Suzy Parker: First Supermodel, Chanel Girl and Hollywood Actress
The late Suzy Parker was the supermodel of her era. Tall, sexy and beautiful, Parker not only reigned supreme in the fashion world but also became a Hollywood actress, appearing in both films and television. Before Cheryl Tiegs, Christie Brinkley, Cindy Crawford, Elle Macpherson, Claudia Schiffer, Kathy Ireland, Heidi Klum and Tyra Banks, there was the gorgeous Suzy Parker.
Suzy Parker Born in New York
Suzy Parker was born Cecilia Ann Renee Parker in Long Island, New York, on October 28, 1932. The younger sister of model Dorian Leigh Parker (1917-2008), the former introduced her 15-year-old sibling to Eileen and Jerry Ford of the legendary The Ford Modeling Agency in Manhattan, who initially thought that the 5'10" Suzy was too tall for modeling work.
A natural redhead with luminous green eyes, Suzy Parker appeared in Life Magazine at age 15. Diana Vreeland, editor of Harper's Bazaar, later placed Parker on the cover, accelerating Suzy's rise to the top. Parker later graced the covers of Vogue, McCall's, Look, Redbook, Elle, Paris Match, Life and a number of other prominent magazines.
During her heyday of the 1950s, the lovely Suzy Parker, "with her trademark russet hair, cygnet's neck and just-this side-of-melancholy smile," so noted The New Yorker, could be glimpsed posing for an array of corporate interests and products – DeRosa Jewelry, Hertz, Max Factor, Bliss, DuPont, Simplicity, Smirnoff, Botany, Coty, Givenchy, David Levine, Talbott, Crompton, Famous Barr, Catalina Swimsuits, Revlon, Modess and Ronson shavers. But it was the Coco Chanel brand that arguably brought Parker the most fame, with Suzy becoming the designer's signature face. Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel (1883-1971), the French fashion maven, befriended Parker in Paris, designing special outfits for her and advising the young model on both money matters and affairs of the heart.
Suzy Parker (1932-2003). A natural redhead, her measurements were 35-24-36
Suzy Parker Photographed by Richard Avedon, Henry Clarke, Nina Leen, John Rawlings
As befitting the world's first supermodel, Suzy Parker was lensed by many of the best photographers of the era. The list read like a who's who in fashion photography, and included Richard Avedon, Henry Clarke, Nina Leen, John Rawlings, Horst Horst, Milton Greene, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Clifford Coffin, Genevieve Naylor, Georges Dambier and Regina Relang.
It was Richard Avedon (1923-2004) who many felt brought out the best in Suzy Parker, including the model herself. Avedon, who did extensive work for Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and The New Yorker, photographed a swimsuit-clad Parker in 1959, a famous shot that was credited with igniting the bikini boom. "He’s the most wonderful man in the business because he realizes that models are not just coat hangers,” Parker once said of the ex-U.S. Merchant Mariner-turned-professional photographer.
In time, Suzy Parker became the most successful and highly-paid model in the world. Reportedly, Parker was the first model to command $100 an hour for her services and the first to eclipse the $100,000 mark in annual earnings. And the outspoken Parker certainly wasn't averse to money and bling, telling The Washington Post, "I believe in the gold standard. I like solid lumps of things. You can always melt them down."
Suzy Parker ran into financial problems in 1955, owing the Internal Revenue Service $60,000 in back taxes and penalties. Fortunately, The Ford Modeling Agency came to her assistance, with Jerry Ford paying the bill and finding her assignments.
Suzy Parker, Harper's Bazaar, January 1957
Suzy Parker in Hollywood
Thanks to Richard Avedon, Suzy Parker landed her first movie role in director Stanley Donen's Funny Face (1957), appearing as a specialty dancer during the "Think Pink" number. That was followed by appearances in Kiss Them for Me (1957), Ten North Frederick (1958), The Best of Everything (1959), A Circle of Deception (1960), The Interns (1962), Flight from Ashiya (1964) and Chamber of Horrors (1966).
Suzy Parker also worked on the small screen, making her television dramatic debut in the Producers' Showcase episode "Mayerling," broadcast on February 4, 1957. Parker earned $1,000 per word for her appearance, which amounted to one line, "Drunk? He's mad!" Her other TV credits included guest roles on Playhouse 90, Burke's Law, The Twilight Zone, Dr. Kildare, The Rogues, Vacation Playhouse, Tarzan, Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre, It Takes a Thief and Night Gallery. Parker could also be glimpsed on such TV fare as Person to Person, What's My Line?, To Tell the Truth and I've Got a Secret.
Jack Palance and Suzy Parker in Playhouse 90's "The Death of Manolete," September 12, 1957
Suzy Parker Marriages and Tragedies
Suzy Parker was married three times. Her first husband was her high school sweetheart Charles Staton, with the two marrying circa 1949. The marriage was later termed "a sheer disaster" by Parker, with the couple finalizing their divorce in Mexico in 1953.
In 1958, Parker married French journalist Pierre de La Salle, with that rocky union lasting until 1961 and producing a daughter in 1959, Georgia Belle Florian Coco Chanel de la Salle. While on the set of A Circle of Deception in 1960, Parker met actor Bradford Dillman, with the two marrying at sea on April 20, 1963. The marriage lasted, with the Dillmans having three children, Dinah (b. 1965), Charlie (b. 1967) and Christopher (b. 1969).
On June 7, 1958, Suzy Parker and her father, George Parker, were involved in a horrific car-train collision. Apparently, neither Suzy or George, the latter of whom had been at the wheel, had heard the oncoming train. George died of his injuries at the hospital while Suzy suffered several broken bones and embedded glass, though none to her famous face. In 1964, while rehearsing for her role as Lana Cuberle/Simmons/Grace/Doe/Jane #12 in The Twilight Zone episode "Number 12 Looks Just Like You" (1/24/64), Parker was involved in another car accident.
Suzy Parker's Death
In later years, Suzy Parker was beset with a number of health issues, including respiratory problems, ulcers, longstanding allergies, multiple hip surgeries, diabetes and kidney failure. The final five years of her life were spent in and out of hospitals. Deciding to forego continuing dialysis for her failing kidneys, Suzy Parker returned to her home in Montecito, California, where she passed away at age 70 on May 3, 2003. She was survived by husband Bradford Dillman, four children and two stepchildren. Suzy Parker Dillman is buried in Santa Barbara Cemetery, Santa Barbara, California, Island Section Lot 186.
Suzy Parker in a 1950s ad for Chanel
Famous Suzy Parker Quote
- "I never starved myself either. I remember all the models eating raw hamburgers and living on codeine to keep up their energy. You never met a skinnier, meaner bunch of people."
- Suzy Parker and future husband Bradford Dillman in A Circle of Deception (1960)
Suzy Parker, Ladies' Home Journal, September 1956
Copyright © 2012 William J. Felchner. All rights reserved.