Dorian Leigh: 'Supermodel' of the 1940s

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The Independent Online

An icon whose look and style defined the fashion world of the 1940s, Dorian Leigh is widely regarded as having been the first "supermodel". In 1946 she appeared on seven Vogue covers, and over the next six years was on more than 50 covers of such magazines as Life, Look and McCall's. In the early 1950s, she featured in a series of famous images for Revlon's "Fire and Ice" campaign promoting nail-polish and lipstick ("For you who love to flirt with fire; who dare to skate on thin ice"), ravishingly shot in a jewelled dress and red cape by Richard Avedon.

In the post-war period, fashion magazines were expanding their readership beyond the super-wealthy, and the top models were becoming as well-known as movie stars. Leigh's blue-eyed beauty and seductive smile was complemented by what Vanity Fair called "a wayward lifestyle and reckless bravado". Her affairs with the famous kept her on the front pages, and she married four times. A friend of the writer Truman Capote, who called her "Happy Go-Lucky", Leigh is thought to have been the inspiration for his most famous literary creation Holly Golightly, the free-spirited heroine of his novella Breakfast at Tiffany's. Leigh's sister, Suzy Parker, 15 years her junior, was to become an equally celebrated model.

The eldest of four daughters, she was born Dorian Elizabeth Leigh Parker in San Antonio, Texas in 1917. Her family later moved to Queens, New York, where her father, a chemist and inventor, devised a form of etching acid that made him rich. Her mother, Elizabeth Kirkpatrick, was descended from a Scottish line noted for the beauty of its women. Elizabeth's first three daughters were born in consecutive years, but while Dorian's sisters, Florian (known as Cissie) and Georgiebell, were six feet tall, Dorian was only 5ft 5in, a petite, brunette beauty with Persian-blue eyes who shone at school, read voraciously and became her mother's favourite. Cissie recalled, "The [family's] seamstress would go to a movie and sit through it many times because there was a dress that Dorian wanted in that movie. Mother loved us. It's just that Dorian was it."

While studying at Randolph Macon Women's College in Virginia, where she majored in English, Dorian met and married Marshall Hawkins, with whom she had two children before divorcing him in 1937. She then studied mathematics at New York University, and took jobs doing mechanical drafting for the Navy and designing aircraft wings for the Eastern Aircraft Corporation. She was working at Republic Pictures as an apprentice copywriter when she was persuaded to apply for modelling work at the Harry Conover Agency, even though by prevailing standards she was both too short and too old. "As far as I was concerned," she stated, "modelling was just showing off."

Conover advised her to see Diana Vreeland, editor of Harper's Bazaar, but to lie that her age was 19 (she was actually 27). Vreeland was immediately impressed, advised her never to change her curved eyebrows, and put her on the cover of the June 1944 edition of Harper's Bazaar, for which she was photographed by Louise Dahl-Wolfe in a little black tulle hat trimmed with a pink rose. Within months, she was acknowledged as one of the beauties of the era. Her contemporary, Carmen Dell'Orefice, still modelling today, says: "There was Vivien Leigh, Hedy Lamarr and Dorian Leigh."

In 1947 Dorian Leigh joined the prestigious Ford modelling agency, and its founder Eileen Ford commented, "She instinctively knew what every photographer wanted, and she came alive just at the moment the shutter clicked." Leigh consented to join the Ford agency only if they would take her "little sister Suzy", a condition that Ford was later glad that she met. Suzy Parker had been a late, unexpected, child (born 1932), and had become her father's favourite. A strict Baptist, he had not approved of Leigh's career so had asked her not to use the name Parker, but he agreed to Suzy doing so. "Mother lived through Dorian and Daddy lived through Suzy," said Cissie.

Leigh's many lovers included the jazz musicians Dizzy Gillespie and Buddy Rich, the photographer Irving Penn, the singer Harry Belafonte, the producer Sam Spiegel, the writer Irwin Shaw and the poet Robert Graves. To the accusation that she favoured men who were "young, good-looking and broke", because they could accompany her on assignments and be waiting for her, she replied, "If I had to pay some bills to make that possible, it was only money and I happened to have it."

One of her great loves was a married man, Alfonso Cabeza de Vaca y Leighton, the 19th Marquis de Portago, but shortly before their Mexican marriage was due to become legalised in 1957, his racing car crashed during the Mille Miglia race in Italy, killing him, along with his co-driver and 12 spectators The couple's son, Kim, born in 1955, became a drug addict and committed suicide at the age of 21, after which the distraught Leigh became a born-again Christian.

In 1953 Leigh joined the Broadway cast of the hit comedy The Fifth Season, playing in the show for over a year, and she appeared in two French films, Anna La Bonne (1958), a one-reel short based on a poem by Cocteau, and Les Mauvais Coups (Naked Autumn, 1962), starring Simone Signoret.

At the age of 40, she moved to Paris, where with Eileen Ford she opened France's first modelling agency. Developing her love of cuisine, she studied at the Cordon Bleu cookery school in Paris and opened a successful restaurant, Chez Dorian, outside Paris. In the 1970s she returned to New York and in 1980 wrote an autobiography, The Girl Who Had Everything. "I wrote it for Kim, although he will never read it," she said. "Perhaps other Kims and their parents may learn from my unhappy experiences."

Tom Vallance

Dorian Elizabeth Leigh Parker (Dorian Leigh), model: born San Antonio, Texas 23 April 1917; married first Marshall Hawkins (one son, and one daughter deceased; marriage dissolved 1937), secondly Roger Mehle (one daughter; marriage dissolved), thirdly Serge Bordat (one daughter; marriage dissolved), fourthly 1964 Iddo Ben Gurion (marriage dissolved 1966), (one son deceased with Alfonso Cabeza de Vaca y Leighton); died Falls Church, Virginia 7 July 2008.