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Dorian Leigh, 91; Star Model of '40s, '50s

Dorian Leigh was the face of Revlon and a favorite of photographer Richard Avedon.
Dorian Leigh was the face of Revlon and a favorite of photographer Richard Avedon. (Family Photo)

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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 10, 2008

Dorian Leigh, 91, one of the world's first supermodels whose signature work for Revlon's "Fire and Ice" advertisements remains legendary on Madison Avenue, died July 7 at Sunrise of Falls Church. She had Alzheimer's disease.

Ms. Leigh, whose stunning appearance was matched by a fierce intelligence and entrepreneurial talent, dominated magazine covers and fashion advertisements in the 1940s and 1950s. Projecting an elegant, sophisticated air and a sizzling sexuality, the 5-foot-5, 95-pound beauty with Persian-blue eyes and beguiling zigzag eyebrows mesmerized photographer Richard Avedon and many other well-known men.

"Dorian had . . . this tiny waistline and these tiny ankles and high-heeled shoes," model Carmen Dell'Orefice told Vanity Fair two years ago, "and she would walk in -- I tell you she had so much estrogen, like some men are full of testosterone. Dorian was just so sexy without saying a word."

Ms. Leigh founded a successful modeling agency in Paris and ran it for eight years before opening a restaurant in France in the mid-1960s. She later cooked for domestic diva Martha Stewart, ran her own catering business in New York and Washington and wrote several well-received cookbooks and an autobiography.

Until Ms. Leigh rocketed to fame with Revlon's "Fire and Ice" and "Cherries in the Snow" campaigns in the early 1950s, it was unusual for models to be known by name. She claimed to be making $300,000 a year.

She joined the legendary Ford Agency on the condition that her younger sister be accepted as well, sight unseen. It was pure luck for Ford; the sister was Suzy Parker, who became even more popular and successful in the field than Ms. Leigh. Parker died in 2003.

"Dorian was born to be a model," agency owner Eileen Ford once said. "She could -- just by looking at a camera -- make you feel an emotion."

Ms. Leigh, who had less respect for the profession, declared in a 1953 Look magazine article, "I'd rather have a baby than a mink coat." She eventually had five children, by three of her husbands and one of her many lovers.

Truman Capote, a friend and admirer, dubbed her "Happy Go Lucky," and Ms. Leigh believed that she was the inspiration for the Holly Golightly character in Capote's "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Many other women claimed to be the inspiration for the fictional heroine as well, including Ms. Leigh's sister Suzy.

Born Dorian Elizabeth Leigh Parker in San Antonio, the oldest of four daughters, she attended Randolph-Macon Woman's College (now Randolph College) in Lynchburg, Va., but left when she married for the first time. She also studied engineering at New York University and went to work for Eastern Airlines and the Navy.

She was in New York in 1944, writing advertising copy, when she learned that fashion models made $25 a week, good money at the time. Although she was short for a fashion model, she applied to a modeling agency. The owner told her to lie about her age (she was 27) and sent her to see Diana Vreeland, fashion editor at Harper's Bazaar. Vreeland told her to return in the morning and, "Do not -- do not do anything to those eyebrows!"

Her first attempt at modeling resulted in a cover portrait in Harper's Bazaar in 1944.

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