Dorian Leigh, Multifaceted Cover Girl of the ’40s, Dies at 91
Published: July 9, 2008
Dorian Leigh, who combined pristine blue eyes, curling eyelashes, an arresting intelligence and intoxicating sexuality to become one of history’s most photographed models — perhaps the first to truly merit the adjective super — died Monday in Falls Church, Va. She was 91.
Rawlings/Condé Nast Archive
Dorian Leigh as she appeared on the cover of a 1946 Vogue.
Ms. Leigh graced seven Vogue covers in 1946, according to a New Yorker magazine article of the time, and in the next six years appeared on more than 50 more covers of various magazines, Playbill reported.
Her images in Revlon’s “Fire and Ice” nail polish and lipstick campaign in the 1950s — “For you who love to flirt with fire …who dare to skate on thin ice” — were shot by Richard Avedon and became Madison Avenue legend.
“Dorian was truly the best model of our time,” Eileen Ford, the doyenne of the modeling agency industry, said in an interview with The Roanoke Times in 1997. “She instinctively knew what every photographer wanted, and she came alive just at the moment the shutter clicked.”
Cecil Beaton wrote in his book “Photobiography” (1951) that Ms. Leigh was as demanding as the eminent photographers who shot her, including Louise Dahl-Wolfe and Irving Penn.
He said she could convey many moods, including “the sweetness of an 18-century pastel, the allure of a Sargent portrait, of the poignancy of some unfortunate woman who sat for Modigliani.”
Ms. Leigh’s mystique was enhanced by her many romances, which included five marriages — counting the one in Mexico to a Spanish marquis who turned out to be already married. There were also the many real or imagined affairs with famous writers, musicians and photographers, eagerly tabulated by gossip columnists. Ms. Leigh was definitely attractive, standing 5 feet 5 inches, with an hourglass figure and an alluring smile.
“She had so much estrogen, like some men are full of testosterone,” Carmen Dell’Orefice, who started modeling in 1945, a year before Ms. Leigh, said in an interview with Vanity Fair in 2006. “Dorian was so sexy without saying a word. And she was her own person.”
Truman Capote called his friend Ms. Leigh “Happy-Go-Lucky,” and she had many similarities to Holly Golightly, the heroine of Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” — not least what Vanity Fair called her wayward lifestyle and reckless bravado.
(Gerald Clarke, Capote’s biographer, cautioned skepticism about this resemblance: “Half the women he knew, and a few he did not, claimed to be the model for his wacky heroine,” he wrote in 1988.)
It is incontrovertible that Ms. Leigh paved the way for her youngest sister, Suzy Parker, to become a supermodel, one who possibly eclipsed even Ms. Leigh. According to Vanity Fair, Ms. Leigh called Ms. Ford and made an offer that Ms. Ford was forever glad she accepted.
“I will come to your agency if you’ll tell me now you’ll take my little sister Suzy sight unseen,” she said. Ms. Parker died in 2003.
Dorian Parker was born on April 23, 1917, in San Antonio. Her daughter Young Eve Paciello said her middle name was Leigh, contradicting published reports that she picked up that name in adulthood on the advice of a numerologist.
The family later moved to Queens, where her father, a chemist and inventor, concocted an improved form of etching acid that made him rich.
Ms. Leigh attended what was then Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Va., majoring in English. While there, she married Marshall Hawkins, with whom she had two children; they were divorced in 1937. She later studied calculus at New York University and got a job working for the Navy doing mechanical drafting.
She next worked for the Eastern Aircraft Corporation, helping design airplane wings, beginning at 65 cents an hour and ending up at a dollar. When her eyes bothered her, she took a job with Republic Pictures as an apprentice copywriter.
There are many stories of how she fell into modeling, but all begin with her finding her way to the Harry Conover Agency. Mr. Conover advised her to go immediately to Harper’s Bazaar and tell the editor, Diana Vreeland, that she was 19. (She was 27.)
The first thing Ms. Vreeland said was never to touch her exquisite zigzag eyebrows. Dahl-Wolfe photographed her the next morning wearing a little black tulle hat trimmed with a pink rose. Ms. Leigh was on the cover of the June 1944 Harper’s Bazaar. Soon she was making $1 a minute, which she said astounded her.
Her father insisted she drop the name Parker, because he did not approve of modeling. (Ms. Leigh’s success caused him to change his mind about Suzy.)
Besides her daughter Ms. Paciello, of Northport, Ala., from her second marriage to Roger Mehle, Ms. Leigh is survived by a son from her first marriage, T. L. Hawkins of McLean, Va.; and a daughter from her marriage to Serge Bordat, Miranda Bordat; three grandchildren; and two step-grandchildren.
A daughter from her marriage to Mr. Hawkins, Marsha Lynn Smith, died in the early 1990s. A son, Kim Blas Parker, from her liaison with the Spanish racing-car driver and athlete Alfonso Cabeza de Vaca, marquis of Portago, committed suicide in 1977 at 21. Her last husband was Iddo Ben-Gurion, whom she married in 1964 and divorced two years later.
After modeling, Ms. Leigh opened what is usually called the first modeling agency in Paris, ran gourmet restaurants in France and had successful catering operations in the United States, among other endeavors. She wrote several books about food, including one about pancakes and another featuring fritters.
Perhaps mindful of models’ concerns about diet, she included a recipe in the fritter book for low-fat, low-cholesterol chocolate doughnuts.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: July 11, 2008
An obituary on Wednesday about Dorian Leigh, a prominent model in the 1940s and 1950s, misidentified the college she attended. It was Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Va., which changed its name to Randolph College in 2007. She did not attend Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va. Because of an editing error, the obituary also omitted the name of her second husband. He was Roger Mehle.