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Eileen Ford, Doyenne and Disciplinarian of Modeling Industry, Dies at 92
Posted: Oct 23, 2014
Eileen Ford, the grande dame of the modeling industry who influenced standards of beauty for more than four decades while heading one of the most recognizable brands in the trade of gorgeous faces, died on Wednesday in Morristown, N.J. She was 92.
Her death, at a hospital in Morristown, was announced on Thursday by her daughter Katie Ford. Mrs. Ford lived in Califon, N.J., in Hunterdon County.
Ford Models, created by Mrs. Ford and her husband, Jerry, in the late 1940s, became the top agency in the world. It elevated the modeling profession into a serious business with $1 million contracts, represented thousands of beautiful young women, and created a market for "supermodels," a select handful who could command enormous salaries for their looks.
While Mr. Ford managed the business, Mrs. Ford became the face of the agency and its chief talent scout, sometimes virtually plucking young women out of a crowd and turning them into models.
Some became celebrities in their own right, among them Christie Brinkley, Cheryl Tiegs, Veruschka, Jerry Hall, Grace Jones, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington and Elle Macpherson.
Many found stardom in Hollywood: Suzy Parker, Jane Fonda, Ali MacGraw, Brooke Shields, Candice Bergen, Rene Russo, Kim Basinger, Lauren Hutton and Jean Shrimpton, who in her modeling days embodied the miniskirted Swinging London of the 1960s.
And long before she became a lifestyle mogul, Martha Stewart was in the Ford stable to help pay her way through college.
Mrs. Ford built a reputation for transforming girls into stars with lessons in grooming, etiquette and style while running her agency like a convent. Some in the industry called her the mother of New York modeling, in almost the literal sense. A formidable manager, she was widely known for protecting models from underhanded deals and sexual misconduct and generally cleaning up the sleazy image of the business, insisting that both clients and models observe a code of ethics and decorum.
Indeed, Mrs. Ford allowed some of her charges to live in her Upper East Side townhouse when they were starting out so she could keep a watchful eye on their careers. On weekends, she would take them to her summer home in Quogue, on Long Island, and have them help in the garden.
"They have to account for their time to me," she said in a Forbes article on the industry in 1984. "They eat dinner with me, at table, every night. I don’t ever want to tell a mother I don’t know where her daughter is at 2 a.m."
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In his 1995 book, "Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women," Michael Gross described the Fords as the moral exemplars of modeling. Their agency, he wrote, was "a fortress of propriety and moral rectitude that was to stand for 50 years."
At the same time, Mrs. Ford was criticized for an imperious approach. She was well known for brusquely dismissing applicants of a sensitive age with stinging rejections.
"Eileen Ford took one look at me and told me to get a nose job," Lynn Kohlman, a favorite model of the designer Perry Ellis who died in 2008, wrote in Vogue.
Birgitta af Klercker, a favorite of the fashion editor Diana Vreeland and the photographer Richard Avedon, said Mrs. Ford told her that she was fat and had crooked teeth.
Mrs. Ford was unapologetic. "I interview about three thousand models yearly, and I must see almost 20 tons of excess avoirdupois annually," she wrote in "Eileen Ford’s Book of Model Beauty" (1968), one of her five books on modeling. "The average would-be model weighs about 16 pounds more than she should."
Mrs. Ford made perhaps her most infamous statement while appearing on "The Dick Cavett Show" in 1971 — and in doing so seemed to crystallize the perception of a fashion industry that was indifferent to complaints that it was promoting an unhealthy body ideal.
Challenged by another guest on the show — the writer Gwen Davis, who compared a model agency to pimping — Mrs. Ford coolly replied, "I never worry about fat people worrying about thin people, because slender people bury the dead."
Mrs. Ford was born Eileen Cecile Otte on March 25, 1922, in Manhattan, the only daughter of four children of Nathaniel and Loretta Marie Otte, who together owned a credit-rating company. Eileen grew up in Manhattan and in Great Neck, on Long Island. Her mother had been the first model ever hired by the venerable clothing chain Best & Company. Eileen began modeling as well, for the prominent Harry Conover agency, during her summer breaks from Barnard College, from which she graduated in 1943 with a degree in psychology.
Jerry Ford was in the wartime Navy and attending officers’ school at Columbia University when the couple met in 1944 at a nearby drugstore, Tilson’s. Three months later they eloped to San Francisco, where Mr. Ford was stationed and preparing to ship out for the Pacific for two years.
In New York, Mrs. Ford worked briefly for a photographer, Elliot Clark, and as a stylist and reporter for The Tobe Report, a fashion trade publication.
After serving on a supply ship, Mr. Ford returned to New York in 1946 and resumed his studies in accounting at Columbia. By then Mrs. Ford had been working as a secretary for several model friends and becoming their informal agent. When she became pregnant, Mr. Ford stepped in to manage the business, and he soon recognized the potential for a more organized agency that could compete with the big ones like those of Conover and John Robert Powers.
Ford Models was born in 1947, starting out in Mrs. Ford’s parents’ home. In 1948 they opened an office on Second Avenue, selling their car to pay the rent.
Mrs. Ford was the deal maker, snapping at photographers like Mr. Avedon and Louise Dahl-Wolfe and inspecting the young models who came through their doors; Mr. Ford managed the operations, introducing a five-day workweek for models, organizing their scheduling and establishing a voucher system, which allowed them to be paid in advance. (Before then, models often had to wait a year or more to be paid.) The agency then recouped the fees from the clients.
The agency was a success. Within a decade, its fees reached $3,500 a week for top models like Dorian Leigh and Mary Jane Russell, the agency’s first stars. (Another early model and an enduring one for the agency was Carmen Dell’Orefice.) On its 20th anniversary, Mr. Ford said the company was billing $100,000 worth of bookings each week.
Its position as the world’s top agency appeared to be constantly at risk as the Fords faced intense competition throughout the so-called model wars of the 1970s and ’80s, challenged by rivals like John Casablancas and Elite Models.
Ford responded by expanding, opening offices around the world and establishing divisions for creative artists, plus-size models, older models, children, catalog work and, in a publicity maneuver by Mrs. Ford in 1980, an international scouting contest for what became known as the Ford Supermodel of the World.
The Fords sold their agency in 2007 to an investment bank, Stone Tower Equity Partners, which has since been renamed Altpoint Capital Partners. Mr. Ford died at 83 in 2008.
Besides her daughter Katie, Mrs. Ford is survived by three other children, Jamie Ford Craft, Lacey Williams and Gerard William Ford Jr., who is known as Billy; her brother, William Otte; eight grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
Known for an ability to spot talent, Mrs. Ford particularly liked to discover a potential model who had not been introduced to her. Sometimes she would follow a young woman for a few blocks, appraising her (and, after drawing close enough, usually walking away).
In one case, however, she noticed a striking young woman walking down the stairs next to her at the Bonwit Teller department store in Manhattan. Her discovery, Karen Graham, became the first face of Estée Lauder. Mrs. Ford spotted another model, Vendela, in a restaurant in Stockholm.
Mrs. Ford did not always trust the assessment of others. In 1961 she was invited to Helsinki by the Finnish publishing magnate Aatos Erkko to judge a beauty contest in one of his publications, according to a biographical sketch prepared by her family. Young women from all over Finland sent in pictures, and Mrs. Ford was presented with the 20 deemed best by the magazine’s editors.
"None of these will do," Mrs. Ford said. "I want to look at all entrants."
And she did, going through more than 700 photos. She finally chose Hellevi Keko, and Ms. Keko became a very successful Ford model.
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