Luke Blackall: An 81-year-old model with a doctorate in living

Man About Town
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The Independent Online

The queues were for James Franco. Scores of people packed into a tiny screening room to hear the actor, writer and thinking woman's crumpet. It seemed that even the rarefied crowd at last weekend's Liberatum cultural festival in Berlin, could get a little starstruck. In the end, he was only there for a few minutes, answered no questions from the crowd and granted no interviews to the handful of press there.

This sort of elusiveness (combined with his textbook handsomeness) probably only helps to maintain his creative appeal.

Franco was in fine company in a list of speakers that included the Nobel Laureat Wole Soyinka, directors Stephen Frears and Jonas Akerlund, actress Kim Cattrall, and musician Marianne Faithfull.

To me, the most interesting speaker was Carmen Dell'Orefice, an 81-year-old model. I stumbled into the talk – held in one of the apartments in the local outpost of members' club Soho House – almost by accident, but she kept the room enthralled for an hour.

Warmer than many fashion grandees, but no less authentic, Dell'Orefice's career began in November 1945 (before pretty much everyone else in the room had been born), with her first Vogue cover in 1947.

During her career of being shot by the best in the business, such as Beaton and Parkinson, she should have money enough to have long retired, but has lost all her savings twice, first in the 1980s and then again more recently when she was caught up in her friend Bernie Madoff's ponzi scheme scandal. She has since had to start earning again as "money is the muscle of old age," she says.

She was, in her own words, "too old to sell my body" , so she chose instead to sell photographs of it and started modelling again. Her stories ranged from growing up impoverished in the 1930s to acting in Woody Allen movies and were punctuated with a stream of quips, bon mots and humour: "Plastic surgery? I think it's terrific."

Using her "doctorate in living", it was as much a talk from a motivational speaker as it was a discussion about post-war fashion.

By the end, the women in the room wanted to adopt her as an extra grandmother/best friend, while the men were trying to act like they didn't fancy her.

Either way, Franco had some serious competition.

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