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

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.

For more than a decade, she dominated the fashion scene. Irving Penn and Avedon began using her regularly. The Revlon series was a sensation: "For you who love to flirt with fire . . . who dare to skate on thin ice," its copy teased, over a stunning visual of the brunette in vibrant red, flashing her fingernail polish. Avedon's portrait of her in Dior, hugging a sweaty bicycle racer on the Champs-Elysees, broke new ground by bringing together the fashion and sports worlds.

Despite her $1-per-minute rate, she was often broke because her agency was slow to pay, according to Linda M. Scott's 2004 book "Fresh Lipstick" and Michael Gross's 1995 book "Model." Ms. Leigh confronted her agent, and when he didn't take her seriously, she hired a secretary to take calls and make appointments from the Elyée Hotel in New York, and launched her own agency.

Blithe-spirited, oblivious to criticism, she was described as an outrageous flirt. In her 1980 memoir, "The Girl Who Had Everything: The Story of the 'Fire and Ice Girl,' " she wrote about her affair with the married Spanish marquis and race car driver Alfonso Cabeza de Vaca.

He promised to divorce, marry her and adopt the son they had together, she wrote. But before he could do that, on May 12, 1957, 30 miles from the end of Italy's famed race, the Mille Miglia, a tire on his red Ferrari blew out and he crashed through the crowd, killing himself, his co-driver and at least 10 spectators.

Grieving, she packed up her children and moved to Paris. She started a modeling agency, generally considered to be the first in Europe, which employed 115 models by 1961. The business thrived until her fourth, or maybe fifth, husband embezzled funds and she was forced to close it in 1972. (The number of marriages is unclear because of her relationship with an Italian, to whom her son said she was briefly married; she said in her memoir they did not marry.)

Always an excellent cook, she opened a restaurant, Chez Dorian, near Fountainbleau and ran it for two years while also teaching at the Paris American Academy and La Varenne cooking school. She moved back to New York in the late 1970s, intending to take over a modeling agency, but instead creating and selling food through her catering business.

In addition to her autobiography, she also wrote "Pancakes: From Flapjacks to Crepes" (1988) and "Doughnuts: Over Three Dozen Crullers, Fritters and Other Treats" (1994).

She catered in the Washington area in 1988 with a business she called Fete Acommplie and returned to Paris in 1999. After a diagnosis of a brain tumor, she moved to Falls Church in 2005.

Her marriages to Marshall Hawkins, Roger Mehle, Serge Bordat and Iddo Ben-Gurion ended in divorce. A daughter from her first marriage, Marsha Lynn Smith, died in 1992. A son, Kim Blas Parker, from the liaison with Cabeza de Vaca, died in 1977.

Survivors include a son from her first marriage, T.L. Hawkins of McLean; a daughter from her second marriage, Young Eve Paciello of Northport, Ala.; a daughter from her fourth marriage, Miranda Bordat-vanEtten of Lake Tahoe, Calif.; a sister, Florian Lee of Annapolis; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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