Everyone Fell For: Suzy Parker
Unlike any fashion model before her, Suzy Parker was on a first-name basis with the world, bringing her own radiant personality to every shoot. Hitting Paris in 1950, at age 17, under the wing of her already famous older sister, Dorian Leigh, she went on to wow Christian Dior, became a muse to Coco Chanel and Richard Avedon, and fell for the dashing count she would secretly marry. But even when Hollywood beckoned, Laura Jacobs writes, Parker never gave a fig for the glitter and glamour: she found her greatest happiness at home.
December 21, 1956: Edward R. Murrow’s Person to Person gives America a captivating Christmas present. She is five feet ten, a slim bough in a dark Chanel suit, her hair a tumble of copper that even on black-and-white television has a new-penny glint. With the poise of a princess, she shows the country her Sutton Place penthouse. To the interviewer, Mrs. Murrow, she speaks of her charmed life. The couture, for example, in Harper’s Bazaar: “All those things you see now I did last July. So all the thrill is gone.” And pinball: “My favorite indoor sport.” Her magnificent Coromandel screen: “It’s something I’ve looked for for so many years.” And travel: “It’s a funny thing. I don’t suppose there’s anything I love more than leaving.” And a favorite city? “Paris. Because you never know what’s going to come around the next corner, because you live in surprises. You know like when you’re in love and you hurt a little bit? I always hurt for Paris.”
Is it too cold to see the terrace?, Mrs. Murrow asks, and the camera follows this heavenly, singular girl out the French doors into a New York night of ghostly glows. “It’s getting a little bit foggy now,” she explains, “but it’s sort of lovely. It’s like being on a boat.” And so she sails through living rooms across the country, the first American model on a first-name basis with the world: Suzy.
It had all happened and was still happening for Suzy Parker in 1956. She was 24 and at the peak of a modeling career that was arguably the biggest in the history of the business. Christian Dior, the reigning king of 50s fashion, called Suzy “the most beautiful woman in the world.” Coco Chanel, fashion’s dowager queen, mentored the young American, mothered her, and in 1954 looked on Suzy as the muse of a newly global Chanel. Joan Crawford herself weighed in. “I think that face,” she said, “is the most fabulously beautiful thing I have ever seen in my whole life.” And the smile. Suzy had half-smiles, mystery smiles, sly, knowing, and slow smiles, but that million-dollar Suzy Parker smile, pure phenomenon framed by deep-dish, apple-pie dimples, it was a thing unleashed—sunshine and thunder. All her life she would joke about the luck of her high cheekbones, but Suzy’s smile—there would never be another one like it. Hollywood had noticed.
“Suzy,” Mrs. Murrow continues, “a number of models have gone into show business. Have you ever thought of doing that yourself?”
“Well, I don’t know. I recently made a film, Funny Face. I was in the movie exactly two minutes. And I only do what I do in life, which is model.”
What Suzy doesn’t say is that the heroine of Funny Face, a freethinking ingenue more interested in Sartre than in Vogue (Audrey Hepburn in the movie), was inspired by none other than Suzy Parker, who in her playful relationship with photographer Richard Avedon (Fred Astaire!) pushed fashion photography into a new phase of energy, emotion, and delight. It would be easy to name Suzy the first supermodel. For much of her career she was the highest-paid model in the world, her rate always double that of her peers. In fact, the word is too small for her. Suzy loved the freedom she derived from her earnings, but her spirit was searching. As much a personality as a beauty, she was the first model America cared about, and hurt for.
Her father was George Lofton Parker, chemist, inventor, a man of few words who went his own way. Raised on a cotton farm in southern Texas, the youngest of 12, redheaded Lofton grew up to look like Lindbergh, and was just as self-contained. To get money for college, he sold his share of the family farm to his brothers. When they became millionaires—the Parker Creek, it happened, ran black with oil—Lofton couldn’t have cared less. In San Antonio he’d met Elizabeth Kirkpatrick at a dancing class, and when they married the following year—he 18, she 17—he left college for a paying job at Standard Oil. Within three years the Parkers had three daughters: Dorian, born in 1917; Florian, 1918 (nicknamed Cissie); and Georgibell, 1919.
And what daughters! All three were beauties. As a Kirkpatrick, Mrs. Parker came from a line of superbly attractive Scots with a family taste for exaggeration and an average height of six feet (they were as tall as their tales). Both Elizabeth and Lofton were rigid Baptists, and they raised their daughters in kind—no makeup, swearing, drinking, or, God forbid, smoking. That didn’t keep Elizabeth from spoiling Dorian. “Dorian was her pride,” says Nella Jarrett, a Kirkpatrick cousin. And with reason. Dorian was of gifted intelligence, a voracious reader, a star in school. She was further distinguished by being small, not tall, the petite Parker. Where Cissie and Georgibell were dressed like twins, Dorian got diva treatment. The seamstress, Cissie remembers, “would go to a movie and sit through it many times because there was a dress that Dorian wanted in that movie. Mother loved us. It’s just that Dorian was it.”
While Mother was social, busy with the Daughters of the American Revolution and other clubs, Daddy was shy, a man who saved physical affection for his wife and was uncomfortable touching the kids. His solitary tinkering led to a neat family business. Finding there were no ready rates for shipping freight by railroad, Lofton computed, down to the tiniest town, the costs of all possible distances and published his own monthly rate schedule. As if that weren’t enough, unhappy with the print quality of his charts, he took it upon himself to develop a better etching acid, and then, so printing plates could be re-used, concocted an etching-erasure formula. Both formulas—referred to in the family as The Fluid—were mixed in the bathtub and bottled at home in Jackson Heights, New York, where the Parkers had relocated. Some 20 years later Lofton would comfortably retire on the proceeds. But in 1932, a surprise.
Mrs. Parker thought it was menopause. “Suzy wasn’t supposed to happen,” recalls cousin Nella. It was the Depression, and the Parkers would have to sell their car to have this fourth child, but maybe it would be a boy. “Daddy was always hoping for a boy,” says Cissie, “and Suzy was it.” On October 28, 1932, she was born in Long Island City, a blue baby—“dead longer than any other baby at that time who lived,” says Cissie. The infant was slapped to life by an intern, and named after three of Elizabeth’s friends, Cecelia Rena Ann. Lofton, formal with his daughters for 15 years, fell for this one, the spitting image of himself. “Never let anyone call you Cecelia,” he would say. “You’re my little Suzy.”
“Of course,” says the mean mother in Now, Voyager, a Bette Davis hit of 1942, “it’s true that all late children are marked.” And Suzy was late, 13 years between her and Georgibell. She was a sickly child, alarming the household with her asthma attacks, allergies, horrible earaches that kept her crying, and bouts of pneumonia that set her apart. She was mischievous, blaming any misdeeds on an imaginary girl (“Mary did it”). She was funny. “Suzy was given dancing lessons,” says Cissie, “and Mr. Hillhouse, our teacher, went and told Mother and Daddy to take Suzy out of the class. He said, ‘The class is following Suzy and not paying any attention to me.’ Because Suzy would act up and be a clown.” And then there were the things Suzy did that weren’t funny: slide in her socks on the porch (both arms went through a window); jump off the roof on a dare (two broken ankles); roller-skate into a plate-glass window (cut arms, broken wrist); ride her first bicycle under a truck (broken fingers, wrist, elbow). “All Daddy heard was the scream and he was around the front in the car waiting,” says Cissie. “He knew, whenever anything happened, it would be Suzy.”
If Suzy was marked, it was with the love of her father. “She was Uncle Lofton’s pride and joy,” says Nella. In turn, Suzy idolized her dad, relished having him all to herself. It wasn’t just that they had the same pale skin and red hair. Suzy was similarly inward, pensive, despite her outward cleverness and a prettiness that would soon turn heads. Their relationship was difficult for Mrs. Parker, who wasn’t used to sharing Lofton. “My mother hated Suzy,” Dorian says bluntly. “She did everything in the world to be unpleasant to her. Because Daddy liked her so much. Mother was jealous of her. Always.” Cissie angles it differently: “Mother lived through Dorian, and Daddy lived through Suzy.” All her life, Suzy would have the untouchable autonomy that comes from being Daddy’s girl. And from her mother, a shade of gray, the feeling of being unwanted.
The 1940s belonged to Dorian. Her full name was Dorian Elizabeth Leigh Parker, but when she landed on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, June 1944, the result of her first go-see (“Do not do anything to those eyebrows,” Diana Vreeland commanded), she shortened her name to Dorian Leigh. The Parkers didn’t approve of modeling, and Dorian, who at the time had a copywriting job at Republic Pictures, didn’t either. “As far as I was concerned,” she says today, aged 89, “modeling was just showing off.” But when a friend told her the hourly rate, as high as $40 during World War II, she called the second-largest agency, Harry Conover. In modeling terms Dorian, at 27, was ancient, and at five feet five inches, too short. She also had two children by a college sweetheart she’d already divorced. But she was quick, brilliant, with Persian-blue eyes and those beguiling zigzag eyebrows. Says the irrepressible Carmen Dell’Orefice, who started modeling at 13 in 1945, a year after Dorian had begun: “There was Vivien Leigh, Hedy Lamarr, and Dorian Leigh!” This was the face of the 40s: a nakedly boned, icy-dewy, brunette beauty.
“She had a mystery and a delicacy,” says fashion editor Polly Mellen, then at Harper’s Bazaar, “but, unlike Vivien Leigh, this is not a fragile lady. I worked with her on one of my first shoots and I was terrified of her. I remember being told, ‘She will wear it or she won’t wear it. She will do her own makeup and her own hair. She gets the gist of what the shoot is and takes over—and she’s right.’”
“She somehow senses what it is the photographer is inadequately trying to get from her,” wrote Cecil Beaton in his book Photobiography, “and she conveys a remarkable variety of moods … the sweetness of an eighteenth-century pastel, the allure of a Sargent portrait, or the poignancy of some unfortunate woman who sat for Modigliani.”
“Dorian was born to be a model,” says Eileen Ford, empress of the industry. “She could—just by looking at a camera—make you feel an emotion.”
And just by looking at a man … well, Dorian’s favorite indoor sport was definitely not pinball. After a slow start with that first husband, Dorian zoomed into warp speed, making up for lost time. The list is legion, and the lovers named here, not including her seven husbands, are only a sampling: photographer Irving Penn, jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie, singer Harry Belafonte, drummer Buddy Rich, fitness guru Nicholas Kounovsky, movie producer Sam Spiegel, writer Irwin Shaw, poet Robert Graves. Dorian admits she confused infatuation with love, but she’s never pretended she wasn’t ready for a romp.
“Dorian had tits and ass,” says Carmen, “and this tiny waistline and these tiny ankles and high-heeled shoes, 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. And she was her own person.”
“She flirted outrageously,” says Laura Clark, then a junior fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar, “with every man that ever walked the earth.”
“When I was on Vogue,” recalls fashion editor Babs Simpson, “we did a celebration of Mrs. [Edna] Chase’s 50th anniversary. It was a portfolio with Penn, and we did five pages, one representing each decade, and Dorian was the girl—she was the eternal girl—and there were different men in each one. Each one of the men became absolutely fascinated with her.”
Dorian lived in a brownstone on Lexington Avenue and took her phone messages in a candy store across the street, her dates stacked up like airplanes waiting to land. Friends at that time were Condé Nast wunderkind Leo Lerman and precocious Truman Capote, who clocked her comings and goings. “Happy-go-lucky” was Capote’s nickname for Dorian, so similar to “Holly Golightly,” a fictional character beginning to take form. Dorian’s wayward lifestyle, her restless bravado, went a long way toward the making of Capote’s heroine, the slim girl of his slim volume Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Four years after Audrey Hepburn played Suzy in Funny Face, she would go lightly as Dorian Leigh (very lightly—the promiscuity took a powder) in Blake Edwards’s 1961 film of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
With Dorian gaining fame (and infamy) in New York City, with Cissie and Georgibell married, and with a Democrat still in the White House, Lofton, who always voted Republican, decided 1946 was the time to retire. He found a house with an orange grove in Pomona Park, Florida, a climate he thought would be good for Suzy’s asthma, though she wasn’t “little” anymore. At 13, she had reached her full height of five ten and was the tallest girl in her class, something no one wants to be. Mrs. Parker didn’t help matters, making Suzy wear her hair in pigtails. “Mother wanted to make her a little old-fashioned girl,” says Dorian. “And that’s how we got so close.” Suzy began to spend summer vacations up in New York City with Dorian, which gave mother and daughter a break. “From the time she was 14,” says Dorian, “I protected her like Daddy did.”
And Dorian laid a path before her. She saw that with freckles fading and hair down Suzy was more natural a model than she was. Dorian had developed an eye for models, and that year opened her own makeshift agency, Fashion Bureau, because Conover’s bookers were too slow on the phone. Dorian pestered photographer friends to take pictures of her baby sister, if only to prove to gawky Suzy how pretty she was. She tested with photographers Penn, John Rawlings, and Karen Radkai, and some of the test photos found their way into magazines. Without even trying, Suzy was a model. She became fast friends with Carmen, who was almost a year older, and during the day the mischievous side of Suzy took over. “Dorian would give us money to take the bus down to Vogue,” says Carmen, “or I would have a job and Suzy was going to come with me. And instead we’d go to a movie. It was her idea. So I would get in trouble.” But at night, a sensitive side: “She cried herself to sleep so many times,” says Dorian. At first she thought Suzy missed her high-school sweetheart, Ronald, but no, it was “because she was so much taller, and people would be shocked when she came in, because they were expecting another Dorian Leigh. It made her upset when they had to open seams because she was very big.” Here was the beginning of a difference between the two sisters. Dorian was blithe-spirited, oblivious to criticism, a sophisticate worthy of Noël Coward. Suzy—her Eloise escapades aside—was serious, a perfectionist.
In 1948, Dorian married husband number two (Roger Mehle—the ex-husband of gossip columnist Aileen Mehle, who writes under the name “Suzy”), closed her agency, and was pregnant with her third child. Suzy Parker was still in high school, was still modeling summers in New York (a secret she kept from her Florida classmates), and was represented by the Huntington Hartford agency, making $25 an hour. When Suzy, who was 16, asked for a raise to $40, Hartford laughed. On Suzy’s behalf, Dorian placed a call that made everyone happy but Hartford.
“I can tell you about the day I first met Suzy,” says founder of the eponymous modeling agency Eileen Ford. “One day Dorian Leigh, one of the top models in the world at that time, called and said, ‘I will come with your agency if you tell me now you’ll take my little sister Suzy sight unseen.’ To get Dorian Leigh I would have taken Gargantua. So we all agreed to meet at a restaurant on 55th Street. And Jerry [Eileen’s husband] and I were sitting there waiting for Dorian and her little sister. In came Dorian, followed by five-foot-ten, redheaded, blue-eyed Suzy Parker. Jerry and I almost fainted with delight.”
Suzy was signed, and her earnings would rise to $100,000. How important was the fledgling model to Ford’s fledgling business? “How would you like to guess the answer to that?” asks Eileen with a laugh. “Wildly. There aren’t many Suzys in the world. God didn’t create them.
“Don’t forget,” says actress Ali MacGraw, who styled a shoot with Suzy in the 60s, “this is the day before anyone got retouched. You could not go out and make a Suzy Parker.”
And Suzys can be scary. That same year, Dorian bullied another friend—the hottest young fashion photographer in the world—into booking Baby Sister. “In came this girl,” the late Richard Avedon once said, “who looked utterly unlike the usual model type, wearing one of the most rebellious expressions I’ve ever seen on anybody. She positively glowered.” To Dorian, Avedon confessed his real fear: “I don’t know if I can work with someone so beautiful. There may not be enough I can do to create something of my own.” He took her to Paris anyway, in 1950. “Everything that happened to Suzy,” Avedon said of that first trip, “happened after that.”
Paris is forever, though from time to time reborn, and perhaps no rebirth has caught the modern imagination the way this one did, postwar, when Christian Dior decreed and women followed and fashion, for 10 years, was something between a renaissance and a recovered memory. Launched in 1947, Dior’s New Look was a fairy-tale fortress of day suits seamed like knights’ armor and ball gowns out of Versailles. Led by Dior, with Balenciaga, Grès, Balmain, and Fath in full cry, the Paris couture reclaimed its place in the world of ideas. For an American model there was no bigger plum, or route to stardom, than the French collections. When Avedon took Dorian to Paris for Harper’s Bazaar in 1949—her first trip—she was 32. When he took both Dorian and Suzy the next year, Suzy was 17. Just as Dorian had, Suzy stood in the back of the taxi on the ride from the airport, head and shoulders above the roll-back roof so that her first sight of the city was face-to-face.
And what did Paris see? Suzy at 17 had milk-glass skin with the pink underglow of an English duchess, red-gold hair described as “Venetian blonde,” clouds of it, and cheekbones so high she didn’t need to shade them. “Like Garbo” was what everyone said, because of the mobility of her face, the transparency of emotion. The contact sheet for a portrait Avedon did of the two sisters on that trip offers a glimpse into shifting power. Suzy is behind and above while Dorian curves kittenishly beneath Suzy’s chin, flirting with the camera in frame after frame. Suzy does not flirt. She stares, pouts, and, yes, glowers, not like a girl but like a goddess, as if she had lightning bolts in her pockets and the strength to throw them. “You’re free in every way,” Suzy would say of Paris, and she looks loomingly free here. “You fall in love like that.” Snap. She did.
It was at a party with a South American theme given by Jacques Fath and his wife, Geneviève, in the garden of their manoir, west of Paris. It was a summer night, the men in black tuxedo pants, white silk shirts from Sulka, no coats, and the guests were a mix of media, theater, fashion. The magazine Paris Match had just been born, March 1949, and journalist Pierre de la Salle, 24, was sent to report on the party. “Suzy arrived with her older sister Dorian Leigh,” he says. “Both of them were the center of attraction. There was something very new about them, you see? Suzy, her beauty intimidated people. And no one took the risk to approach her. Except me. I noticed that men were powerfully sexually attracted to her, although I did not know how young she was. But I found out something else from her. She was in search of her raison d’être. Who she was? What was the end of the game?”
By all accounts Pierre de la Salle—“Pitou”—was very smooth, very attractive, a world-class skier, in with the up-and-coming French film set (Roger Vadim, Christian Marquand, Louis Malle), and a man of fine family, a count, though he doesn’t use the title. Suzy would later say he reminded her of Ashley in Gone with the Wind. “Well, he was the first European she ever met,” says Dorian. “To Suzy he was terribly sophisticated.” Cissie adds, “Pitou was slender and tall like Daddy. I think that was what drew her to him.” Paris, Pitou—Suzy fell for both.
“There was something in common,” says de la Salle, who at that time was worried he’d be called for military duty in Indochina. “I was suffering some form of loneliness. She was looking for what she really was meant to do.”
When Suzy got home from the trip, what she did do, secretly in December, was marry her sweetheart Ronald. In later life she would say she did it as a show of independence. She was angry at her father’s insistence that she go to college in the South when she wanted to attend Sarah Lawrence College, in New York. Ronald was handsome, part Cherokee, from a nice family, and no doubt fun. “He was the only boy I knew,” Suzy said, “who could ride a motorcycle forward while sitting on it backward.” But what can marriage mean between a freshman at U. Penn (low man on campus) and a newminted beauty on top of the world? Was this marriage really a flight from childhood or a momentary return to it—a reprieve from the more powerful attraction that beckoned across the ocean? Six months later she was back in Paris. (In 1953, a divorce from the boy she would always remember as “my Cherokee Indian” was finalized.)
“All I can tell you,” de la Salle continues, “she one day came to Rue Vaneau out of nowhere and said, Can I stay with you? And I said, Well, it’s O.K. with me, if you want. And then, the next thing that happened, she brought her camera and took pictures in the streets of Paris, with no décor. That was her way. Impromptu, very natural.”
And that was how she lived her new life. Suzy modeled on both sides of the Atlantic for the next two years, sitting for photographers Penn, Roger Prigent, Cecil Beaton, Erwin Blumenfeld, Horst, and Henry Clarke, meanwhile coming from and going to Rue Vaneau like a mysterious heiress. “One morning she disappeared out of nowhere,” says de la Salle, “then suddenly she reappears six months later, without a word. I never asked any questions. I did not interfere with her life.”
In 1952, just as Dorian reached the peak of her fame as Revlon’s historic first face—the “Fire and Ice Girl”—Suzy moved to Paris to be with Pitou, and the two sisters joked about dividing the world between themselves. Suzy, still a mere 19, bought a red MG roadster (she broke an ankle in it, natch), remodeled a coach house on the Left Bank, began to learn the language (a beginner she would remain: “She was too stubborn,” says de la Salle, “and always, no, everything was English”), and worked mostly for Hélène Gordon-Lazareff at Elle. She was great friends with socialite Tony Veiga, played pinball for hours with Christian Marquand. But if her life looked bohemian, when it came to the bedroom she was white picket fence. Her lover was Pitou. And that meant fidelity.
“Suzy was in the midst of a really fun group,” says Sheila de Rochambeau, then a Vogue editor. “Pitou was rushing around. She was rushing around, looking so wonderful whatever she did. You have a vision of her coming all windblown into the studio, and 10 minutes later you were looking at the sleekest, most glamorous thing you’d ever seen. She was alive. Which Dorian wasn’t as much. Everybody was in love with Suzy.”
So much that in 1953, in John Rawlings’s coverage of the fall French collections, French Vogue crowed on its cover: “Collections—Suzy Parker!” The model was more important than the clothes—a first. And imagine this: Suzy and Dorian went out for lunch one day, and as they entered the restaurant all the Frenchmen rose and gave the sisters a standing ovation. “They were beauties,” said the late Oleg Cassini, “and she was among the most beautiful—Suzy Parker.” The sisters’ 15-year age difference added a dash of darkness. “Some people thought Dorian was the mother,” said Cassini. “They said, Maybe she’s the sister, maybe she’s the mother.” It wasn’t long before Suzy met and befriended the great French matriarch Coco Chanel, who was retired and going nuts because of it. “She really loved Suzy,” says Dorian, “and hated me. Coco wanted to be her mother.” Perhaps she saw that shade of gray.
Certainly, Chanel took pleasure in Suzy’s witty independence, the bravura of her beauty, just as Suzy took pleasure in Chanel’s advice and aesthetic, her glittering bons mots, and her belief that “beauty isn’t enough.” But there was also something deeper in the mix, dating to the night of a card game at 31 Rue Cambon, Chanel’s famous boutique and upstairs apartment. While Pitou, Coco, Gérard Mille, and Marie-Hélène de Nicolay played cards, Coco told Suzy to go upstairs to her closet and take whatever she wanted. Suzy pulled out some dresses from Coco’s last collection, 1938–39, and put one on. “When she came back to the room,” says de la Salle, “she was quite striking. Gérard said we would go with Chanel to café Procope. Hélène Lazareff was at the table next to us. She saw Suzy in the clothes and she flipped. She could not eat anything. And she did not know it was Chanel. She was told by Gérard, ‘That’s Coco from 1938–39.’ Hélène decided right at that moment she wanted Suzy in Chanel for the cover of Elle.” Chanel, too, made a lightning decision: reopen the House. It was a second life, inspired by Suzy (who would be a walking advertisement in her custom suits). Chanel reopened in 1954, just as Suzy announced her retirement from modeling. She’d gotten a photography job with French Vogue.
Suzy hadn’t gone to college, a lapse she long regretted, but she could do Daddy—and Coco—proud by continuing to learn. She’d worked as an assistant to Cartier-Bresson, who “needed me,” she told Michael Gross in his sweeping history of the business, Model, “like a hole in the head!” She’d done some work for Magnum Photos under Robert Capa. She published photographs at Elle and Ladies’ Home Journal. When the position came open at French Vogue, Henry Clarke suggested she show her photographs to the editor, Michel de Brunhoff, who took her on. “Suzy would walk through the room,” says Dorian, “and would remember every single thing about the people who were there. Everything.”
“Suzy loved to be alone,” says de la Salle, “and to think about what she was doing, concentrate on what she’d done. Completely opposite of Dorian”—and very much like Lofton (who was, at this time, beginning to exhibit depressive tendencies). In fact, despite the appearance of a madcap lifestyle, Suzy didn’t like the kissy-face whirl. “Suzy was never very social,” says Dorian. “I felt she could have a marvelous life just being Suzy, but she didn’t feel that way.” This is what Funny Face catches so well: her solitary pursuits, a lack of interest in her own loveliness, and relationships based not on passing fancies but on powerful affinities—books, art, jazz. “She had every chance to go Café Society, but she did not,” said Horst. “She was far more thrilled at meeting Cocteau than Rubirosa.”
To drop modeling for photography meant a huge drop in income; for instance, Suzy received $115 a month from Magnum, what she made modeling in an hour. But Suzy had an eye, as published photos prove. Asked what he thought of her photos, de la Salle says, “Myself, I cannot judge, because I’ve never seen them.” Never seen his lover’s photographs? Pitou’s detachment may have afforded Suzy the kind of space she needed. Or it may have been a challenge, something to soften or surmount. “I was going to hang in there and make it happen,” Suzy says in Model. “I was very much in love, or thought I was; it was an obsession.”
In 1955, Suzy returned to full-time modeling. She had not paid her U.S. income taxes during the preceding years, and the bill was due, more than $60,000. Later on, she would say she didn’t pay in protest of Adlai Stevenson’s losing the 1952 election; it was really just an oversight. The Fords gave Suzy an interest-free loan, and repaying them meant a plunge back into advertising work as well as editorial, and a return to living six months in America, six in Paris. There was an upside, though. Early in her modeling Suzy could be a nuisance, letting competitiveness get the better of her. Vogue fashion editor Bettina Ballard, in her book In My Fashion, recalled, among other things, Suzy “chopping off Ann Gunning’s heavy, black hair on the pretense of making her look better in hats, which made Ann impossible to photograph.” Ballard goes on to say, “It wasn’t until some seasons later when [Suzy] had tried photography in Paris herself that she became soft and giggly and delicious to work with … clowning enchantingly.”
Impromptu, very natural, clowning enchantingly—this was no small thing. Modeling pre-Suzy had been a posed, poised affair, yet Suzy, famously unable to sit still and be quiet, had earned a reputation for never producing the same picture twice, her face testament to an imagination, a sense of play, that had nothing to do with posing. When the comparison wasn’t to Garbo, it was to Alec Guinness.
“What Suzy did,” says Carmen, “was take that kind of dead mannequin that we thought a model was, and it was like somebody had kissed the sleeping princess and all of a sudden she wakes up. Suzy was so full of life.”
Too much life for some. Horst, for instance, adored Suzy, but preferred working with Dorian. “She was as inventive with mood and expression as Suzy is, but she holds the pose for you.” Avedon, however, was seeking something bigger than a pose. For him the overflow was everything—motion, emotion, on a whole new scale.
Art historian Martin Harrison has written, “You could almost date changes in Avedon’s style by his muses. The next change was in the fifties when he started to photograph Suzy Parker.” Avedon was known to compare the collaborative relationship between photographer and model to that of a choreographer and his ballerina. Just as George Balanchine had moved from the sophistication and dark fire of Maria Tallchief to the leggier, more spontaneous classicism of Tanaquil Le Clercq and then Suzanne Farrell (another windblown Suzy), so Avedon moved from Dorian Leigh’s distinctly European refinement, a sort of hothouse artifice, to Suzy’s unstudied grace, an American sublime that was a whoosh, a rush of fresh air. “Dorian was indoor,” says Babs Simpson. “I think of Suzy as being outdoor.”
“She did not want to be too slick, too chic,” says Polly Mellen. “I was never able to put a wig on her or pull her hair back.”
“Suzy looked sort of untamed,” says Gwen Franklin, a former fashion director at Harper’s Bazaar, “like she was just passing through.”
Where Dorian was a Sargent, a Modigliani, Suzy was Suzy. Where, before, Avedon had been capturing a sterling eternal, with Suzy he was after the kinetic now, life being lived. And so in their great Harper’s Bazaar Paris Reports of the late 50s, Suzy is on roller skates and swings, running through gardens and parks, reaching and laughing, her heart in her face. If one can pinpoint the moment when a fashion “sitting” became a “shoot,” it was in these spreads, when Avedon aimed his lens at Suzy and captured what he called her “radiant unearned ecstasy.” Why unearned? Because it wasn’t seductive or submissive. It was sheer life force passing through.
Their affinity didn’t work just in the Paris pages of Harper’s Bazaar (and, later on, Vogue). Suzy was launched in advertising at 17, thumbing her nose at the reader to show off “Love That Red” nail polish. The ad started a run on department stores, not just for the polish, but also for the toreador pants Suzy wore. Love That Red is how advertisers soon felt about Suzy, the model of choice. If they could get her with Avedon, so much the better. He would book Suzy for two hours. She’d arrive with champagne and caviar. He’d put on Sinatra (or Ella or Lena), and the two would gossip, laugh, and banter for one hour and 53 minutes, a kind of creative ping-pong building toward 7 minutes of flow: a state of empathetic, seemingly effortless shooting. Making ads sans Avedon was for Suzy the salt mines. But she was always a pro, always on time, her makeup done, her mood jolly, never difficult, one more time. And she was foolproof. If Suzy Parker wasn’t your first choice, she was often, finally, your only choice—the model you called for a trouble shoot. Though she irritated Charles Revson by turning down a contract she deemed “peanuts,” Suzy was still the model Revlon used in retakes, snuck in at night. “Hers were always superb,” says Kitty D’Alessio, then an executive at the ad agency Norman Craig and Kummel. “A sure sell.”
“Part of talent is the ability to work,” Suzy would later say. “I have worked. I have knocked myself out. The reason I am the best-paid model in the business is because I am the best model.”
It was Avedon who suggested Suzy for a cameo appearance in Funny Face. And it was Audrey Hepburn who suggested her for the lead in Kiss Them for Me, opposite Cary Grant. Producer Jerry Wald thought Suzy could be a new Grace Kelly. The real Grace Kelly, after working in Hollywood for six years, had left in 1956 to marry Prince Rainier, vacating that tricky niche: the classy American ice queen melting drop by drop. Suzy was supremely classy, but too mischievous to be icy, too cat-that-ate-the-canary, her dimples full of fun. She was more a cross between Kelly and that other Hepburn—Katharine. Unfortunately, it was the late 50s and Twentieth Century Fox was heading into free fall. Were there roles? Were there directors who knew screwball, who understood how to frame this face, who could bring along the untrained 24-year-old? Fox sent two telegrams to Switzerland, where Suzy was skiing, each urging her to fly to Hollywood, each ignored because Suzy thought they were jokes. Stanley Donen phoned and said, It’s no joke.
No, Kiss Them for Me was a turkey—the officers-on-leave plot ramshackle, the script unfunny, Cary Grant amazingly unappealing, and Jayne Mansfield like sticky candy. Suzy is the best thing in the movie—sophisticated, responsive, her beauty holding the camera, slowing it down the way beauty does. She got slammed anyway. Both colleagues and critics thought her performance stiff, scared, very un-Suzy. Where the click of a Rolleiflex found her completely uninhibited and free, the whir of a motion-picture camera turned the tables and froze her. Suzy responded with humor—for friends she did imitations of herself in the movie—and by going back to acting class. “If I don’t make it,” she said, “no one will have to tell me.”
As the face of the 50s, pre-Murrow, Suzy was seen but not heard. Once she became an actress, the press began to bear down, elbow in. Cover stories in Look and Life hit the stands. At Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar she acquired celebrity status: no longer unmentioned in captions, she was “Suzy Parker … in Dior.” Suzy had always been clever verbally, quick with a comeback, but now she was making a game of the spotlight, playing pinball with the press. In her interviews she was breezy (“I refuse to worry about the future”), blasé (“Modeling is the quickest way I know of to make a lot of money fast. All you need is strong ankles”), C’est la vie (“I’m a bachelor and happy this way. I doubt if I shall ever marry”), and sometimes plain full of Kirkpatrick baloney: “I’m really the lost daughter of the Dauphin. That’s why I always wear Royal Blue instead of black.”
“Suzy deliberately lied to the press,” says Cissie. “She would tell these awful things, and then when they found out it wasn’t true … she laughed at them. It was that same mischievous spirit that she had as a child.”
It was also the influence of Chanel. Suzy’s pronouncements, especially on men and women (“I think you can love a man more when you aren’t married to him”), have Coco’s irreverence, if not always her wisdom. “In trying to be like Chanel,” a friend observed, “she created Suzy Parker—the wild, free, sensitive girl.”
It’s just that Suzy wasn’t wild. She hated Hollywood parties and didn’t attend. She didn’t give a single Tinseltown bachelor—and they were all after her—a look. The truth is, in 1955, when her tax situation forced the move back to New York, she and Pitou married in a Methodist church in Greenwich Village. They lived together in the Sutton Place penthouse, where, for the Murrow show in 1956, all traces of Pitou were removed. And in Hollywood he was the escort, never husband. Family and close friends knew about the marriage, but were sworn to secrecy. Why? “To play the game,” says de la Salle, who today lives in Mammoth Lakes, California, with his wife of 29 years, Bérénice. “That was the beginning of it. ‘Oh, we’re not going to say anything to anyone.’ I didn’t want it to be known. You see, people interfere with your life. Paparazzi were all over the place at that time.” Suzy never had a great explanation: “We told some people we were married and then told them we weren’t.… We just did it, that’s all.” Surely it couldn’t hurt in Hollywood, which in those days preferred its stars to be single. Cissie says, “No, no. She just resented interference in her private life.” A friend said, “Suzy may have liked the idea of living in sin, but her Southern Baptist upbringing made her feel that it was better to be married while doing so.”
Marriage certificate aside, Suzy hadn’t succeeded in turning Pitou into Ashley Wilkes. Even those who saw the attraction—and he could be irresistibly charming—disliked him for Suzy, feeling he was too free with her hard-earned money, and too independent within the marriage. “He was very strong-willed,” says Carmen. “I couldn’t stand him myself because I thought he was mean to her, but he was her guy.” Cissie called him Suzy’s “no ‘count count.” And Dorian says, “He was Pal Joey.” In her next movie, Ten North Frederick, Suzy delivered a line that would always be true of her: “I guess I must have Airedale blood. I can only hear one whistle at a time.” In 1957, that whistle was still Pitou’s.
Ten North Frederick was an adaptation of a John O’Hara novel, a labor of love by director Philip Dunne. It was supposed to star Spencer Tracy, supposed to have location shooting, supposed to be in color, and supposed to show off Suzy. Buddy Adler, the inept head of the studio, afraid of the movie’s adult themes, chipped away at its budget until Dunne was reduced to secondhand sets, black-and-white film. Tracy used Suzy’s inexperience as a reason to back out of his contract, and Gary Cooper stepped in with one question to her: “Have you read your reviews?” When she nodded, he said, “I hope that means you’ll work hard.” She did. The movie shows her off beautifully, for it is really two movies, the Suzyless first half a disjointed family drama, the second half a May-December love story sustained by Suzy’s lyric presence, her cantilena line. She not only holds her own with Diane Varsi, of Peyton Place fame, but steals the show, her last scene unspeakably moving. Suzy Parker got her first good reviews.
Dorian, meanwhile, had in 1952 embarked on the most important love affair of her life. Alfonso Cabeza de Vaca y Leighton, 17th Marquis de Portago—“Fon”—was gorgeous, dark, social, spoiled, and “sex just poured out of him,” says Laura Clark. (“He was sort of like a male Dorian,” Dorian concedes with a laugh.) He was accomplished in fencing, polo, and steeplechasing, and was even a member of Spain’s Olympic bobsled team. And he was married—his wife, Carroll de Portago, is today Carroll Petrie. By 1954, Fon had started sports-car racing. In 1955, Dorian gave birth to their son, Kim, her fourth child. In her memoir, The Girl Who Had Everything, Dorian writes that Fon promised to divorce Carroll and marry her, 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. Over the illegitimate child, Kim, a rift opened between Dorian and Suzy.
“It’s important to remember,” Richard Avedon said of the sisters in 2004, “Suzy was always a reaction to Dorian. And Dorian was an invention.” No one disagrees. “Most of Dorian’s life was spent on a moral stage,” says Sheila de Rochambeau. “She built the theater, she was the main actress.… But there were very limited parts she could have played. She’d have to be a courtesan.” Which is exactly what another fashion insider implies: “Dorian had children by her lovers and husbands. It was part of her sexiness, in a way. And very 18th-century too. She was irresponsible that way, and it was part of her aura.” Indeed, in 1953, on the cover of Look, Dorian famously proclaimed, “I’d rather have a baby than a mink coat.” Carmen: “Dorian liked to have babies and it was hard for her to bring them all the way up. That’s what Suzy reacted against. Suzy was very responsible, emotionally responsible.… They disagreed on the principle of living and how to do it.”
Even Dorian acknowledges the dynamic. “Suzy was very virginal, always. And I think that was in trying not to be me.”
In an interview with Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons, Suzy said, “Yes, my sister Dorian had a baby with Fon Portago.” Dorian’s view is that Suzy was protecting her film career by distancing herself from scandal. Suzy, who loved Fon like a brother, said in Model, “I felt it was important that Kim be recognized, that Kim be known as Fon Portago’s son.” Suzy was angry, too, at the way Dorian kept dropping her kids with the Parkers in Florida, often for months. It was at this time that Dorian, 40 and grieving, modeling jobs waning, gathered her four children and moved to Paris, where she started a second modeling agency, the very first in France, a groundbreaking achievement. The agency was a smashing success for almost eight years, then foundered when Dorian’s fifth husband embezzled the capital. “I was never a businesswoman,” Dorian says in Model. “I just had marvelous ideas.”
June 7, 1958: 13 months after Fon’s crash made front pages around the world, another fatal crash. No one in the family tells the story exactly the same way. Suzy would touch on “the accident,” but never in great detail. What’s clear is that she always visited her father on his birthday, May 27; that her mother was in the hospital recovering from a mastectomy; that, with Suzy beside him, Lofton was driving on State Road 207; that there was a freight train. In the first of many big articles, an outpouring after the crash, Look interviewed Suzy from her hospital bed in Jacksonville, Florida. She told of a railroad crossing without warning bells or lights, the car going into a long, slow skid. She called it an “infinity.” The car hit the train, went up into the air, over the track, and landed on the other side facing in the opposite direction. “I saw Daddy’s face, and he had a look that said, ‘This is stupidity, a terrible way to die.’ But he never let go of that wheel. He willed me to live.”
Cissie’s understanding is that, driving to the hospital, “Daddy went around this curve and knew instantly there was a train coming. He must have seen it through the trees, the glitter of it.… Suzy was reading a letter from Dorian, who was in Paris, and Daddy yelled, Get on the floor and put your arms out. And she did. And then the train hit them.”
Years later, Suzy was known to tell it another way: she had been talking to her father about Pitou; there was no signal at the crossing, and her father, when he saw the train, had the instinct to accelerate, and she screamed “Stop“—that’s why they had the impact, and why Suzy blamed herself.
“Nobody can tell why,” Dorian says of that version. “Daddy raced trains all his life. The fact that he was killed by a train, well, it was part of the Greek tragedy.… In a way, he just thought the engineer was interfering with his life.”
“They had a game since her childhood,” says de la Salle, “Can We Beat the Train?” He says Suzy and Lofton were actually going from the hospital to the airport. “The guilt complex came from the fact that Suzy wanted to come back to New York to be with me. She wanted to be on time at the airport. That’s what she said. In her mind I shared responsibility for her father’s death.”
With two broken arms and shoulders, her mouth and ears full of shattered glass, her face largely untouched, Suzy tried to pull her father from the wrecked car while people gawked. He died on the way to the hospital, his chest crushed. Suzy went into a coma, emerged in a deep depression, and had nightmares for months.
The early press added insult. Time and Newsweek ran items on the accident, but for them the story wasn’t Suzy’s near death or the loss of her father. They focused on the fact that she’d been admitted to the hospital as Mrs. Pierre de la Salle. They called Pitou, and he said, “I have never been married.” What was going on? Digging through the records, they found that not only was their bachelor girl married, but it was a second marriage*.*
“I had those stories coming,” Suzy told Look from her hospital bed. “I invented that character of an international, whiz-bang, high-living girl.… But why was it Big News that Pitou and I were married and not living in sin?”
The scars on Suzy’s arms would never be seen by the public. For years she had modeled around the awkward mends of previous breaks—there was a grace to it. The scar to her soul, that was something else. “She was very desolate,” says de la Salle, “and very—how do I say?—a loner.” After an attempted suicide with Valium, Suzy went into psychotherapy with Dr. Edmund Bergler and worked hard to recover. It would never leave her, though, the feeling that it had been her fault.
‘One thought went through my head,” Suzy told writer Michael Gross decades later, remembering the accident. “If I survive I want to have children.” And that’s what she did. Without discussing it with Pitou, she got pregnant by him. He wasn’t happy: “There was a contrast that existed between what I was doing at Paris Match and my call for duty in Algeria [he was reporting on the war], and the glamour of someone that was 6,000 miles away who wanted to be in the movies.… I said, ‘You want to be with Jerry Wald and Gary Cooper, and my raison d’être is somewhere else.’”
In 1959, Suzy was at work on her next movie, Wald’s career-girl classic, The Best of Everything. On-screen Suzy played aspiring actress Gregg Adams. In real life she was preparing for the baby, had hired a nanny, and was still deep in loss. By the time the movie opened, Suzy was too pregnant to attend the premiere. She missed hearing the audience gasp when Gregg pulls off a headscarf and that copper hair floats out.
In December 1959, Suzy gave birth to Georgia Belle Florian Coco Chanel de la Salle. (“Dorian” isn’t in the name, because Suzy and Dorian were having a tiff at the time.) Within months of the birth, she learned of an affair Pitou had had in Paris—a Romanian heiress. Though those in Suzy’s circle say there were many affairs, de la Salle maintains this was the only one. “It was brief,” he says, “like a government goes on and six months later it’s not there anymore.” For Suzy, it was one affair too many. The marriage ended soon after, with Suzy saying Pitou had left her, and Pitou believing she had left him. In a way, both were right. Chanel helped Suzy get custody of Georgia, who was her goddaughter. When the divorce was final, Suzy destroyed every photograph of herself and Pitou together. “I think she had this idea of true love,” says Georgia De La Salle, now 46. “Mom was into being faithful. One love, one husband, and many babies with one person.”
“Only an American will understand me in marriage,” Suzy said a year later. She was out of love with Paris.
In 1960, Fox offered Suzy three starring parts, and she turned them all down. “They always put me in serious pictures,” she explained to Newsweek, “because I want to do comedy, you see.” Fox put her on suspension and then shipped her off to England’s Pinewood Studios to play a British intelligence officer in a W.W. II movie, a little-known gem, very dark, called Circle of Deception. While working on the film, she was linked romantically with British socialite Billy Wallace, who twirled her into London society. On her return to New York, she was seen with financier Paul Shields, the stepfather of Mrs. Gary Cooper. All window dressing.
Still secretive, Suzy still believed, “Once you say something out loud, you lose it.” All she would say to her dear friend Kitty D’Alessio was “I’ve met him.”
“She wouldn’t tell me who,” says D’Alessio, “but there was a glow about her. I think she fell in love with him immediately.”
Bradford Dillman was a dashing young comer on contract at Fox, and Suzy’s leading man in Circle of Deception. Dillman had wowed the critics as Edmund in the momentous 1956 Broadway premiere of Long Day’s Journey into Night, and was bringing a blade-edge energy—brooding, glinting—to Fox films such as Compulsion. He was a jazzier kind of noir, and would go on to a long, lively career in film and television. He was also Hotchkiss, Yale ‘51, a gent. Teamed with this young unknown when she was used to older stars like Grant and Cooper, Suzy was unimpressed. The feeling was mutual.
“When I was told I would be in this movie with Suzy Parker I was miffed,” says Bradford Dillman. “I said, ‘You’re going to stick me with a fashion model?’ I took myself very seriously in those days. In retrospect, I realize that I was never as rude as I was with Suzy. She would come into makeup, and I’d say, ‘What did you do last night?’ ‘I went to a ball.’ ‘Who was at the ball?’ She said, ‘Princess Margaret was there.’ ‘Terrific. Did Princess Margaret ask you to danse?’ Just all the time needling. Finally, after three or four days, she turned to me and said, ‘Will you do me a favor?’ ‘Certainly.’ She said, ‘Would you go f— yourself?’ I thought, Well, hello! I was, of course, attracted to her.”
The two couldn’t keep their hands off each other. To the crew, they became something of a joke, finishing a love scene only to disappear for more behind a flat. And while the film turns on the tortured ambiguities of war, when the camera closes in on Suzy and Brad together on a sofa, talking of love, the chemistry is springtime.
Even so, Suzy was not going to leap again without looking. Dillman was at the end of a failed first marriage and had been seeing singer-actress Juliette Gréco. Suzy was separated, waiting for her divorce. She said, “Juliette goes.” Juliette went. She and Dillman lived together for three years. “She wanted to be certain that this was the real deal,” says Dillman. (“Mom used to say to me,” recounts Georgia, “‘The reason I picked Dad is because he taught you to stop peeing in your bed.’”) In 1963, thinking it would be romantic, the soul mates married at sea. Suzy threw up the whole first night.
“They were head over heels with each other,” says Kitty D’Alessio. “They both had very high standards, very much straight arrows but with wonderful twists.”
“We were intensely antisocial, the two of us,” Dillman says. “The company we enjoyed most was each other, because she had a terrific sense of humor.… Seldom did we ever have a serious fight, because one or the other of us would simply break down laughing.”
“Bradford was everything,” says hairdresser Ivano Paolo Vit, who washed Suzy’s hair twice a week for more than 30 years. “Every time she’d come in, it was Bradford Bradford Bradford. I’d see her getting out of the car and would go, ‘Here comes Suzy and Bradford.’”
“Come into the garden,” begins a note Suzy wrote to Brad—it still hangs on the Dillman refrigerator—“I want my roses to see you.”
As for the acting, her confidence had grown—she’s hilarious in a now classic Twilight Zone from 1964, “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You”—but Suzy still got nervous before a new project. “She was in a minor automobile accident,” says Dillman, “and I knew perfectly well it had occurred because she was so uptight about the next day’s work. I said, ‘You know, you don’t have to do this anymore.’ And she said, ‘I don’t?’ ‘No.’ And she said, ‘Thank God.’ And she went and manacled herself to the stove.”
Just like that, Suzy Parker quit to bake bread. Those are the words her friends use—“baking bread”—a shorthand that catches the rising warmth of her decision. Though she would still humor Vogue with a photo spread now and then, usually with daughter Georgia (who modeled for a short time after college), she was happy to trade fame for a stove. And what a stove—one of those cast-iron, fire-breathing, always-on, double-oven restaurant stoves that can make dinner for 150. The girl who had been Mrs. Parker’s daughter, then Dorian’s daughter, then Chanel’s daughter, then the Dauphin’s daughter, found her raison d’être by exchanging daughterhood for motherhood. And not just to Georgia and the three children she had with Brad—Dinah, Charlie, and Christopher in ‘65, ‘67, and ‘69—but to Jeffrey and Pamela, the children of Brad’s first marriage. “She admitted this to me,” says Pamela Dillman Harman. “That, even though she married Dad and they had this fabulous, loving marriage, there was a possessive part of her that wanted to own a piece of what he had before. It was very important to her that she was a big influence in my life.”
Where Cissie, Georgibell, and even Dorian came to be born-again Christians, Suzy, in white slacks and an oversized blouse, mussing up her hair as she left the beauty salon, transcended to domestic goddess decades before the phrase was coined. “She had a very powerful aura,” says Pamela. “Even when she wasn’t in the room you’d feel her in the house.” A purist, she cooked without a Cuisinart or microwave, designed her own needlepoint patterns, always did the tree on Christmas Eve, and wouldn’t think of altering her face as she aged. “Suzy herself was a religion,” says Ivano Vit. She was also the unofficial mayor of Montecito, much admired despite the fact that when the Democratic Dillmans moved into the ultra-Republican California suburb Suzy said to Dillman, “Don’t worry, within three months I’ll have alienated everyone.”
“She carried a tremendous passion for letting people know that there was a Democrat in town,” says son Charlie. “She wouldn’t just accept whatever someone told her, she would confront the person. But you never really felt like she was attacking you. Mom carried her sense of humor with everything.”
While Dorian found a second career as a cordon-bleu-level chef, Suzy became a superb cook in her blue-and-yellow kitchen, working a homier fusion of French and southern-American styles. “Suzy wanted inscribed on her gravestone,” says Dillman, “and I wouldn’t go along with it: SHE MADE GREAT GRAVY.” A specialist in roses, she was a gardener who got apple trees to grow in the wrong climate. (“She breathed on them,” says close friend Laura Clark.) As a mother, Suzy was like the stove, always on, head cheerleader and tireless champion of her children. No test or challenge went without a family football huddle, Suzy leading the chant: “Good, better, best, never let it rest, till the good is better, and the better, best.”
“It plays in the back of my head,” says Charlie Dillman, “constantly.”
In 1967, in the family’s Bel Air backyard, daughter Dinah, not quite two, was bitten by a rattlesnake driven down from the hills by drought. A team of doctors, two neardeath surgeries, three black weeks, and more antivenin than any child had ever been given, and Dinah lived, a miracle. The day she left the hospital, Dillman went up to Montecito to find a new house in a snakeless suburb. As other children came, and Dillman was absent for long periods shooting movies on location, Suzy held the fort alone. “She’d given up one very extreme life,” Georgia says of the stress, “to live another very extreme lifestyle, becoming a supermom.” (Georgia herself is no stranger to extremes. She leads a Buddhist life translating ancient Sanskrit texts and studying with the lama Dudjom Rinpoche, which exasperated Suzy—”That Dalai Lama!“—who envisioned a more mainstream success for her firstborn.)
Dinah Dillman Kaufman feels differently. “It wasn’t hard for Mom. She was a very strong woman—in her passion, in her drive. Her love was being a mother.”
“She was a lot of contradictions,” says Jeffrey Dillman. “There’s an enormous one in her pursuit of the ideal family environment. She sheltered herself, yet she was so worldly. She created a simple life, yet was such a complex person.”
“She was a perfectionist,” says Christopher Dillman, the youngest. “Much like her father was a perfectionist. There must be some gene.… And at the same time, being humble.”
As the children left the nest, the void left Suzy vulnerable to something else she’d inherited from her father, his slides into melancholy. She toughed them out, did not seek help. The daughter in her still mourned.
In the mid-1990s, Suzy developed an ulcer because of all the cortisone she’d taken for her allergies. “I don’t have ulcers,” she told the doctor. “I give ulcers.” It required surgery, and Suzy died on the table, was resuscitated with a massive dose of prednisone, and was never entirely healthy afterward. There were hip surgeries, more ulcers, the onset of diabetes. The last five years of Suzy’s life were spent in and out of the hospital, hopeful, then discouraged, then hopeful again. In the winter of 2003, when her kidneys failed and she had to go on dialysis, the loss of freedom was crushing. “I just keep thinking,” she said to her friend Nancy Failing, “If I can make it through until this orchid finishes blooming I’m going to be O.K.” But the nature of her resolve changed. She said to Vit, “I have put Bradford through enough.” And to Kitty D’Alessio, “I want to go.” And finally, to Dillman, “I’ve made the decision. I’m no longer going to have dialysis.” It was time to go home. “She saw the house,” her husband says, “and she just beamed.” Two weeks later, on May 3, 2003, Suzy Parker died with Dillman and Pamela at her bedside. She was 70.
To enter the airy, rambling, strangely spiritual 1920s George Washington Smith house that the Dillmans have lived in since 1967, and in which Bradford still lives, is to feel her all around. The high ceilings speak of their mistress, five ten at 13. The absence of mirrors reflects her lack of vanity. There is the quiet of beautiful objects—the famous Coromandel screen, the fourth-century Chinese horse, a bird’s nest in a Lucite box—and casual masses of books, all of them read by her. The plaster walls are raw-linen white, and the canvas awnings in back bright orange, a color chosen by Suzy. When the sun hits those awnings, a red-gold radiance floods and fills the house.
“Her laugh,” says Dinah. “Her whole face would light up. And she had a particular smile in her eyes. That’s what I remember about her. Because that’s how she was. She just had this look in her eyes. Like everything was good in the world.”
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