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About Dorian Leigh
Dorian Leigh (April 23, 1917 – July 7, 2008), born Dorian Elizabeth Leigh Parker, was an American model and one of the earliest modelling icons of the fashion industry. She is considered one of the first supermodels and was well known in the United States and Europe.
Dorian Leigh Parker was born in San Antonio, Texas, to George and Elizabeth Parker. Her parents married when they were around 17 or 18 years old and Elizabeth promptly gave birth to three daughters in quick succession: Dorian (1917-2008), Florian (Cissie) (1918-2010), and Georgiabell (1919-?). Thirteen years after the birth of her last daughter, Elizabeth thought she was going through menopause and was shocked to discover that she was pregnant. She gave birth to her fourth daughter, Cecilia (1932-2003) (who became known as model/actress Suzy Parker). The family moved to Jackson Heights, Queens soon after Dorian's birth and later to Metuchen, NJ. There, George Parker invented a new form of etching acid, production of which gave him enough income to retire.
Dorian graduated from Newton High School in Queens, NY, in 1935 and enrolled at Randolph-Macon Women's College in Lynchburg, Virginia. In her autobiography, Dorian claimed that she was born in 1920 and graduated from high school at age 15 in 1935, because she took many classes because she loved learning and the school was overcrowded. This was not true. She also wrote that she was a 17-year-old college sophomore when she first married, when in fact, she was 20. At college, she met her first husband, Marshall Powell Hawkins, whom she married on a whim in North Carolina in 1937. They had two children: Thomas Lofton ("TL") Hawkins (1939) and Marsha Hawkins (1940). The couple separated in the 1940s.
Dorian then worked as a file clerk at a department store in Manhattan and as a tabulator keeping track of radio program ratings. Dorian found that she had an aptitude for math, mechanical engineering, and drawing. She began to go to night school at Rutgers and said she learned about mechanical engineering at New York University.
Dorian worked at Bell Laboratories and then, during World War II, she was a tool designer at Eastern Air Lines (with their Eastern Aircraft division). Dorian assisted in the design of airplane wings, beginning at 65 cents an hour and ending up with an hourly wage of $1.00. After failing to be promoted because she was a woman and because of a wartime freeze on positions, Dorian quit and took a job with Republic Pictures as an apprentice copywriter. While writing ad copy for the B movies Republic rented and distributed to movie houses, she was encouraged by a Mrs. Wayburn to try modeling.
Taking Mrs. Wayburn's advice, in 1944 Dorian had professional photos taken and went to the Harry Conover modeling agency. At 27, Dorian was not only old by modeling standards, but at barely 5'5", she was shorter than other models at the agency. Conover immediately sent her to see Diana Vreeland, the editor of Harper's Bazaar. Dorian met with Vreeland and fashion photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe, who were intrigued by her zig-zagged eyebrows. Vreeland warned her, "Do not-do not do anything to those eyebrows!" Vreeland asked Dorian to return the next day, to be photographed for the cover of the September 1944 issue of Harper's Bazaar, her very first modeling assignment. Conover told her to tell them she was 19 years old. Later they were shocked to discover her real age and that she already had two children.
Dorian's parents thought modeling was not respectable, so Dorian Leigh Parker used only her first and middle name during her career. When Dorian became an enormous success though, they thought it was acceptable that their youngest daughter, Suzy, use the Parker last name when she also became a famous model. Their other daughter, Florian, also had modeling photos in Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, but quit when she married a man in the military, and was living in Oahu when Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941. Florian was considered the ultimate beauty among the Parker girls.
Dorian instantly became busy with modeling assignments, landing on the covers of major magazines such as Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Paris Match, LIFE, and Elle. Because of her schedule, Dorian's two children were sent to live with her parents in Florida, while she was based in New York and traveling to Europe.
In 1946, Dorian appeared on the cover of six American Vogue magazines. She worked with famous fashion photographers Irving Penn, John Rawlings, Cecil Beaton, and Paul Radkai. On one assignment, she argued with Paul's wife Karen Radkai, who wanted to take many extra and free photos of Dorian for her portfolio. (Karen wanted to be a Vogue fashion photographer like her husband.) When Dorian balked at having to pose for Karen without being paid, she warned Dorian she would "ruin her". Indeed, Vogue never used Dorian again, and Karen became a Vogue photographer.
Dorian easily transitioned to working with Harper's Bazaar's new, young photographer, Richard Avedon. Avedon would become one of the most famous photographers in history.
Dorian also became well known for her advertising work for Revlon. Revlon began full-page,national, color advertisements around 1944. Dorian's first ad was for "Fatal Apple". This was followed by "Sheer Dynamite", "Ultraviolet", "Fashion Plate", and "Cherries in the Snow". In 1952, when she was 35-years-old, Richard Avedon photographed her for Revlon's most famous advertising campaign ever, Fire and Ice. In this two-page advertisement, Dorian is wearing a very tight, silver sequined gown wrapped in a huge red wrap that was copied from a Balenciaga original. The dress had hand-sewn sequins on it, and it took so long to create that only the front of the dress was finished in time to be photographed. The back was non-existent and held in place with safety pins. Dorian also had a silver streak in her black hair. The original ad had Dorian holding her hand in front of her breast. The agency considered the photo too risqué, and the ad was re-shot. This ad was accompanied by a provocative quiz written by Kay Daly. The ad became an enormous success, winning Advertising Age's "Magazine Advertisement of the Year" award.
Around 1947, Dorian's sister Cissy introduced her to Roger Mehle. He was divorced from Aileen Mehle, who later became the famous gossip columnist known as "Suzy", which coincidentally was Dorian's sister's name (Suzy Parker). Cissy was married to an army officer and Mehle was the youngest Navy commander during WWII. In August 1948, Dorian was two months pregnant when she married Mehle. Dorian's bridemaids were her teen sister "Suzy" Parker and Suzy's teen model friend Carmen Dell'Orefice. Dorian's two older children, who were being raised by her parents in Florida, came to live with the couple in Pennsylvania.
During her marriage to Mehle, Dorian became fed up with Harry Conover's agency. Conover's phones were often busy and it took a very long time for the clients to pay the models for their work. Dorian then decided to start her own modeling agency called the "Fashion Bureau". She came up with the idea of the "voucher system". With this innovative system, the modeling agency would pay the models weekly, instead of the models' having to wait to be paid directly by the clients.
One day at a photographer's studio, Dorian met a young fashion stylist named Eileen Ford. Ford asked how Dorian's modeling agency worked, and then decided to start an agency of her own. Eileen, along with her husband Gerard W. Ford, started what would become one of the most prestigious modeling agencies in the world, Ford Models.
Dorian closed her agency when she married. She then telephoned Eileen Ford and told her that she would join the Ford agency if they also signed her 15-year-old her sister, Suzy Parker, sight-unseen. Suzy Parker, 15 years younger than Dorian, had already been working for the Huntington Hartford agency making $25 per hour. Dorian told Ford she believed Suzy should be making $40 per hour. The Ford's agency was only two years old so they were anxious to represent a famous model like Dorian. They agreed to meet Dorian and Suzy for lunch. Dorian was thin, had an extremely small waist, and had black hair and bright blue eyes. The Fords were shocked during their initial meeting to see that Suzy was almost six inches taller than Dorian, had a very large frame, and had bright red hair with green eyes. In the 1950s, Suzy would become even more famous than Dorian, and would go on to be a movie and television actress.
Dorian gave birth to her daughter, Young Mehle, on March 27, 1949. The couple had a house in Bucks County, Pennsylvania but rarely saw each other. Mehle's career stationed him in Atlantic City, and Dorian commuted to New York City and Paris for modeling work. Dorian also began to work more often in Europe with Richard Avedon. In 1952, Dorian also played the part of a model in the play The Fifth Season. Her job as model, mother, and actress was featured in Look magazine's June 2, 1953, cover story. By then, Dorian had appeared on the covers of more than 50 magazines. On the Look cover, Dorian is quoted as saying, "I would rather have a baby than a mink coat."
The previous summer in Paris, she had met the Spanish athlete Alfonzo Cabeza de Vaca, Marquis of Portago (Alfonso de Portago). Dorian's children again were sent to live with her parents in Florida. Alfonso ("Fon"), was 11-years-younger than Dorian. She was still married to Mehle. Portago was also married, to an older, American showgirl named Carroll McDaniel (who later married Milton Petrie). Portago also had a three-year-old daughter with Carroll (Andrea de Portago), who would grow up to be a photographer and model. "Fon" told Dorian that years before, he had seen her "Ultraviolet" Revlon ad in a drugstore in Spain and was captivated. Dorian and "Fon" were both reluctant to divorce their spouses, but carried on an affair all summer in Paris and Biarritz. Dorian became pregnant by him, but chose to have an abortion because she feared Mehle would divorce her and take full-custody of their daughter Young. Only weeks later, at the end of the summer, Fon told Dorian that Carroll was pregnant with his second child. Dorian returned to the United States and divorced Mehle on November 24, 1954 in Mexico. Fon then "married" Dorian in Mexico right away, but since de Portago was not divorced, the marriage was not legal.
Dorian continued her affair with "Fon" even though his wife Carroll gave birth to their son Anthony de Portago around 1954. Coco Chanel, Suzy's great friend, told Dorian that she was "throwing her life away on an idiot." Despite Chanel's warning, Dorian got pregnant by de Portago again, even though he was still married. To avoid a scandalous, illegitimate pregnancy and gossip columnists in the United States, Dorian left her three other children with her parents in Florida, and fled to Paris and Switzerland. In Switzerland, Dorian spent time with Charlie Chaplin's large family before giving birth to her son Kim Blas Parker on September 27, 1955. Dorian did not tell her parents about this child, and instead lied and told her family that she was in a tuberculosis clinic. Dorian and de Portago continued an on-and-off relationship in 1956 and 1957. Suzy in the meantime, was furious that Dorian had lied to her parents and was not taking care of her three other children.
Life after modeling
Living in France with her baby son Kim, Dorian was nearing 40. Her career as a model was coming to a close so Dorian began the first legal modeling agency in France to support her son. She also had lent the financially irresponsible de Portago about $15,000.
De Portago, still married, was now dating Linda Christian in early 1957. On April 23, 1957, Dorian's 40th birthday, de Portago told Dorian that he was supposedly finally divorcing Carroll so they could be legally married. He told her that he was entering the famous Mille Miglia car race in Italy on May 8, and Carroll was supposed to sign their divorce papers on May 9. Instead, on May 8, Dorian received a phone call from de Portago's mother Olga, informing Dorian that Fon's tire on his Ferrari race car had blown up because he did not stop in time for a tire change. Fon and his co-driver Edmund Nelson were mutilated and killed. When the tire exploded, he lost control of the car and killed 10-13 spectators as well, including several children. This catastrophe ended the Mille Miglia forever. Carroll did not sign any divorce papers since he was dead.
A few days after Alfonso de Portago was killed, Dorian's sister Suzy, making a movie with Cary Grant, told famous gossip columnist Louella Parsons that Dorian had a son with de Portago and she was estranged from her sister because of it. Dorian was shocked that Suzy leaked this secret and Dorian's parents only learned about this child reading it in the newspaper. Dorian's parents were furious and told Dorian that she would never have custody of her children. They also refused to accept Kim.
In 1957, Dorian returned to Florida and visited Young at her parent's home. Dorian then took Young and fled to Paris. She remained mostly in France for the next twenty-one years. Dorian's two older children had graduated high school. Dorian continued her modeling agency in Paris and became pregnant by yet another man in 1958. While in the hospital in Paris on June 6, 1958, Dorian received news that Suzy and her father had been in a serious car accident. Suzy's father supposedly did not see or hear a train and drove onto the tracks where the train slammed into his car. Their father was killed. Suzy had broken arms and was hospitalized for three months. Dorian then had her gynecologist, Serge Bordat, abort the baby. Days later, she suddenly married Bordat.
Although Dorian already had four children by three different men, she wanted another baby. Bordat claimed he was too young. Dorian moved out of their apartment, but they remained married. Dorian was so busy with her Paris modeling agency that she now had branches in Hamburg, Germany and London. Dorian often traveled to these offices. During a solo ski vacation to Klosters over Christmas 1960, Dorian craved a baby and slept with four men in one week. Three months later, her husband found out through one of Dorian's models that she was pregnant by one of these men. In September 1961, Dorian gave birth to her fifth child, Miranda in France. Dorian thought that a young ski instructor at Klosters was the father. Dorian then divorced Bordat. Dorian did not tell Miranda that Dr. Bordat was not her father until she was a teenager and despite never meeting him, she kept his last name.
In 1964, 47-year-old Dorian met 23-year-old Israeli writer Iddo Ben-Gurion and they were married. Dorian discovered Iddo was a drug-addict who was embezzling money from her modeling agencies. Dorian divorced him in 1964 and she remained single for the next forty-four years of her life until her death in 2008. Dorian eventually had to close her agencies because so much money was stolen by Iddo. Most of her modeling fortune had been spent recklessly or stolen.
In 1972, Dorian became a born-again Christian at the urging of her sister Georgibell and her daughter Young. Living in Paris, Dorian studied at Le Cordon Bleu and opened her own restaurant, Chez Dorian, from 1973 to 1975. She tried to get cooking jobs in Corsica and Orleans as well. By 1976, Dorian was broke.
In 1977, Dorian received a phone call from the New York City modeling agency Stewart Cowley asking her to work as his office manager. Dorian agreed to return to New York where her son Kim was staying. Kim's half-brother Anthony de Portago also lived in New York City and the two actually had become good friends. Dorian soon discovered that her 21-year-old son (Kim) was a serious drug addict. Only six months after she re-settled and reunited with Kim in New York, he jumped 33 floors from his apartment window to his death, leaving a suicide note behind. On March 6, 1990, Kim's half-brother Anthony died of AIDS.
After Kim's death, Dorian lived in Pound Ridge, New York, where she made pâtés for delicatessens and specialty food shops, according to a profile in The New York Times by Enid Nemy. She also worked with Martha Stewart in the early 1980s.
Dorian wrote two cookbooks, Pancakes: From Flapjacks to Crepes (1987) and Doughnuts: Over 3 Dozen Crullers, Fritters and Other Treats (1994) at the age of 77.
In 1980, Leigh published an autobiography, The Girl Who Had Everything (Doubleday).
According to Leigh, she wrote her autobiography for her late son: "I really wrote it for Kim, who will never read it. But perhaps other Kims and their parents may learn from my unhappy experiences ".
Dorian Leigh died in a Falls Church, Virginia nursing home from Alzheimer's disease at the age of 91 in 2008. In her obituary, her first son, T.L. Hawkins, reminisced about his mother's famous "Fire and Ice" photograph.
Leigh was survived by three of her five children; her son Kim and daughter Marsha pre-deceased her. She was also survived by grandchildren and one remaining Parker sister, Florian, who died at the age of 92 in 2010.