The San Antonio-born Texan graced magazine covers, was Revlon’s most desired model, and then became a movie star—the American success story. Suzy Parker was also the world’s first supermodel, who single-handedly defined elegance and became an icon for an entire generation of post-war women who hungered for the sophistication and prosperity that reflected fashion’s New Look from the late 1940s into the 1960s. Here, we reveal how Parker used beauty as her calling card for a life of glamour.
By Lance Avery Morgan
Photography Courtesy of Archival Photography
She was more than just a symbol to women. Parker was the kind of women that most Med Men-era males wanted to take for, in the vernacular of the times, a moonlit swim.
Such mid-20th century luminaries as Avedon, Penn, and Horst photographed Suzy Parker’s elegance, which has rarely been duplicated since. She made their jobs easy because the native Texan redhead was known for her striking green eyes, luxurious hair, and high cheekbones. “I thank God for high cheekbones every time I look into the mirror in the morning,” she once commented of her trademark tongue-in-cheek humor. Fashion industry leaders of the era, such as Edie Locke, former editor-in-chief of Mademoiselle, viewed Parker as a one-of-a-kind star when she began to model. “A lot of the models are beautiful, but it takes a lot of makeup and this, that, and the other trick to make them look fabulous,” Locke once stated. “But, all Suzy had to do was shake out that mane and she’d look fabulous.” The late San Antonio resident Nancy Holmes, who often worked with Parker in her fashion career, also felt that the model’s thick tresses were one of the key secrets to her success.
More Than a Pretty Face
Born in 1932, as a child of the Depression, to an inventor and his homemaker wife, Cecilia Ann Renee Parker’s road to fabulousness started young before she became Suzy Parker. Dorian Leigh, Parker’s eldest sister, was the one who first encouraged her curiosity about the modeling world. Leigh had been a magazine cover model superstar since the early 1940s, and in 1947, she introduced her 14-year-old sister to high fashion by taking her to see now-legendary modeling agent, Eileen Ford. The agent’s initial impression was not positive, commenting that, at 5′ 9″, Parker was too tall to be a successful model, yet she moved forward and began modeling during her summer vacations in New York while visiting her sister. But, Ford finally came around, asserting, “She was the most beautiful creature you can imagine; she was everybody’s everything.” Diana Vreeland, fashion editor at Harpers Bazaar for 25 years and then editor-in-chief of Vogue, did not agree with Ford’s first reaction and immediately placed Parker in fashion shoots that would chart the course for a successful career beyond her wildest imagination.
Parker’s ascent to supermodeldom began, though her appeal transcended mere beauty. In the fickle fashion industry, she garnered acclaim as a true fashion chameleon—she could don a simple, gingham dress for the mainstream cover of McCall’s and then slip into a voluminous Charles James couture gown for the high fashion cover of Vogue, looking completely appropriate in each. As Parker told Andrew Tobias in his tome on Charles Revson’s Revlon beauty empire, Fire & Ice, “[Revson] thought I should be working for the sheer joy of working for Revlon. I think the reason I was such a good model wasn’t that I was such a particular beauty or anything, but that I was as strong as a horse.” Yet, after a contract dispute with Revson, the strong-willed model commented, “The next time they wanted me for an ad I said, ‘No, thank you.’ Then the war was on. He hated me. He absolutely hated me.” Regardless, the rest of the world adored Parker and her bewitching beauty and she continued to pose in several other hundred ads over the course of her career beyond Revlon.
After a short while, her national fame shot overseas to the international crowd, making her an international hit. The London Times even called her “the epitome of the new American woman: healthy, assured, and in charge of her life.” Because of Parker’s flexible style, a fashion editor of the time also observed that Parker “was like a girl you might glimpse in between planes at DeGaulle, wearing only a trench coat, with a mysterious secret.” She was more than just a symbol to women. Parker was the kind of women that most Med Men-era males wanted to take for, in the vernacular of the times, a moonlit swim.
The Most Beautiful Woman in the World
With her sparkling green eyes offset by slouch hats and a slew of Coco Chanel classic numbers, Parker inspired millions of women to aspire to her perfectly proportioned figure. Christian Dior went so far as to name her “the most beautiful woman in the world.” Yet, she was so much more than met the eyes. “Suzy Parker gave emotion and reality to the history of fashion photography,” photographer Richard Avedon once explained. “She invented the form, and no one has surpassed her.” All it took was one look at an Avedon / Parker collaboration to glimpse her true mystique. “Suzy Parker’s imagination and ability to perform to Richard Avedon’s imagination and direction was brilliant,” veteran photographer Victor Skrebneski shares. “Their photographs will always remain the first original high fashion statements of their time.”
The high fashion life is exactly what Parker sought. As she once said about herself, she wanted “a life in pursuit of fun, bright lights and career.” In 1952, she became the star in Chanel’s stable of mannequins as the designer’s signature face. The silver-haired Carmen Dell’Orefice, Carmen as she is still widely known, graced the cover of Brilliant’s March 2007 issue and after seven decades of modeling, she likely knew best what working with Parker was really like. She understands that Parker gained fame as an international celebrity, which before her, was reserved for only movie stars and royalty. “She was a Southern beauty to behold: tall, lanky, with a million dollar dimpled cheek smile, she implemented her success by her self-confidence and intelligence… and that unrelentingly scathing wit,” reflects Dell’Orefice.
Of course, that elusive essence led to her financial success, too. In the 1950s, when successful career women were much less common and when women regularly earned 30 cents on the dollar of what any man earned in the same position, Parker soon rose to the top of her field as the world’s highest paid model, earning $100,000 a year (accumulated from $200-an-hour photo sittings) and posing for over 60 magazine covers and several hundred advertisements. She appeared in everything from a cover story in Life in 1957 to the cover of Esquire in 1961, and offered something for everyone. Parker’s face was so ubiquitous that she was the first fashion model to reach status as a household name. When she posed in one of fashion’s first bikini shots while visiting the French Riviera, it was the shot heard ‘round the fashion world.
In the mid-1950s, as she tried to move beyond the constraints of the fashion world, Parker worked behind the camera for a time, apprenticing at the Paris studio of famed art photographer Henri Cartier–Bresson, before working as an editor for French Vogue. She continued to model in Paris, Rome, London, and New York and even became the inspiration for a film that would change her life.
New York to Hollywood
Naturally, Hollywood soon beckoned. In 1957, while at her modeling career’s zenith, Parker made her Tinsletown debut in the musical Funny Face, starring Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn. The film parodied fashion magazines and French couture and she performed in a number called “Think Pink,” which spoofed fashion editors such as her mentor, Diana Vreeland. It is interesting to note that Hepburn’s character in Stanley Donen’s musical comedy was loosely based on Parker and her professional relationship with Richard Avedon, with Astaire in the Svengali-esque Avedon role. The film symbolizes the best of high fashion in that era, and Hepburn and Parker became pals during the shoot. In fact, Hepburn became such a cheerleader that Parker called the swan-like actress her ”Hollywood press agent.” Perhaps Parker and film were a match made in heaven. ”Suzy Parker didn’t stop talking when I first tried to take her picture,” superstar fashion photographer Horst P. Horst once remarked. “So, I said, ‘You keep talking,’ and I left. When she got into the movies, I joked that maybe she would do for the movies what she would never do for me—to hold still.”
Parker’s first major role was opposite the legendary Cary Grant in Kiss Them for Me, also released in 1957. Jayne Mansfield played the female lead and the film proved an effective tool to display Parker’s graceful good looks. “I watched myself on the screen with a sort of frozen horror,” Parker said at the time, “And, I wasn’t at all surprised to learn it had a similar effect on the audience.” Announcing that she intended to become a good actress “if it kills me,” Parker moved on to other redeeming roles that lured audiences of the time. “Parker’s trademark in photographs and later on the movie screen was icy sophistication, often likened to that of Grace Kelly,” wrote New York Times writer Douglas Martin. “But in person she exuded a girl–next–door prettiness and a sort of wacky loquaciousness. Her thespian talents were not always favored by critics, but she was considered in New York and Hollywood circles to be entertaining, funny, and possess a meaningful intellect.”
In 1958, she co-starred with Gary Cooper in Ten North Frederick, in the role of Cooper’s much younger girlfriend, and with their torrid May-December affair, she costs him his family. To cap off the decade, she appeared in 1959’s The Best of Everything, a costume-laden melodrama, co-starring Hope Lange, Joan Crawford and Robert Evans, in which she played a secretary trying to become an actress. In that film, her character’s lines summed up her life at the time: “The only thing I want is to be free, to have no ties. To have, to hold, and then, to let go. Here’s to men: bless their clean cut faces and dirty little minds.”
Best Wife and Mother Her 1960 film, Circle of Deception, would change her life by introducing her to her co-star and future husband, Bradford Dillman, whom she married three years later. Parker later undertook guest spots on popular television shows such as Twilight Zone, Burke’s Law, Chrysler Theatre, and other popular shows of TV’s golden era. “She acted through the still camera brilliantly, but when she acted in front of the moving camera she was not so free and comfortable,” reveals her stepdaughter, Pamela Dillman Harman. “She said she wasn’t the actress she wanted to be, so she decided, ‘OK, I’m going to give up on this and devote my talents to being the best wife and mother,’ and she really was that.”
Moments from Parker’s past, though, are as inexplicable as her beauty. While engaged to actor and model Gardner McKay in1956, they were returning from Paris on the ocean liner ‘Ile de France’ and the ship stopped to pick up survivors of the Andrea Doria, the luxury ocean liner shipwreck that made international news at the time. In a terrible car accident in 1958, she broke both her arms and her father was killed when the car collided with a train in Saint Augustine, Florida. It was also revealed that, at 17, she had eloped from high school to marry a childhood sweetheart, Charles Staton. Later, it emerged that Parker had also been secretly married since 1955 to a French journalist and novelist, Pierre La Salle. However, it did not last, and they divorced in 1961. As Parker telling one interviewer, “Being married to a Frenchman is interesting—you hardly ever see your husband.” Parker once commented to a reporter that she believed the institution of marriage destroys love.
“All Suzy really wanted was love and a big family, which she finally achieved,” confided Dell’Orifice to us. Parker had escaped the jaded outcomes of other stellar models of her era and the Dillmans moved from Los Angeles to Montecito in 1968 to live a quieter life with their children. Together, they raised six children: Ms. Parker’s daughter Georgia from her marriage to La Salle, two children from Dillman’s previous relationship, and the three children they had together—Dinah, Charles, and Christopher.
Suzy Parker passed away in May 2003 at the age of 70 following a history of ill health and medical problems that included respiratory problems, diabetes and hip surgery. But despite her early passing, Parker proved that it’s better to savour youth while at its height, than to live it dully until the age of 100. She summed up her life best in a quote she gave to a journalist in the mid 1950s, “I don’t tell lies; I merely embellish stories—the truth is so dull.” One aspect of her life remains undeniably true; her life and beauty were anything but dull, and it continues to perpetuate the theory that many of the most beautiful women in the world are from Texas.