Suzy Parker

Suzy Parker (October 28, 1932 – May 3, 2003) was an American model and actress active from 1947 into the early 1960s. Her modeling career reached its zenith during the 1950s when she appeared on the cover of dozens of magazines, advertisements, and in movie and television roles.

She appeared in several Revlon advertisements, but she also appeared in advertisements for many other cosmetic companies as well, as no model had an exclusive make-up contract until Lauren Hutton (for Revlon and Revlon’s Ultima) and Karen Graham (Estée Lauder) signed them in the early 1970s. She was the first model to earn $100,000 per year and the only fashion model to have a Beatles song named after her, even if an unreleased one.

Suzy Parker was born Cecilia Ann Renee Parker in San Antonio, Texas, to George (May 27, 1895 – June 7, 1958) and Elizabeth Parker (December 31, 1897 – November 1965). Her parents married around 1916. They had three daughters in a row: Dorian (1917), Georgiabell (1918), Florian (1919). Fifteen years after the birth of her first daughter, Elizabeth thought she was going through menopause. Instead, she was five months pregnant when she learned she was expecting another baby. Elizabeth’s fourth daughter, was named after her three friends. Dorian told her mom to arrange the names in order- Cecilia Renee Ann Parker so she would have obscene initials. Her parents eventually caught on to Dorian’s games. Her father didn’t like the name and called her Susie. A French Vogue photographer changed the spelling to Suzy.

Parkers’s family later moved to Highland Park, New Jersey, and to Florida. It was her 30-year-old sister, Dorian, who introduced her to agent Eileen Ford when she was just 15 years old.

Three of the Parker sisters were very tall, standing between 5’10″ and 6’1″. Dorian was the sole exception, standing 5’5″. In 1944, Dorian was writing advertising copy when a co-worker encouraged Dorian to go to the Conover Modeling Agency to try modeling. (The agency of Harry Sayles Conover [1911, Chicago, Ill.–1965, New York City] was active 1939–1959.)

One of Dorian’s first advertisements was for Revlon. Charles Revson (who later wanted to marry her) hired her for “Fatal Apple,” one of Revlon’s first all-color, nationwide ads.

Dorian was one of the top models in the world, arguably referred to as the “world’s first supermodel” (along with Lisa Fonssagrives). When Parker was about age 15, Dorian telephoned The Ford Modeling Agency and told Eileen and Jerry Ford that she would sign on with them if they also took her younger sister, sight unseen. Anxious to represent Dorian, they agreed. Expecting to meet a similarly petite, extremely thin, flawless, pale-faced, electric blue-eyed, raven-haired younger version of Dorian, they were shocked to meet Suzy for the first time at a restaurant. At the meeting, the Fords said, “Oh, my God!” Parker was already 5’10″, big-boned, and had carrot red hair, pale-green eyes, and freckles. She later became more famous than Dorian.

Parker’s photo appeared in Life magazine at age 15. That same year, one of her first magazine advertisements was for DeRosa Jewelry. Although she still lived with her parents in Florida, she stayed in New York City with Dorian when she had modeling assignments there. Dorian introduced Suzy to her fashion-photographer friends, Irving Penn, Horst P. Horst, John Rawlings, and a young Richard Avedon. Suzy became Avedon’s muse. At age 61, she said, “The only joy I ever got out of modeling was working with Dick Avedon.”

Parker became the so-called signature face of the Coco Chanel brand. Chanel herself became a close confidante, giving Parker advice on men and money as well as creating numerous Chanel outfits for her.

She was the first model to earn $200 per hour and $100,000 per year. Vogue declared her one of the faces of the confident, post-war American woman.

However, by 1955, she owed income taxes on her modeling income from previous years, amounting to more than $60,000 in back taxes and rapidly accumulating penalties, an enormous amount at the time. Jerry Ford paid her tax bill and found her assignments. She worked also non-stop for Vogue, Revlon, Hertz, Westinghouse, Max Factor, Bliss, DuPont, Simplicity, Smirnoff, and Ronson shavers, to name a few. She also was on the covers of about 70 magazines around the world, including Vogue, Elle, Life, Look, Redbook, Paris Match and McCall’s.

Avedon suggested Parker for the movie Funny Face (1957). Fred Astaire’s role was based on Avedon, whose photos appeared in the movie. Audrey Hepburn’s role was inspired by Suzy, just as Hepburn’s role in Breakfast at Tiffany’s was supposedly based on Dorian’s promiscuous lifestyle. Suzy appeared in the movie for only about two minutes.

Her other credits included Kiss Them for Me opposite Cary Grant (1957), The Best of Everything (1959), Ten North Frederick starring Gary Cooper (1959), Circle of Deception (1960) during which she met future husband Bradford Dillman, Flight from Ashiya (1964), Chamber of Horrors (1966) and dramatic roles in TV shows such as Burke’s Law and The Twilight Zone plus appearances as herself on a number of quiz shows like I’ve Got a Secret.

After marrying her third husband, Dillman, in 1963, and suffering further injuries in another car accident in 1964, she mostly retired from modeling and acting to live a quiet life in Montecito, California, with her family.

Parker was married three times. In 1950, she and high-school sweetheart, Ronald (last name unknown), drove to Georgia to secretly marry. Some references however state that her first husband’s name was Charles. Parker said that she married him in a bikini with a raincoat on top, adding, “He was very good-looking, and it [the marriage] was just a sheer disaster.” The young couple drove back to Florida where she was still living with her parents who were upset because of her age and because Ronald was part Cherokee. They moved to Pennsylvania and rented a house near where Dorian was living with her husband and children. Parker was already modeling in the United States and Europe while Ronald was attending the University of Pennsylvania as a freshman.

Parker met journalist Pierre de la Salle (Pitou) at a Jacques Fath party outside of Paris. She and Dorian were modeling together and separately on this trip with photographer Richard Avedon. She came back to the United States and asked Ronald for a divorce. Ronald would only agree to a quick divorce if Parker gave him a large monetary settlement and paid for plastic surgery on his nose and his acting lessons. She agreed, and they obtained a quick divorce in Mexico, which became final in 1953. Purportedly when Ronald could not get acting jobs, he committed suicide. Parker and Pierre continued to date for years despite Pierre’s numerous infidelities. She also was paying for his high cost-of-living expenses. They married about 1957 or 1958, but the couple kept it a secret.

In 1958, Parker was a passenger in a car her father was driving when they were hit by an oncoming train. Supposedly neither heard nor saw the train until it slammed into the car. Her father died of his injuries at the hospital. Parker checked into the hospital with broken bones and embedded glass (with her face untouched) under the name Mrs. Pierre de la Salle. The press jumped on this, and Pierre continued to deny that they were married. Soon thereafter, a photo spread of the couple appeared in the August 19, 1958, Look magazine cover story about her. Parker began psychotherapy to cope with her rocky marriage and the death of her beloved father.

After recovering from her injuries, Parker became pregnant and Pierre left. She said, “He didn’t want to be a father. I already hired a nanny… he was gone, history.” She gave birth to their daughter Georgia Belle Florian Coco Chanel de la Salle in December 1959, whose godmother was close-friend Chanel. A March 14, 1977, People magazine article featured Parker trying to launch her then 17-year-old daughter Georgia as a model. However, Georgia modeled only a few times during and after college. By 2006, Georgia’s father Pierre de la Salle was in his 70s and living with then-wife Berenice, whom he married in 1977, in Mammoth Lakes, California.

In 1960, Parker met actor Bradford Dillman on the set of their movie, Circle of Deception. She was still married to de la Salle but no longer living with him. Bradford was ending his first marriage and dating Juliette Greco at the time. She obtained a divorce and married Bradford in 1963 on board a boat at sea. She changed her name to Suzy Parker Dillman following the marriage.

Parker mostly retired from modeling and acting by 1964. After she married Dillman, she also became a stepmother to his two children, Jeffrey and Pamela and wanted to stay home to be a mother and cook. Like her sister Dorian Leigh, who was a Cordon-bleu level chef, Suzy was also an excellent cook.

She had three more children with Bradford: Dinah (b. 1965), Charlie (b. 1967), and Christopher (b. 1969). The family lived in the Bel-Air district of Los Angeles until Dinah was bitten by a rattlesnake in the yard and almost died. They then moved to Montecito in the Santa Barbara area, where Suzy remained until her death in 2003.

A self-described tomboy in her teens, she broke several bones as a result. Parker also broke bones in a serious car accident in 1958 that killed her father. In 1964 she was nervously rehearsing for her famous appearance in the well-known Twilight Zone episode “Number 12 Looks Just Like You” when she was in another car accident. Parker had long suffered from allergies and, in the 1990s, developed ulcers. During surgery for an ulcer, her vital signs disappeared on the operating table, but she was resuscitated. She never fully recovered and developed more ulcers and diabetes. She had multiple hip surgeries, and then her kidneys began to fail. She spent the last five years of her life in and out of the hospital.

Parker decided to end dialysis treatments. She returned home to die surrounded by family at her orchard in Montecito where she died at aged 70 on May 3, 2003. She was survived by two of her three sisters: Dorian Leigh (who died in 2008 at the age 91 and reportedly did not attend her sister’s funeral due to a long estrangement) and Florian (“Cissie”, “Cissy”), as of 2009, the sole surviving Parker sister. Her husband, Bradford Dillman, her four children, and two stepchildren also survived her.

Comments

One Response to “Suzy Parker”
  1. Gal_Friday_101 says:

    Such an iconic woman. That Milton Greene LIFE cover of her in the red dress and wrap kind of sums up fashion photography (for me).

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