Between 1947 and 2007 Eileen Ford created the largest and longest lasting model agency the world has ever seen, famed for its blonde and slinky beauties whose thighs would stretch for miles. If you booked a Ford model, you got Ferrari and Porsche glamour—with Rolls-Royce prestige and prices: Jerry Hall, Lauren Hutton, Christie Brinkley, Christie Turlington, the young Naomi Campbell – and, most enduringly of all, Carmen Dell’Orefice, who first modeled for Vogue in 1947, and is still modeling today, with two new hips and two new knees, at the age of 84.
Carmen Dell’Orefice was barely sixteen years old when, skinny, and flat-chested, she attracted the attention of Vogue photographer Erwin Blumenfeld, who took her round to Second Avenue, where Eileen Ford was just opening her new agency over a funeral parlor with her recently de-mobbed naval officer husband Jerry.
“This young lady is going to be a star,” announced Blumenfeld. “Take my word, the camera loves her.”
“If you say so, Blumenfeld,” replied Eileen, not totally convinced by the shy bag of bones in front of her, but happy to poach this young talent from New York’s rival agencies, which were all run in those days by middle-aged men.
“I had been earning seven dollars fifty per hour,” remembers Carmen, who also remembers plumping herself out for the encounter with tissues in her bra. “Eileen doubled my rate at once. In my first week, I worked five days at thirty dollars a day. But she also told me that she didn’t mind if I took work from other agencies. She knew that my mother and I needed the money.”
Dell’Orefice came from a broken home. Her father, a symphony violinist, had left the family when she was a baby, endowing her only with her extraordinary surname and her still more extraordinary cheekbones. The thin, sickly little girl—she was bedridden with rheumatic fever for most of a year—grew up with her mother in a fourth-floor walk-up beside the elevated railway on Third Avenue.
When Vogue needed her for a job, the magazine would dispatch a message via a runner, since her apartment had no telephone. Her mother earned pin money as a seamstress and made her daughter’s clothes from precut Vogue patterns.
“It was deeply embarrassing,” remembers Dell’Orefice today. “I still looked like a coat hanger. But we could not afford anything else. When I got paid for a job, it meant we could pay the power bill for another month—and I was able to pay for my own braces.”
Eileen Ford became the young model’s confidante and mentor, while Jerry Ford (no relation to the US senator and President) became effectively her business manager, teaching Carmen how to set aside part of her income to pay her taxes.
“Eileen and Jerry were truly a class act,” Carmen recalls today. “By some happy instinct—taste, nose, eye, or however you might describe it—Eileen could pick out the talent, while Jerry handled the business side. He was such a quality guy, and they had this ability to make everyone feel like family.”
She fondly recalls the riotous Ford Christmas parties, complete with balloons and streamers, at which Eileen would call out a name and fling her present across the room, with everyone cheering or jeering wildly depending on whether the recipient caught the present or dropped it.
“Eileen and Jerry worked hard and played hard,” she recalls, “and they were very generous to all of us. Eileen organized a huge wedding shower for every one of my three marriages—until I worked out that I didn’t have to marry the guy every time.”
From the start of her career Eileen Ford prided herself on shielding her “girls” from the predatory males who lurked in the fashion business, from lascivious photographers to clients looking for extra favors.
“She could be really fierce,” Carmen recalls. “If a girl came back to the office with any story of trouble, Eileen would get straight on the phone and bawl the guy out. He would be lucky to hire a Ford model again.”
Nor was Eileen afraid to direct her fierceness in her own models’ direction – making sure they got up early every morning to get to their first jobs on time. Ford models became the aristocrats of their profession not only on account of their extra sparkle and slenderness, but also for their mental discipline and punctuality.
“We were known in the business,” recalls Carmen, “for arriving on time with every accessory needed in our model bags, from spare eyelashes to extra hairpieces. In those days we usually did our own hair – and our make-up too.”
It all made for a sisterliness in which Eileen and Carmen became close friends, sharing secrets that ranged from family problems to locating the best plastic surgeon to keep the years at bay. “What else can you do,” Carmen liked to ask, “when the ceiling of your living room is falling in? Don’t you call the plasterer?”
Shortly before Eileen’s death in the summer of 2014, the two women celebrated her ninety-second birthday at her favorite watering hole, New York’s famed Le Cirque restaurant, with her children and a small group of friends. “She was looking magnificent,” remembers Carmen—“happy and laughing, and as Escada-ed as ever.”
In October that year, the New York Times’ Bill Cunningham shot a charming video of the glamorous guests at the great agent’s memorial service, a parade of beauties who lit up Fifth Avenue – and he singled out Carmen in particular for her poignant choice of clothes. Like her fellow Ford model, Christie Brinkley, Carmen had chosen to wear an elegant black trouser with a long, brightly colored silk scarf in tribute to her best friend. The vivid splash of color, declared Cunningham, showed “celebration amidst the mourning.”
Extracted and adapted from Model Woman: Eileen Ford and the Business of Beauty by Robert Lacey, published by HarperCollins: