Second to None

8 minute read
Susman is the Chief Corporate Affairs Officer at Pfizer and the author of Breaking Through: Communicating to Open Minds, Move Hearts, and Change the World

“She likes to be referred to formally, as Mrs. Wagner,” my assistant said as I was preparing to meet the Estée Lauder Company Vice Chair for the first time.

It was the fall of 1999, and I had recently begun my new job as the Chief Communications Officer for the Company. I had been warmly welcomed by my savvy peers and a cheerful team of public relations professionals. That orientation included one warning of sorts, about Jeanette Wagner. Despite her background as a groundbreaking journalist and conquests as an intrepid businesswoman who opened remote markets for the Estée Lauder line, many of my new co-workers were not fans. Several found her too ferocious in her critiques, too uncompromising in her standards. I was educated that she could be, well, exacting to a rather sharp point.

The occasion of our introduction was the company’s holiday reception for beauty editors. When Mrs. Wagner entered the decorated hall, her throaty laughter rang out. I made my way over to greet her. She exuded a mix of femininity and power that was rare. She wore vintage couture pieces and dramatic jewelry. She was sporting red eyeglasses that I would later learn were a signature item. I was entranced.

I wanted to be someone special to her, to be more than those who either fawned over or feared her. I wanted to attach myself to her. First, I needed to break through, to pierce the film of deference that surrounded her.

“Nice to meet you, Jeanette,” I blurted maybe a little too loudly. I was embarrassed to have been so brash. I assumed I’d made a mistake to call her by her first name after having been advised against it.

In response, she extended her long elegant hand, a dozen bangles jingled, her eyes flashed with brilliance, her fierce Armenian beauty shined. She seemed amused and intrigued by my bold move, and said, “Nothing is an accident.” I later learned that phrase was one of her go-to sayings.

From that handshake forward, we were connected. Jeanette was in her early 70s and nearing the end of a storied career. I was in my late 30s and in my early days at the company. Still, we formed a union, bonded by mutual respect (that I wasn’t sure I had earned) and a shared appreciation for hard work. She invited me onto many projects. It felt like an honor. I helped her host visiting dignitaries, where she always went to great lengths to treat her guests well. Sometimes it was live entertainment, others the presentation of goody bags full of precious Estee Lauder product. Nothing was spared to make the event memorable. I was her accomplice. She introduced me to the director of our local library and together we raised funds for its renovation. Every pitch letter and thank you note had to be perfect. Her near impossible standards were ever present. On more than one occasion, I disappointed her.

“Who wrote this?” she bellowed after I handed her a press release.

“I did,” I said.

“Oh, dear,” was all she had to say. I went to work on a rewrite.

Sally Susman (l) and Jeanette Wagner (r)

The following summer, Jeanette and I travelled together to China. Ever stylish, she wore a special edition black velvet cap with a communist red star on the front. It was the classic Chinese-style workers’ cap updated by Shanghai Tang. Jeanette’s hat turned heads as she mixed a political point of view with a fashion statement.

On our first morning in Beijing, we started early and had back-to-back meetings with editors, retailers, and government officials. When I thought we were nearing the end of that long day, I began to dream of the deep tub in my hotel and room service. Jeanette turned to me and asked me if I had plans. Plans? I knew no one in China so I shrugged my shoulders. She took me by the hand, literally, and we went to the Red Gate Contemporary Art Gallery next to the Great Wall. There were only two paintings left in the show. Jeanette said, “We’re buying them.” She allowed me to select the piece I preferred, which was of a Madonna, and she purchased the other, a rendering of the Statue of Liberty. That painting hangs on my living room wall today and was the beginning of my humble art collection and a lifelong interest in world cultures and local creativity.

Following our stop at the gallery, we went to Jeanette’s friend’s house for a dinner filled with laughter and stories of opening Estée Lauder counters in department stores in exotic countries. Champagne flowed. Despite our significant age difference, she buried me with her energy. When we finally got in the car to head back to the hotel, it was after midnight. She looked over at me and said, “Dear, jet lag is boring.” Point taken.

Jeanette not only opened new markets for the company. She opened people. She opened me.

In the years that followed, Jeanette retired, and I moved onto another company, but our friendship flourished. Because of her, I love trees. Because of her, I love to talk about books and visit libraries for fun. Knowing she liked to read my work, I became a better writer. She gave me a thirst for traveling and art collecting. She taught me to never take a job for money, and to be generous until it hurt. She showed me how to throw an outrageous party and to never feel embarrassed to sing off tune. She introduced me to people I’m honored to know including top editors in publishing, chief executives in business, and elected officials in New York City. In all written materials, she set high standards for content and creativity. She tutored me to be a boss who can be, well, exacting to a rather sharp point.

Most importantly, she believed in me and helped me to believe more fully in myself. She taught me how to be in the world. I was her eager student.

When Jeanette retired, she and her husband, Paul, started a not-for-profit consulting firm to offer their considerable expertise to good causes. They named their business after Jeanette’s motto: Nulli Secundus, a Latin phrase that means, “second to none.” Nulli Secundus articulated her ambition and was a perfect reflection of how I saw her.

On a Sunday in early spring of 2022, I visited Jeanette at her apartment on Fifth Avenue. It was sunny and we looked out over Central Park. Her orchids were flowering, and we laughed at her Christmas cactus for missing the holiday and blooming late. We perused her photographs, and she told the story behind each. There was one of her demanding and inspiring immigrant parents in front of their grocery store, one of her and Paul when they were young and vital enjoying the Salzburg music festival, and another of Jeanette with Mrs. Estée Lauder in Moscow. These photos scattered around her apartment were testimony to her intrepid spirit, her curiosity and drive.

When I left Jeanette that afternoon, she pressed into my hands that velvet cap she wore in China and gave me a firm hug. We spoke in soft tones about what we meant to one another. She was unquestionably my greatest mentor. She was also like a mother to me. I was more than a protégé and closer to a daughter. Without using the precise words, we were saying good-bye. I came home and told my wife that might have been our last visit. Jeanette was gone within the week.

Two days after Jeanette died—and before any obituaries were posted—I received a text from the saleswoman at my optician’s office. I’ve been getting my glasses from her for years and never received an outreach before. The saleswoman’s text said, “A new pair of glasses just arrived, and I feel they should be yours.” She attached a photo. The glasses were red, just like the ones Jeanette wore. I had no need to try them on. I knew they would fit. My heart pounded as I typed my reply, “I’ll take them.”

I believe those glasses were a message from Jeanette. She would never be far; she had taught me to “see” a limitless world, glasses or not.

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