Monday, 12 March 2012

Last-Year Girl: Dorian Leigh

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"When I was at the peak of my success as a model, I did feel I had everything. I wore the most beautiful clothes, was photographed by the world's greatest photographers, travelled all over the world, had all the money I needed, was pursued by men whose names were household words, was offered stage and screen careers. I was able to make my baby sisters as famous and successful as I was I had five beautiful children whom I love. As the song goes, who could ask for anything more?"

That's taken from the conclusion to Dorian Leigh's autobiography The Girl Who Had EverythingLeigh was one of the world's first and most successful models. As the quote and the title of her book suggests, her life was pretty amazing - including being the inspiration for one of the 1950s, if not culture's, most famous characters, Holly Golightly - and also came with a flip side: financial ruin and a string of unfortunate relationships, with four/five husbands (it depends if you include the one who was a bigamist) to her name. Add together those factors and not forgetting her immense beauty, and you've got all the ingredients for a compelling story. 


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Dorian came late to the world of modelling, aged 27 and with a degree in mechanical engineering successfully under her belt. Despite her height, a small five foot five, she meets Diana Vreeland who begs her not to do anything with eyebrows, gets her photographed by Louise Dahl-Wolfe and puts her on the path to fairly immediate fame and fortune. Her autobiography tends to make light of the actual modelling, focusing instead on her many and complicated relationships. She writes how, if someone didn't like something about her she said to herself, "'Well, that's alright; someone will like me the way I am' and went right on posing."

That somewhat typically undersells her role in the development of fashion photography, acting as muse first to Irving Penn and then to Richard Avedon with whom she did the Revlon "Fire and Ice" campaign which made her a household name. 





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She could capture the appeal of an Avedon image perfectly, "An Avedon fashion photograph was just real enough to make a fashion minded woman feel she could look the way the model did. To accomplish that, Dick needed something more than a "coat hanger" type of model who simply looked good in clothes. He needed a model who could express her relationship to the setting, an actress." In Model Girl, Jean Dawnay marvels on seeing the two interact together, Dorian leaping around the set, with her lively features, pulling faces like a monkey, instinctively getting what Avedon wanted to portray - from Jean's description it's easy to see how the two pushed at the static and somewhat staid fashion photography of the time.




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Dorian was running her own agency in Paris when she claims she encounters a young Eileen Ford, working as a stylist, who asked her all about how to run an agency before, of course, going off to start her own. It was then Eileen Dorian approached about taking on her sister as a model, the then unknown Suzy Parker. Eileen agreed, on the condition she got Dorian as part of the deal too. This turned out to be an amazing deal, as the tall red-haired Suzy became as successful, arguably more so, than Dorian. In her piece in Beauty Now and Forever, Suzy sweetly dedicates her success to her sister (who at this point had probably fallen on tougher times, as well as out of favour with Eileen). 

It wasn't only in looks that the sister's differed, Suzy has been quoted as saying, "We're as different as day is night. Dorian has a very intellectual approach to things. I'm more practical. She sows her oats and never looks back, and when she does look back, she writes her script the way she wants to write it." Although never coy about her relationships, you do get the sense of Dorian writing her own script as you read the book: both in how she looks back on certain relationships or occasions or in her forthright attitude to life. 

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Though she wrote her autobiography after becoming a born again Christian, and after taking note of Suzy's words, Dorian appears to be refreshingly honest about the men in her life. She writes, "being a model not only increased the number of men in my life, but definitely improved their quality and attractiveness. It was far too easy for me to say yes to an invitation and almost impossible to say no. Consequently I was always making more dates that I could keep, which meant I had to be very inventive with reasons why I didn't show up." Remind you of anyone? Well, it's about this time she was living near Truman Capote, who nicknamed her "Happy-Go-Lucky", apparently used to climb into her apartment via the fire escape for chats until the early hours, and used to play with her cats. Some of Dorian eventually became part of his most famous character, Holly Golightly. Apparently Capote even used to greet Dorian as "my creation".

Look up Dorian Leigh and there's hundreds of quotes that tell you how beautiful she is. In terms of her modelling, I like the Emerick Bronson's comment that,"When I pointed a camera at Dorian, I felt like seven 5000 watt lamps had been lit and were looking at me", but in terms of personality, I love this one from Auro Varani, who is apparently the man who invented the model comp card: "Dorian Leigh wasn't much of a business woman but goddamn, she was fun, and she had more guts than anyone I know." Dorian died in 1998, aged 91, having lived what reads like a full, fascinating and fearless life.

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2 comments:

  1. The photo of the woman in the bouffant dress and long black gloves is not Dorian. It is Mary Jane Russell

    Berenice de la Salle

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you for letting me know - you'll see that I've deleted that picture from the post. Thanks, Frances

    ReplyDelete

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