In the mid 1960s, Carmen Dell’Orefice met architect, Richard Kaplan. “I married two Richards so it was easier rolling over in bed at night,” she says with a twinkle. Discovering he couldn’t have children was a big disappointment. Carmen had wanted more. Another unemployed gentleman, her new husband busied himself as a patron of the arts. There were strings, but his father helped support the couple. “We didn’t talk about those things.”
They lived in a triplex penthouse on Park Avenue and a home built from a barn in Amagansett Carmen very much enjoyed furnishing. “Richard’s nieces and nephews would bicycle over. Later, I added a swimming pool to the grounds. You could hear them at 8 or 9 a.m. It was a sweet time having the kids around. I had a family, harmony; I was content.”
Unfortunately, the era took its toll. “Richard bought into the youth cult. We were surrounded by drugs, sexual libertarianism, and mini skirts. I was too old for it, maturing where he simply wouldn’t. I suddenly looked old to him.” Carmen was 42. They’d been married 11 years. She almost had her breasts done to please him. “…which would’ve been a terrible mistake…” a little sigh escapes. “You can’t make people react any other way than they do.”
Accustomed to judging herself by reflection in the eyes of men she loved, Carmen felt “depressed and over the hill.” She quit modeling for five years in an effort to find out who she was and learn to see herself. Just before going back to work, she inadvertently created the signature look that would define a new chapter in her career. “I made the decision to let my hair do its own thing. My parents had gone gray very early. I was taking control of my physical appearance instead of having editors groom a non-entity. No one gave me any flack for it.”
Rarely without male companionship, Carmen decided she would never marry again. “I’ve been a wife too often and a mother not often enough…When I divorced in ‘74, I took this one bedroom apt. It was a rental. I said to myself, just close the door. But of course, I’ve had the most fascinating and full life since I’ve moved here and it wasn’t exactly chopped liver before.” A newfound aura of independence coupled with success made her even more desirable, though now for a different kind of man.
Suave Norman Parkinson came back into her life. “You’ll do for an old bag,” he told her grinning. Parkinson took her to Paris for French Vogue and to San Simeon for Town and Country. “He rescued me.” Instead of being relegated to older women shots, she was propelled back into high fashion. They began a romance.
“Parks wasn’t only a visual person, he was an intellect. And fun; he saw the ridiculousness of the world.” Her tone is palpably warm. When he was in New York, the photographer lived with Carmen. She loved cooking for him. “He was married to the same woman until she died, then he died. He gave her the life he imagined she would’ve wanted. She was happy and I wasn’t possessive.”
The next talented man she attracted was producer and talk show host David Susskind. Despite, or perhaps because of his well earned reputation as a ladies’ man, he was uncharacteristically shy where Carmen was concerned. “I’d known him 30 years before when he was screwing all the models and detested the idea of a married man doing that. I had standards….He knew I was not a sleeper-arounder.”
Instead of approaching her directly, Susskind had his producer repeatedly invite Carmen on his television show. Her initial reaction? “I had a deep seated yech about him. Still, the programs were interesting and good exposure.” Susskind had been separated from his second wife for five years.
The third show, she recalls, was about modeling. “We’d begun to talk a little. I didn’t find him that particularly…It was not a man/woman thing.” Friends, Dorian Leigh and Nancy Berg were also on the panel. Susskind had slept with both of them. Afterwards, his producer approached Carmen with a dinner invitation from her boss. “I told the girls we were all going to have dinner with David. When he found out, his eyeballs kind of rolled…”
She began to dine with Susskind. “He talked to me about things, engaged me, asked my opinion. He would respond and listen, never cutting me off.” Carmen was unaccustomed to such treatment, especially from men.
When she was invited to participate in his last show entitled “Many Times Married,” the producer confided that every episode she’d been on was constructed entirely around getting her in front of her boss. “On that show, he asked everyone how they felt about prenups. The question was meant for me.”
“By then, I felt comfortable with him. He made me a part of the production team. I read scripts. He took me to meet his family. We weren’t sleeping together. He was smart about that… gave me time. It was gradual. One night I just stayed at his hotel. He was charming, loving, sweet.”
The couple went to every theater and film opening. “There was a chauffeured car. I felt rich and enriched. We had total intellectual trust. I could be wrong and he’d never tell me I was wrong, just show me his point of view. Really, he taught me about intimacy. I was miserably happy.”
One lunch at Café des Artistes, “…David formally proposed. I deeply believed I shouldn’t be married. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel he was wonderful. He wanted what I wanted. In the end, it was easier to marry him than not.” Susskind died of a heart attack two weeks before the wedding. Carmen was devastated. She tells me his most important legacy to her was the gift of self worth. As if this wasn’t enough to bear, she discovered she’d been swindled by his money manager. It would take years to financially stabilize.
Six years later, a concerned neighbor decided Carmen had been alone too long and proposed introducing her to another building tenant, widower Norman Levy, a giant of New York City real estate. He was 80 and had retired to a life of philanthropy and travel. She agreed to a blind date. “I opened the door and there is this 6’4”, red faced, 300 pound man,” she says blanching at the memory. He introduced himself and was hesitantly invited in.
The next words out of Levy’s mouth were “I’m in love.” Carmen, likely without missing a beat, offered him a drink. “I just want you to know,” he continued, “I’m never getting married.” “We were not together five minutes and I said, ‘Mr. Levy, that’s wonderful to hear as long as you understand, I’m not interested in sex.’ He took it as a challenge.”
“I’m a fixer. I took him to a dentist and a urologist. He lost 100 pounds. I met the family. At his daughter’s request, I’d go up to Mt. Sinai when he was examined. I kept records. It was taking care of papa again.”
The new beau not only understood what was going on in Carmen’s life, but had the desire, intelligence, and connections to help. “I had lost my life savings, so I was selling this apartment, but I had no takers. Norman asked who my attorney was, met and approved of him, approved of my accountant. I settled the arbitration on the lost monies and got two-thirds back to start over again.”
In her 70s, Margaret Dell’Orefice sold the upstate New York home purchased for her by Carmen and took to the road in a motor home. They were otherwise estranged. Carmen pauses. After that period, with help, she got her mother into the Lillian Booth Actor’s Home in Englewood, New Jersey. “Norman saw to it I was driven out and back. It would’ve taken hours with the shopping bags.”
“The experience I had those years was major…death, dying, and doctors. It was a broken down system. I ended up changing my mother’s diapers because in the best place, they simply didn’t have enough personnel. Parents teach you how to live and die. I’m not afraid of death. I came to that early on. The boys at the end of the block never came back (from the war).”
Carmen pauses, “I really wanted my daughter …” is followed by a long silence in light of a difficult relationship. “I believe in celebrating life,” she collects herself, “showing people how much I care about them while they’re alive.”
Norman Levy had financed Bernie Madoff. “When Norman sold Cross & Brown to Met Life, he had all this money. There was this fair-haired boy on Wall Street…he spoke of Bernie like a son.” February 14, 1994, Levy’s Valentine’s Day present to Carmen was an introduction to Madoff. “This is very special,” he’d said, “You can’t tell your friends. Be a big girl about this (hear the term ringing in her ears?) Anytime you want to take your money out, you can, but this will give you a start.”
Carmen recalls her first impressions of the man who pulled off the biggest Ponzi scheme of all time “…polite, not charismatic…sophisticated, and proper – except with Norman.”
For 11 years, until Levy died in 2005, he and Carmen were in a relation- ship. (Madoff delivered his eulogy.) “We were growing old together, enjoying each other’s company.” Her social life changed radically, much of it including or instigated by Ruth and Bernie Madoff. There were family gatherings, time spent in Madoff’s Montauk and Palm Beach houses, charity events, elaborate cruises and trips by private planes.
In the last year of Levy’s life, Madoff consulted on the building of a private yacht for his mentor so Levy would no longer have to hire that of Malcolm Forbes. Levy’s children saw to it the yacht had state-of-the-art ocean stabilizers because their father’s dear companion got seasick. Ruth and Bernie Madoff were on the first voyage. Carmen took interest out of her investment and continued to work intermittently for clients like Target and Rolex. Life was full.
“How are you, Carmen? A concerned friend called with the news about Bernie. My first thought was to call his secretary Eleanor. I still had private numbers. When I reached her, there was riotous noise in the background. I heard and said, ‘Oh, then it’s true?’ She answered, ‘Yes, dear, I’ll call you back‘ and never did. I thought not twice in a lifetime. What are they trying to tell me?! Keep working. I was inwardly silent like the center of the cyclone.”
“My mother had died, Norman had died, and then… The government wants the money I took out from the Madoff investments. It’s like a hanging chad. I’m still dealing with it.” (With great loss, this was subsequently resolved.)
When we spoke, there were two men in Carmen’s life, both important authors. “Gay (Talese) was seated next to me at a dinner party…I have such respect for authors. He and his wife are giants in the field. I got in touch three months later when I had to write something. He told me to fax it to him and I did.”
Carmen was amazed when Talese had no criticism. Keep writing, he told her, find your voice. “That sentence affected my reticence, my fear… Then he calls up, ‘How are you doing? You having dinner with me Friday night?’ He has shared so much.”
“He’s so mentally honed, so skilled. I didn’t know what I knew. I’m still a work in progress. Gay has done so much for me in the years I’ve known him. He’s taught me a lot about thinking. Now, I’m able to mirror back so he can share his feelings. We’re bonded. Forever.” The depth of her affection literally lowers the register of Carmen’s voice. They were often seen around town on each other’s arms.
The second man was a younger writer who lives in England. “I’ve washed enough socks. You start deciding what you want to do, what it’s possible to do…what kind of soul you have, how you want to be treated. I’m not going to isolate myself because I was supposed to drop dead a year ago…We fill each other’s spaces well. That’s hard to do when people have agendas, social places they want to get, or things they want to acquire. Our energies just complement each other in the arcs of our lives.” Discretion prevents further exposition.
How have the businesses of fashion and modeling changed? I ask.
“Mass production is driven by economics. Aesthetics only trickle down. Style gets lost. I won’t wear a skirt up to here (you can imagine the gesture) just because they’re wearing them that way. I was at dinner the other night and the skirts hardly covered the pupik (belly button). They’re so unpretty. People have no sense of occasion either. They don’t dress for the event. There are rituals and ambience to respect, an originality to style.”
“One’s eye gets accustomed, of course. When there were shoulder pads, we got used to shoulder pads, but today, it’s unkempt. Often those with money have no taste. Choices are wrong. They don’t know how to use the information. Clothes are made badly.” She wistfully recalls the artistry of Halston and James Galanos. “He had great clarity and style. And I’m absolutely blown away by the craftsmanship of Ralph Rucci who’s also an adorable person.”
“The agencies are focused on young girls. It’s a meat market. I don’t take umbrage with it, but business decisions are a concern. It’s hard when someone doesn’t know what your back story is, your energy level. Lately, photographers are so awestruck, they can hardly treat me like the pro I am.”
Patty Sicular, who’s been Carmen’s agent and friend for 30 years said, “She’s like a precious jewel, people can’t believe they have her.” “That’s hard for me to deal with,” Carmen responds. “I’m used to being part of a team.”
“The public thinks she lives on a cloud,” Sicular told me. “They don’t want to hear she brushes her teeth and takes out the garbage, but she’s more down to earth than most people. From the beginning, she was funny, bawdy and, well, normal… I remember she used to have glasses but never wear them. When we walked on the streets heads turned. I’d say, people are looking at you. `No, no,’ she’d respond. The truth was, she couldn’t see them looking at her!”
“To do Patty’s job for Carmen is ball breaking,” Carmen says referring to the model as she occasionally does, in the third person. “We’ve reversed rolls. She’s my little mother.” I relate that Sicular said it’s an honor to work with her. “I show up on time,” Carmen counters smiling. With 14 cosmetic campaigns and six Vogue covers under her belt, she’s living proof of beating the odds – aging with beauty, grace and dignity.
“My health is not dependable. Some days it’s very stressful to be Carmen. It’s a job she does. (There’s a stationary bicycle and a chinning bar in one corner.) I don’t turn it off, but I’m aware of levels of functionality. I joke about being her secretary and so underpaid. I should be the talent. To make it tolerable, I see it as a game of inventing alter egos. Once I had to imagine being in a palace ballroom or in front of The Eiffel Tower. Now, I just have to remember it.”
I ask about the qualities of a good model. “Health, imagination, self-discipline; to understand the crazy foibles of the people who hire; to be psycho-dynamically stable; not to judge; to be able to have fun; to have a sense of the garment and what you’re selling…” What about the cliché of mindless beauty?
“When they shot Dovima in the film Funny Face she was reading a comic book. She actually read comic books all the time but she wasn’t stupid. She was adorable and had a real feeling for clothes.” Dovima’s strong onscreen Brooklyn accent was the model’s own.
“I’ve never thought about age the way society does. I don’t have any hang-ups in that area. We start with a lottery in life. You win if you’re breathing. Everyone wants to be everyone else. I try not to tread like a bull in a china shop on other people’s values. My conclusions about society have always been different. I’m in the business of representing what others want to be. I challenge them to walk in my shoes.”
In 2011 at Royal Festival Hall, Carmen was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by The University of London’s College of Fashion in recognition of her outstanding service to the fashion industry. At a gala opening, the College presented CARMEN: A Life in Fashion, at The Fashion Space Gallery. The remarkable illustrator, David Downton, was curator. I asked him for a few words:
“Of course she’s a beauty… she’s the Taj Mahal of beauty, but you have to get over that. Beauty is just her opening play. More than the way she looks, Carmen’s magic lies in the way she is. The way she is in a room. The way she is when working. The way she is at dinner when she’s ‘on’, or in her apartment when she’s not. Her wit and wisdom have been unbreachable defenses against life’s swirls and eddies. She’s been broke, but never poor; wealthy, but never in any doubt about the value of things.”
“Nothing you tell her will surprise her. I fell in love with her over the drawing board and I would do anything for her; I know a lot of people feel that way. She could have owned the world if she’d wanted to. It never occurred to her to ask.”
In a 2019 article from New You, Carmen spoke of listening to her body in so far as exercise, keeping hydrated, eating to her appetite i.e. not counting calories…she sews, takes pictures, writes, sees friends…Her advice to women? “Be awake, aware, alive, efficient, involved and flexible both mentally and physically.”
A television interviewer asked her advice to women. “I don’t drink and I don’t smoke,” she replied. “If you have to be addicted to something, be addicted to love, love not sex…though I wouldn’t give up sex any more than I would breathing.”
In 2020, Carmen walked the runway for Hu Sheguang at New York Fashion Week’s Fall/Winter shows.
For those of you interested in the beauty aspect of Carmen’s life: Staying Beautiful: Beauty Secrets and Attitudes from My Forty Years As a Model
Opening Photo by/Courtesy of Fail Berisha