibovitz
Friday, March 30, 2018

For Ronald S. Lauder, then 41, his appointment by President Ronald Reagan in December 1985 to the post of U.S. ambassador to Austria was a great achievement. Despite his youth, it recognized a life spent visiting the country and collecting art produced by one of its great avant-garde cultural movements, the Secession, which gave the world Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt and Josef Hoffmann.

Fascinated as much by politics as art, Vienna was a dream job for the younger son of Joseph and Estée Lauder, the cosmetics legend. But at the time, he had no idea how profoundly it would change him. Before Vienna, Lauder was more a wealthy social figure than someone concerned with social welfare. Though he’d been present at the creation of his family’s Clinique brand, he was better known as a self-described playboy and hedonist (albeit one with a wife and two daughters) whose most serious accomplishments were in buying art.

Like Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, Lauder’s brief, 18-month posting to Vienna altered the course not only of his life, but those of many others, too. He left his embassy behind for a future that would give him a new appreciation of his religious and cultural pedigree, turning him into one of America’s most influential philanthropists.

Sitting in the Viennese-style office of his Ronald S. Lauder Foundation—its furnishings are from Otto Wagner’s Austrian Postal Savings in Vienna, its endowment about $100 million—high above the corner of Fifth Avenue and 59th Street in the General Motors Building, Lauder, dressed as always in an impeccably tailored suit, recalls arriving in Austria in April 1986. The next month, driving down Tempelgasse in the Leopoldstädt district of Vienna, he spied a parking lot “right in the middle of the street,” he says, his deeply hooded eyes closing slightly, as if seeing the memory. “I thought there was something strange about it.” So he got out of his car and stopped people on the street.

“What was here?” he asked in German, one of the three languages he speaks fluently. “It didn’t look like a bomb had dropped in the middle of the street,” he muses. Yet it seemed clear something had been there…once. “Most people didn’t know,” he continues. Or said they didn’t. “Finally, an older man said, there was the most beautiful synagogue here.”

The Leopoldstädter Tempel, built in Moorish Revival style in 1858, had been the largest synagogue in Vienna until November 10, 1938, later called Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. It was destroyed by the Nazis in a cross-border pogrom—a night of widespread terror and destruction that cost hundreds of lives, the loss of more than a thousand houses of worship (95 in Vienna alone), and the ransacking and destruction of Jewish homes and businesses throughout Germany and Austria.

Lauder had been, as he puts it, “a three-day-a-year Jew,” he says, “Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover. I was Jewish. I was bar mitzvahed. I was a cultural Jew”—not a religious or particularly passionate one—”until that moment. And it didn’t happen from one to the next. It took about a year.”

It was quite an eventful year. Even before he’d arrived in Vienna, he’d paid a reported $50,000 to have the gold leaf dome of the city’s Secession Building, an architectural gem with a priceless frieze by Klimt within, restored. But Lauder, whose philanthropy had previously been limited to local issues like protecting and planting trees on Madison and Park Avenues and supporting the Museum of Modern Art, where he served on the board of trustees, was poised to broaden his horizons considerably.

A few days after his coup de foudre on Tempelgasse, Lauder received an impromptu visit from  a Rabbi Jacob Biderman. “When the ambassador comes walking down the street,” Lauder says, “people start talking.” At the embassy, Rabbi Biderman showed him photos of the lost synagogue, and told him how Vienna’s Jewish culture had been destroyed. But then, he talked about the present, about how Jewish families escaping from behind the Iron Curtain had ended up in Austria, but were often only aware of their religion as a stigma that had made them second-class citizens. Unable to reach America and unwilling to go to Israel “because they didn’t feel Jewish enough,” Lauder says, “they decided to stay because Vienna wasn’t that far from Russia. They were poor, their kids were hardly educated, but they couldn’t go to German schools because they didn’t speak German.”

Biderman told Lauder he’d opened a school for these young refugees, but had run out of room and couldn’t accommodate the growing population of this new Diaspora. Lauder visited his school, and pitched in. “I bought one room, then two rooms,” then the entire building, “where they learned two things,” he says. “To speak German and to be Jewish. Initially, it was just a nursery school and kindergarten, but when we got involved, we started to add grades.”

Lauder’s good deeds balanced other—bad—news. A month after he met Biderman, Kurt Waldheim, a former secretary general of the United Nations, but also just revealed as a former intelligence officer for the armed forces of Nazi Germany, was elected president of Austria. While he was later cleared of participation in war crimes, it was established that he’d lied about his military record. Shortly thereafter, “I saw him on Stephansplatz” in central Vienna,” Lauder recalls, and Waldheim said, “‘I did nothing more than your fathers, your brothers did during the war.’” Lauder responded, “‘Look, you people were not the victims. You joined the Reich.’ And I started talking. I decided that enough’s enough. Let’s tell it like it is.”

Sometimes, his actions spoke louder than words. That July, Lauder left Austria “on personal business” just before Waldheim’s inauguration, a mere three months after he’d arrived, setting off a furor that would persist throughout his tenure as an ambassador. “I was out there,” he recalls. “They couldn’t attack Ronald Reagan. They wouldn’t attack [Secretary of State] George Shultz. So they attacked me.”

Had it not been for Waldheim, he believes, he never would have become one of the world’s most prominent and generous philanthropists. So the experience, while difficult, wasn’t a bad one. “No, it made it great. I had a purpose. I was representing the United States, but also the Jewish people.” At another moment, he says, “I thank Kurt Waldheim for making me Jewish.” 

Ronald Lauder was born in 1944, just after Joseph and Estée Lauder married a second time. Initially, he was educated in private schools, but he chose to transfer to the public Bronx High School of Science, “the best school in the city,” he says. “Also, I really wanted to be in a public school. It wasn’t political, though it could have been.”

He started buying art “when I was nine, ten, eleven years old,” he says. “When other kids were going to football games, I went to museums.” He discovered that children under twelve were

admitted to the Museum of Modern Art for free. He went alone. “They subsequently changed [the policy],” he says, requiring children to enter with a parent. (“It’s called the Lauder provision,” a foundation staffer jokes.)

He also haunted E. Weythe, a bookstore on Lexington Avenue, browsing and buying tomes on art, and began his own collection with a $90 Toulouse-Lautrec poster. One day at Weythe, he spotted a book on Egon Schiele on a shelf near those about Toulouse-Lautrec. “I opened the book, thinking, ‘This is great,’” he says. He allows that Schiele’s highly sexual vision was “one of the reasons I was interested,” he says. “And for reasons unbeknownst to me, I fell in love with Vienna.”

At age 12, Lauder hired his own German and French tutors. “What type of kid goes out and hires two tutors?” his father asked him. “Who’s paying for it?”

“You are,” Ronald replied. He took a junior year abroad—in high school—studying in the South of France. Even before that, he took himself to Vienna, “on my own,” he says. “I wanted to see Klimt and Schiele. I arrived in the evening. I went to the Belvedere”—the baroque palace that contains the world’s largest collection of Klimt paintings—“the next morning.” A year later, he expanded his buying from posters and prints to drawings, purchasing prints by van Gogh, Feininger and Seurat.

Passing through Wharton and postgraduate work in Brussels and Paris, Lauder went to work for the family firm in Europe and was “very much involved” in building its Belgian factory. He loved Europe, learned to speak Flemish, and finally returned to New York in 1967, marrying his girlfriend of several years, Jo Carole Knopf, starting both a family and Clinique, and becoming involved with various Museum of Modern Art committees and in local Republican politics. “But the one thing that never varied was my love of art and buying art all the time. I buy art continuously.”

In 1982, President Reagan, a friend of his parents, offered him a job as deputy assistant secretary of defense for NATO and European policy—and he accepted. His father collapsed and died at his going-away party, so he delayed his move to Washington, joining the government early the next year. He also hired a private art curator that year, Elizabeth Kujawski, who’d previously worked for Nelson Rockefeller. “At that point, I already had a fairly large collection.” It contained about 100 works then worth about $400 million.

At the Pentagon, one of Lauder’s projects was attempting to stop the diversion of sensitive electronic equipment, including computers, from the West to the Soviet Union. “People were shipping things to Vienna, and then it went out the back door to Hungary and then Russia,” Lauder recalls. That work—and his support of Al D’Amato, who won a U.S Senate seat representing New York in 1980—made him a natural choice when Reagan’s first ambassador to Vienna stepped down. But his stay in Vienna was, as noted, controversial—and brief.

“I left, frankly, because I was considering running for political office,” Lauder says, his voice rising above his habitual near whisper as he adds, “I must tell you, eighteen months was a long time…fighting. It wasn’t uncomfortable; it was just a fight! I gave speeches all over Austria and I became the personification of what it was.”

What it was, he doesn’t say, but back home, he immediately set up his personal foundation. “My intentions were educational,” he says. “The future of the Jewish people is education.” He sees no distinction between education and the preservation of Jewish culture, nor between the secular and religious life of Jews. “That’s all part of the same thing,” he says.

After a failed run for mayor of New York in 1989, Lauder refocused on eastern Europe, investing in real estate (including the blocks around Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, now a major tourist destination), a Hungarian bank, a Czech media business and a restaurant in Budapest; made similar investments in Israel; and invested more time and money in his foundation. Its work would become as much an obsession for Lauder as art has always been.

He would be named chairman of MoMA’s board of trustees in 1995 and remains its honorary chairman today. But later in the nineties, art had to share him as he began helping, founding, donating to and running myriad Jewish organizations—so many a bare list would cover half a page of this magazine, but notably including the Jewish National Fund, the Conference of Presidents of Major

American Jewish Organizations, and in 2007 the World Jewish Congress, which he took over after it almost collapsed in a financial scandal, and turned into a powerhouse.

“My activities became more Jewish-centric,” Lauder says. “My strength was Eastern European Jewry. I did not want Hitler to win and therefore I started to work in place after place, building schools, one after the other.” He also, inevitably, got involved with Israel. “Israel was there. It was very important to me. I am both a Jew and a political person. I was very close to Benjamin Netanyahu and helped him become prime minister. We’d worked together before that in the UN.” At the same time, he got involved with the World Monuments Fund, rebuilding historic synagogues around the world. “I helped in Morocco, India, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Amsterdam, all over. I think we did fifty synagogues all told.”

Sometimes that work was as controversial as his tenure in Vienna. “Easter European schools were contentious,” Lauder says. “’You’re starting a school for Jewish kids?’ There are all kinds of organizations fighting you.” And his television stations talked “about the truth,” he adds, which didn’t always make him friends. Among those he lost was Bibi Netanyahu, who ended his friendship with Lauder after 2012 reports on the American’s Israeli TV channel about the prime minister’s family; Lauder was legally barred from interfering with its broadcasts. “I’ve had a chance to speak with Bibi,” is all he’ll say of that. “Time will tell.”

Jewish issues weren’t the only ones he tackled, however. Spurred, perhaps, by his mother’s decline in her later year, he and his brother started the Lauder Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Institute for the Study of Aging, which in 1998 “morphed into the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation,” he says. One of its projects sought to learn if centenarians—people who lived to be 100—had any special genes in common.

Lauder’s most visible praised philanthropic enterprise is the Neue Galerie, his privately held museum for German and Austrian art on Fifth Avenue and East 86th Street. He conceived of it with Serge Sabarsky, whom he met in the midsixties after his older brother Leonard bought a Schiele drawing at auction and came to wonder if it was real. They were sent to Sabarsky, who was an expert on the artist. “Instant bond,” says Lauder. “We were friendly, literally on a daily basis, from that point until he died 34 years later.”

The Viennese Sabarsky, who later opened a gallery, was focused on showing the art he loved. In his telling, Lauder was the driving force behind creating a museum to do that. Just before Sabarsky died in 1996 (the Neue Galerie’s restaurant is named for him), Lauder learned that the Yivo Institute for Jewish Research was selling a former Vanderbilt mansion, and he bought it to house his and Sabarsky’s museum, hiring architect Annabelle Selldorf to create it. Even before he startled the world with his record-setting $135 million purchase of Klimt’s gold-speckled 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the museum’s prize possession, “we saw lines around the block,” Lauder says proudly.

Renée Price, the Neue’s Galerie’s second and current director, had held the same role at Sabarsky’s gallery. “As a collector, Ronald has always had a very definite, strong viewpoint,” she says. “He always wants to get the best work by a particular artist: not necessarily the easiest or the most pleasing, but the best. Ronald is extremely passionate about art and design, everything from a major painting to the smallest decorative object. The Neue Galerie is his gift to the city of New York, and he always reminds us how proud it makes him. I enjoy working with him because he is not shy about making his opinions known and neither am I, which can lead to amusing discourses. With Ronald you always know where you stand. Most of all, I admire his commitment to art, his unending pursuit of beauty. He is truly a connoisseur, and the most generous person I know.”

Lauder’s generosity even extends to the Trump administration,which, superficially, at least, seems difficult to reconcile with Lauder’s expressed opposition to anti-Semitism and neo-Nazis, his active support for a two-state solution in the Middle East, and his promotion of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas as a partner in the peace process with Israel. Lauder and Trump met at Wharton.

“As [Yitzhak] Rabin said, you make peace not with your friends but with your enemies,” Lauder believes. “I still believe to this day that a two-state solution can be done, and I believe it will happen during the time of Donald Trump. He’s our president. He’s someone I’ve known for fifty years. Yeah, sometimes he misspeaks on some things, but the man does not have an anti-Semitic bone in his body.

“I’ll tell you, I believe that whoever is president of the United States deserves the American people to stand behind him. I stood behind Obama. There were many things I didn’t [like] about him, but I stood behind him. I’ve stood behind every president we’ve had.”

Not only that, he’s working behind the scenes in the intractable Middle East conflict, too. Lauder wouldn’t comment but in October, he met Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Cairo to discuss the peace process, and AVENUE has learned that days before our interview, Lauder was in Jordan. He may be a private citizen now, but Ronald Lauder is still working for the public good.


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