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Suzy Parker had more than met the eye

Sunday, June 01, 2003

When Suzy Parker died last month, I wondered how many people recognized the name. Or put a face with that name.

She was the model of the '50s, discovered by the late fashion editor legend Diana Vreeland.

In her prime, starting out at age 14, she was the highest-paid model ever, making $200 an hour by age 17.

She was 69 when she died, and I realized I haven't seen a picture of her in years.

When she was gracing fashion magazines in the '50s, the public seldom knew models' names.

But we knew their faces.

Names didn't matter.

The "supermodel" phrase had not yet been coined, nor had the salaries the identity would command.

Suzy's sister, Dorian Leigh, was a major model in the '40s. I thought it was Suzy in the unforgettable "Fire and Ice" advertisements for Revlon lip and nail color, but I later learned it was Dorian in the dazzling red gown.

Suzy went on to do Revlon ads as well, more or less still a face with no name. She stopped modeling in 1965.

While she gazed out at us from Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, for at least 10 years, she epitomized the fashion mannequin.

I never saw her on a runway. I doubt she was ever on one.

Top models considered "cover girls" in 1960, and prior to that when I began reporting fashion, didn't do runway.

But as we know, runways some 20 years later would explode with supermodels making super money. Some could command as much as $25,000 a day for fashion shows.

Another change: most cover girls these days, even on fashion magazines, are television and movie personalities, not career models.

Instead of the unidentified but beautiful face of a model such as Suzy Parker, you see Jennifer Aniston, Sarah Jessica Parker or JLo on fashion covers.

We all know who they are, and that's the point.

Publishers claim a mere model on a cover can no longer sell a magazine. The nameless Suzy could lure us back then, just by her beauty. Not now.

Even W, the magazine spin-off from the fashion trade paper, Women's Wear Daily, is more likely to put the face and body of Madonna or Jennifer or Pamela on the cover. They aren't fashion models, but they sell magazines.

Suzy made half a dozen or so films, being one of the first of the top models I can recall who tried her wings beyond fashion shoots.

I remember seeing her in "The Best of Everything" in 1959 (finally knowing her name) and while she was incredible to look at, her role as an actress stalking her married lover was embarrassing.

She also had a high-pitched voice that didn't go with her stunning appearance.

She married the fine actor Bradford Dillman in 1963, and they remained married, another surprise for such a high-profile couple. Especially when Suzy's lifestyle prior to marriage has been described in her biography as "a life in pursuit of fun, bright lights and career."

In "The '60s: A Decade in Vogue," a great coffee table book, there is a color photo of Suzy with her infant daughter from her second marriage, who has the unlikely and lengthy name of Georgia Belle Florian Coco Chanel de la Salle.

Coco Chanel was the child's godmother.

In "Chanel ... and Her World," by Edmonde Charles-Roux there is a picture of Chanel with the stable of mannequins she used consistently, and Suzy, of course, is one of them. She met the designer in 1952.

One printed description of her is "a tall, rangy and slightly dotty redhead with freckles and almost flawless beauty."

That's what I remember.

Michael Gross naturally included her in his 1995 book, "Models: the Ugly Business of Being Beautiful."

In it she says about her career, "Sheer luck. I was lucky to have been born with cheekbones."

He interviewed her at her home near Santa Barbara, Calif., and here is how he described her at age 61: "a plumpish housewife with frosted blond hair and a sunburn."

Fashion photographer Richard Avedon would come from Los Angeles just to eat her chocolate chip cookies.

Her Chrysler LeBaron's license plate was FAKOKTA, which is "dizzy" in Yiddish.

This was my Suzy Parker, the Texas redhead blessed with cheekbones?

In that same interview she told Gross she had married a good man. They were best friends before they were lovers. They raised six children.

"I've never loved a man as much as Bradford," she told him. "He has been a marvelous parent."

It matters that she seems to have had a good life beyond the one in which she awed us with her beauty.

There was obviously more to her than met the eye. Still, what I saw as a 20-year-old was unforgettable.

Barbara Cloud can be reached atbcloud@post-gazette.com .

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