Model Citizen - Suzy Parker

Jan 7, 2004 at 12:00 am
Hips cocked, right knee bent, standing just off-center in the foreground of the meticulously composed beside-the-Seine mise-en-scène of Louise Dahl-Wolfe's early-1950s black-and-white fashion photograph for Harper's Bazaar, model Suzy Parker--wearing a light-colored Balenciaga fisherman's overblouse, matching skirt, and small, flat straw hat--twists her gazelle-like neck slightly to gaze heavenward, an ethereal look suffusing her startlingly beautiful face.

Decades before Paulina, Cindy, and Naomi, Parker attained marquee status, establishing herself as the world's top fashion model, the "It" girl of the 1950s. Signed with Eileen Ford's agency and working in Paris, Parker was the first model to command $100 an hour, the first to rake in more than $100,000 a year. With her flaming-red mane, striking green eyes, elongated limbs, leonine grace, and practiced sang-froid, Parker stared out from the images of Richard Avedon, Horst P. Horst, and Milton H. Greene, probably the most photographed woman of her time. Avedon characterized her as "my most challenging and complicated of muses."

The idealized epitome of the elegant woman, she embodied style and exuded chic. It seemed perfectly reasonable for Parker to lunch or shop or call on friends dressed in the same clothes she wore in fashion spreads. Gloves? Well, of course.

Still, she did it for the dough. "I believe in the gold standard," she confessed to The Washington Post in the early 1960s. "I like solid lumps of things. You can always melt them down." A typical Parker pronouncement. Unlike her publicly mute confreres — of models, Parker once remarked, "You never met a skinnier, meaner bunch of people" — she was chatty, expansive, and outspoken on politics, culture, and social mores. Horst carped that she wouldn't shut up long enough for him to photograph her.

Born Cecelia Ann Renée Parker in Long Island City in October 1933, Suzy attended prep school in New York City. (A playful dissembler, Parker invented histories, so records often state that she was born in Texas and attended high school in Florida.) Her older sister, Dorian Leigh, already a successful cover girl, introduced Parker, only 15, to modeling doyenne Ford, who declared her too tall at 5-foot-9 but offered her contract anyway. "She was the most beautiful creature you can imagine," Ford told The New York Times this past May.

By 1950, Suzy had plopped down in Paris, where she eschewed the runway circuit. "I can't walk across a room without falling over," she admitted to Vogue in 1995. She studied photography with Henri Cartier-Bresson, worked at French Vogue, chummed around with Coco Chanel, and wedded a Frenchman, a union that lasted only briefly, same as a late-1940s teenaged marriage.

Via Avedon, Parker broke into films in 1957, cameoing in the "Think Pink" production number of director Stanley Donen's fashion-world send-up Funny Face. (Parker inspired the movie's reluctant model-heroine, played by Audrey Hepburn.) Meatier roles followed: Kiss Them for Me with Cary Grant in 1957, Ten North Frederick with Gary Cooper in 1958, and A Circle of Deception with Bradford Dillman in 1961. She also appeared on a handful of TV shows, most memorably in a 1964 "Twilight Zone" episode.

But Parker never seemed particularly at ease away from the still camera, and she abandoned acting altogether by 1966, having married Dillman three years earlier; the pair settled in Montecito, Calif., near Santa Barbara, in 1968, where they raised a family. It was there that she died May 3, age 69.

Images of Parker still abound. That's her at her modeling apogee, attired in a voluminous black Dior gown, arms spread outward, on the cover of Avedon's 2001 photo collection Made in France. "Suzy Parker gave emotion and reality to the history of fashion photography," Avedon noted upon her death. "She invented the form, and no one has surpassed her."