Carmen Dell’Orefice – Formidable Woman, Beauty Icon – Part I

This profile was created after several, lengthy, in person conversations with Carmen in her cozy living room some years ago. She was shockingly beautiful mere feet away, graceful, warm, candid, self effacing. Unless otherwise attributed, all quotes are hers.

Rehearsing a play, the young Michael Caine found a chair blocking his entrance and complained. “Use the difficulty,” his producer responded from a front row seat: “…if it’s a drama, pick it up and smash it, if it’s a comedy fall over it.” * Carmen Dell’Orifice learned to use the difficulties, defying the notoriously short shelf life of professional beauties (models), to achieve what is arguably the longest career in the business.

Fourteen year-old Carmen Dell’Orefice was on her way back to ballet class to see whether her body would obey after struggling through rheumatic fever. She was 5’5” and extremely thin. The wife of fashion photographer, Herman Landshoff approached her on a bus with “…Go home and ask your mother to bring you to my husband’s studio.”

Margaret Dell’Orefice was skeptical. “You’re an ungainly child with ears like sedan chairs and feet like coffins,” she told her impressionable daughter. “She thought it was funny.” A test shoot was arranged.

“I had pig tails. He was looking for a swan, but I just clowned. My mother got a letter that said…polite but unphotogenic. We’ll try when she’s a bit older. She framed it and hung it in the bathroom.” Carmen pauses, perhaps reflecting on her mother’s action, perhaps on over 70 successful years of modeling despite the early verdict that might easily have stopped her cold.

——————————————

Margaret Keesy (Carmen’s mother) was a Hungarian immigrant who arrived in this country without a word of English. She honed her language skills by reading the dictionary and won spelling contests. The same stubborn confidence landed the self-taught dancer in Billy Rose’s “Jumbo” on the New York stage. “He placed a dime between her thighs, knees and toes and told her she had the best legs he’d ever seen.” She was 18 and as tough as they come.

Knocked up by tall, handsome Joseph Dell’ Orefice, a violinist in the Roxy Orchestra, she waited nine months to let him know. He returned from a cruise ship job and took her down to City Hall. They were in love, but Margaret was angry. She was 21, living in a cold water flat in Astoria, and unexpectedly a mother. “Go sell apples on the street like the other musicians. It’s all money,she railed.

“We’re so spoiled, taking everything for granted. I would be the same way if I were born after World War II,” Carmen says with a sigh, “My parent’s relationship paralleled the depression economy.”

“I was hungry, often left with people mother found so she could work.” Margaret was a dancer, a waitress, a housekeeper. Joseph sent home so little money, Carmen went to 13 different public schools before 9th grade as she and her mother moved unable to pay the rent. She was “socialized not to come home to a nest,” yet doesn’t remember feeling upset or deprived. Imagine the interior world of a child who thinks that way.

Her mother was hyper-critical. “She beat the shit out of me most of the time. It made me understand reality straight up, early on. I didn’t think of myself as existing. Children learn how not to provoke.” I ask whether Carmen had a nickname. “My mother called me `hey, stupid’ or `dummy.’”

When she was seven, Margaret finagled Carmen’s way into a summer sleep-away program with The Campfire Girls at a reduced fee. “That’s where I connected with Terry and Gregory D’Alessio (established New Yorker cartoonists) who became my godparents. She had been a counselor.” The couple would take mother and daughter out to meals and theater.

Every Sunday, Carmen attended gatherings of guitar aficionados at their home, an informal circle called the Silly Center Opera Company. These often included Carl Sandburg, Edward Steichen, and Andres Segovia. “I was a well behaved little mouse. They all petted me.” She could talk easily to adults, it was peers with whom she felt awkward. “My mother was smart enough to parade me in the most benign way – I was never aware.”

The little girl spent her time alone with the radio, cut out paper dolls, and drew. Margaret sewed. Her daughter learned. They couldn’t afford store bought clothes. Carmen’s only exposure to fashion, was the occasional film. “I took care of the apartment…always on the lookout for Coke bottles because with that money you could buy a couple of potatoes.” She was domestic while other children played. One summer, mother and daughter lived at The Salvation Army. It was Carmen’s job to make beds.

At ten, the lithe little girl was awarded a scholarship to The Ballet Russe, pursuing it with single minded passion. “I danced so much – like The Red Shoes… There was a little boy in back with a space between his teeth and a cowlick – Jacques D’Amboise.” A year later, she was confined to bed with rheumatic fever nine long months. “They didn’t have penicillin yet. Today, that’s what you’d get.” Carmen dreamed of being a professional ballerina. She knew then it was lost to her. “That was my first death.”

She and Margaret moved to a 4th floor walk-up in Manhattan from Queens because Margaret was tired of commuting. “My father came to look at the apartment and cried. He was back and forth from playing at sea, then disappeared. There were years I didn’t see him at all.”

Gregory D’Alessio recognized the opportunity modeling presented. Most women in fashion magazines were society ladies wearing their own clothes. To hire young mannequins without pedigree was a burgeoning business and might possibly be a source of income for the Dell’ Orifice’s.

Her godfather spoke to Carol Phillips, a young staff writer at Conde Nast and much later president of Clinique. Carol had Margaret take Carmen to John Robert Powers, one of the few existing model agencies. Vogue had already expressed interest despite Ladnshoff’s opinion.

The Dell’Orefices didn’t have a telephone. Runners were sent when Carmen was required. She often roller skated to work in order to save bus fare. “Next, Clifford Coffin shot seven pages. He didn’t like my mouth, so I didn’t smile.” Margaret responded by getting her braces, essentially preventing her daughter from smiling the next four years. This likely added to the aura of an older woman she presented in photos.

Irving Penn wanted to photograph “Little Carmen,” but was reluctant to do so without a bill of good health. “I had pernicious anemia and really looked malnourished… (Cecil) Beaton had to pin clothes on and stuff them with tissue I was so thin.” Penn saw to it she was sent to the medical supervisor at Conde Nast.

The doctor put her on liver and iron injections to correct her concave chest and bring on puberty arrested by her illness. Then there were hormone shots. Margaret never saw a bill. Like her godparents, the doctor and his family adopted them. “I’ve been lucky with people all my life.”

When Carmen grew stronger and filled out a bit, Penn cast her as Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White and Cinderella in a fashion spread featuring Babe Paley as her fairy godmother, Paula Lawrence and Dorothy Parker as the wicked step sisters, and Jose Ferrer as the big bad wolf. “I had a great sense of being a silent screen actress and would imagine fictions.”

“That’s when Erwin Blumenfeld took me by the hand and walked me over to a new agency called Ford.” Up till then, Carmen was earning $7.50 an hour. Ford upped her to $10.00, the highest going rate. It was at this point she got her first Vogue cover. She was 15. “I hated the picture. It made me look like a little boy, not how I thought a woman should look.”

Ford was protective and hands on. Photographers treated Carmen like a professional because she acted like one. Ballet training taught her discipline and she knew how to tune out the world. “I’d have my sewing with me all the time… always making something for mother or myself with Vogue patterns.” Eileen Ford was a touchstone in her life. The women became lifelong friends.

When Carmen began, pancake make-up was an innovation, lipstick a sign of liberation (like cigarettes), and mascara rare. Stylists didn’t exist. Editors like Babe Mortimer (Paley) did the job. “I was mothered.” Getting your bangs cut was a big deal. The girls helped each other in front of and behind the camera. They did their own make-up and hair. She had grown to a slim, graceful height of 5’9”.

Photographers became surrogate fathers and brothers. No one made a pass. “They wouldn’t have had a chance. I had been on subways and brought up by a mother who said, if they take their thing out, just tell them it’s not big enough.

Sincere, beautiful, lucky, and young, Carmen was watched over and mentored by a wide variety of her seniors. Cecil Beaton would take her to dinner. “He was friendly and elegant, though I don’t think I was aware of it then…always telling me what a good job I was doing.” When he gifted her a ticket to the opening of Lady Windemere’s Fan, the teenager skated to the theater “in my pleated skirt, hat and white gloves.” Afterwards, she sent a thank you telegram reading “Hubba, hubba!” He must’ve loved that.

Beaton introduced her to Salvador Dali, his neighbor at The St. Regis Hotel. Like photographer Horst P. Horst, Dali compared her to a Botticelli. In fact, he painted her as Venus on the half shell. She received $12 an hour. “I had a flat chest, but he fixed that. He painted and jerked off. If he saw me looking, he’d say, no, no, look over there. Gala was with other people.”

Dali also took Carmen to dine, mostly across the street at La Côte Basque or Le Pavilion. Sometimes Beaton would join them. She had warm relations with Dali until his death. Beaton withdrew from her life. He never forgave her for marrying her first husband, who was Jewish.

“By the time I was 14, I was working enough to have the power of money. Mother cashed our checks at the local grocery store. We didn’t have a bank account.” She tracked down her father’s rooming house through Local 802 of The Musician’s Union, talked her way past the landlady, painted his walls, and put up a Christmas tree. Joseph Dell’ Orefice returned from a working cruise to find his daughter sleeping in his army cot. It was a joyous reunion.

Carmen takes a deep breath telling me this part of her story, her eyes moist. “…and we were never apart again. Mother said, ‘I do all the work and that son of a bitch gets all the love.’ She wasn’t wrong. I took care of both my parents till the day they died.” (Her father was 73, her mother 94.)

The young model got herself into The Lodge School, a private tutoring academy for professional children, but remembers no special friends and shrugs off the question. Work life was all encompassing. She met Dorian Leigh at a shoot for Irving Penn with whom Leigh was having an affair. Her new acquaintance had only been working six months and would rise to the top of the field. She was 5’5” and starting her career at 27 with a husband and two children – an anomaly.

Dorian introduced Carmen to her younger sister, Cecelia, aka Suzy Parker, whom she got into modeling by telling the Ford Agency she’d transfer from Powers if they’d accept her sister sight unseen. “Dorian would give us bus fare to get to a shoot and Suzy would say, ‘Look at the money we have, we could go to a double feature.‘ And we did. She was a devil. It didn’t occur to me I had to show up. It took time to learn it was a job.”

Carmen moved agencies several times. Her fee went up to $25 an hour and she rented her own apartment on East 71st Street. One after the other, she stood before photographers who would become icons. Norman Parkinson, “Parks,” was recognizable by the Kashmiri wedding hat he sported atop his 6’6” frame and by a mellifluous British accent. He was 25 when he first worked with 17 year-old Carmen and every bit the gentleman artist.

“I was so taken with him.” She remembers both the man and the assignment quite clearly. “I wore a gray taffeta dress. We shot at The Plaza Hotel.” Her voice grows warm. Jaunty photographs of Parks are displayed in the apartment.

Francesco Scavullo “was adorable, avuncular, and brotherly. Already a professional, though not much older than me. ‘Isn’t that beautiful?‘ he’d say. ‘That should be your dress!’  Horst “had a wonderful calm voice. I’m very voice sensitive. He was quiet, very firm, and made me feel like the most important person in the world. Sometimes he’d startle me. ‘Why are the corners of your mouth always turned down?” he asked.” She had remembered Clifford Coffin’s verdict about her smile.

Only once was she “foist upon” Richard Avedon in the early days. He’d have preferred someone else.” When did you get rid of those insecurities? I inquire. “I’m working on it,” she replies laughing, “…in my 40s perhaps.”

In 1950, Stanley Marcus (Neiman Marcus) sent the then bleach-blonde Carmen to Australia for her first runway show. “It took three or four days to get there.” Looking at the woman beside me I keep forgetting how old she is and find this surprising.

“Because of my ballet training and swimming, I was strong and graceful. I watched and I walked. This thing about my being queen of the catwalk is ridiculous, however. My artistry is in print work. In those days you had to hold a pose sometimes for two minutes with an attitude that seemed alive. I was just able to do it.”

At 21, Carmen married Bill Miles whom she’d met at 16 and moved in with at 18. “He spoke French and sang to me. It was all romance, fun, and games. Bill gave himself to me like a great prize. I got what I wanted…” Miles was ten years her senior, divorced with a child. “Mother was opposed to the marriage. She thought it was not a good match.”

Her husband picked up the checks and managed their money. “His work was – he was working the world… I bought him racehorses so he could join The Jockey Club.” Carmen facilitated a life of relative leisure. And gave birth to her only child, Laura, who lives in California.

Then healthy, she describes herself as being “full busted with broad shoulders, and, unfortunately, a difficult size.” Miles oversaw her diet until she lost the baby weight, but Carmen’s body had essentially changed. “I was 125 before and 155 lbs after Laura was born. He knew that thin was in.” She let her hair grow dark and changed agencies again.

“I was offered a lingerie campaign for Vanity Fair at $300 an hour, the absolute top in the business. It was risky, though. I might not have been hired to do high fashion again.” As it turned out, none of the images showed her face. They were artful, opening doors to that kind of aesthetic in other magazines. “I have the negatives under my bed somewhere.”

It was model, Sunny Harnett who said, “What do you mean Bill is picking up your check, are you crazy?! You stop that right away.” Carmen raises an eyebrow. She rescinded permission, but dutifully still handed it over. Miles gave her a small allowance. The pattern was ingrained.

At Diana Vreeland’s encouragement, Avedon finally requested Carmen’s presence in his studio above Manny Wolf’s Chop House. She knew he was serious when asked to don the long, gray, elastic topped, jersey tube in which he critiqued the likes of Harnett and Parker.“…if you could get rid of this hairline,” he began, suggesting electrolysis… “You need shadow here because you have no mouth…” Avedon applied her make-up and did her hair.

He then booked Carmen and Suzy for the Paris Collections. “He’d been an advisor on the Audrey Hepburn/Fred Astaire film, Funny Face the year before and needed to look at the city with new eyes. I was never his favorite, but-Paris!… My father and housekeeper would take care of my daughter.” Suzy stayed with her second husband at the time, Carmen at a hotel. Mornings without bookings, they’d pick out fabric on The Champs-Élysées and Carmen would start to sew something for the girls to wear that evening.

After ten years together, four married, she left Miles taking only Laura, her bed, and what she could carry. “There were deal breakers that happened. We should’ve just had an affair… I moved close to Bill to give him access to his daughter… All you have to do is give them access and they’re a no-show.”

“As a favor to Eileen (Ford), I agreed to do a booking with a relatively unknown photographer named Richard Heimann. He was shirtless when we met.” (My subject would be the first to admit, she’s a great appreciator of masculine beauty.) They married a whirlwind seven months later in 1958.

On her wedding night, the groom mentioned he’d gotten out of the army on a section 8. Unfortunately, his illness was to rise again and adversely affect their marriage. There’s not a hint of rancor in her voice when she tells me this.

Carmen thought she could handle it. She set him up in a studio with a complete color lab. They worked together as often as possible until she decided to retire – at which point he left her. “Richard was a talented photographer, painted and did calligraphy; a very cultivated man… goodhearted, but crazy. He was the only person who ever paid me back any money.” They remained friends.

Read Part II

Opening Photo by/Courtesy of Fail Berisha

About Alix Cohen (791 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.