Lloyd Cotsen ’50
Rob Schumacher/Copyright © 1985 Los Angeles Times, used with permisson.
Collector of the Unusual and Overlooked

FEB. 25, 1929 | MAY 8, 2017

FROM JAPANESE BAMBOO BASKETS to illustrated children’s books to hand-held Chinese mirrors, Lloyd Cotsen ’50 found beauty in the eclectic, amassing diverse objects others passed up. 

“When he’d come back from a business trip, we’d say, ‘Mr. C.’s been shopping again,’” recalls Andrea Immel, who spent 10 years as Cotsen’s private librarian in Los Angeles and now curates the Cotsen Children’s Library in Firestone. “There would be bags and bags and bags and bags.”

Cotsen was the president, CEO, and chairman of Neutrogena Corp., but he’s probably best known on campus as the benefactor behind the Cotsen Children’s Library. After he donated his collection of children’s literature to Princeton in 1994, it took three 18-wheelers to deliver it all. The books, manuscripts, and drawings from Russia, China, Australia, and other nations — some of which date back to the 15th century — number about 120,000, according to Immel. “One of the things that made him a great collector was that he saw beauty and cultural significance in things other people ignored. He didn’t collect to impress others,” she says.

As a child, Cotsen, who died May 8 in Beverly Hills, collected baseball cards and matchbooks. While serving in the Navy, he bought his first Japanese bamboo basket, eventually owning more than 900 of them. The collections expanded along with his fortune: In 1994 when Cotsen sold Neutrogena, the company his father-in-law founded but that he turned into a worldwide brand, his share was more than $350 million.

“I buy things because they strike an emotional bell, they appeal to my curiosity, to the thrill of discovery of the extraordinary in the ordinary,” Cotsen told The Denver Post in 1998.

“Lloyd was extremely generous in the right way,” says Harold Shapiro *64, one of three Princeton presidents whom Cotsen worked with as a trustee. “He was interested in what he was doing.” 

Among many institutions that benefited from Cotsen’s interests, in addition to his alma mater, were the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, the Shanghai Museum in China, the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, and UCLA, where he endowed an institute for archaeology — another of his passions. 

Teaching and teachers were important as well. He founded the Cotsen Foundation for the Art of Teaching in 2001 with the mission to transform good teachers into great teachers through a coaching and mentoring program, according to its website. Cotsen “had a lot of money and the will to do something beautiful with it,” former foundation director Judith Johnson told the Los Angeles Times.

When Cotsen discovered at a University trustees meeting that Princeton had no awards for outstanding faculty teaching, “something moved him,” Shapiro says. “Right at the end of the meeting, he said he would fund faculty prizes and corralled John Sherrerd ’52 to join him.” The President’s Awards for Distinguished Teaching have been given at Commencement since 1991.

In 1979, tragedy put Cotsen in the national news when his wife, 13-year-old son, and his son’s friend were murdered in their Beverly Hills home while Cotsen was in New York. The main suspect, a business rival of Cotsen’s, killed himself in Brussels before police arrived to question him.

“His terrible personal tragedy accelerated his enthusiasm for collecting children’s books,” says Shapiro. “I think it recalled reading to his kids.” 

Fran Hulette is PAW’s former Class Notes editor.


VIDEO Lloyd E. Cotsen ’50

Courtesy the Asian Art Museum