Who was Suzy Parker?
Aug 15, 2018 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Lately it seems like everywhere I turn an old television series is being rebooted or an old movie franchise is finding a new plotline. Don’t get me wrong – I adore a healthy appreciation of all things vintage and retro – but I’m a purist when it comes to matters of media. This whole situation makes me want to scream at Hollywood – don’t pollute my nostalgic films and shows with your modern ick! But dear readers, I will tell you one area where I welcome a remix any day of the week is fashion. Retro-inspired pieces bring me great joy and I love seeing familiar silhouettes on the catwalk. As they say – great style never really goes out of style. There’s something about certain decades past that just exude glamour and elegance. Yet, other than Dovima, I’m not too familiar with the beautiful women who made these looks approachable and popular. These are the women who were super before the title, before social media, and paved the way for the famous faces we recognize today. Given that the 90s supermodel crew got a reboot on Versace’s latest runway show I felt it only right to feature another groundbreaking model. I started my journey innocently enough with a Google search. I didn’t recognize the name showing up top – although I knew the face – I found myself asking: who was Suzy Parker? Let’s discover together…
Suzy Parker was born in Long Island, the youngest of four girls. Her full name is Cecilia Ann Renee Parker – which seems like quite a long name for a little baby, but there is a sweet reason for the multiple monikers: they’re the three names of her mom’s best friends. How cool to carry that lineage of nurturing support with you always! Her dad added his own affection to the mix by nicknaming her Susie. We have a French photographer to thank for shortening it to simply Suzy. So the next time someone quips “what’s in a name?” you now have a great conversation starter!
The Parker clan became known for their tall, Amazonian like features. However, it was the shortest of the sisters, Dorian, who got the first big modeling break. Some even think the title of “first supermodel” should be her prize. With her older sister’s popularity growing, Suzy was keen to follow in her well-heeled footsteps. The chance came by way of some sisterly support. When the Ford modeling agency came calling, Dorian had a condition: they only got to represent her if they took in her little sister. Now, keep in mind, no one had seen Suzy before so it was a bit of a gamble but they agreed. That gamble paid off and while Dorian was a pioneer, Suzy’s popularity soon catapulted to new heights for the industry. She was the first model to wear the hat of brand ambassador, becoming the unofficial, official face for Chanel (even becoming close friends with Coco herself). Suzy was photographed by all the greats and was gracing magazine covers – even sewing pattern books. (Talk about a sign of the times – could you even imagine the Instagram models of today on the cover of a sewing pattern? But back to the woman of the hour…) Suzy wasn’t just graceful in front of the camera, but had a strong understanding of the behind-the-camera world, a capable editor and photographer in her own right. Her presence was everywhere in post-war, consumer driven America. Suzy’s easy smile and striking features oozed that “can do” attitude the American woman could identify with. All this presence made her a bit of a brand in her own right and was the first model to break the $100,000 per year salary. (To put the gravity of this in perspective – that’s about $1 million in this day and age.)
With her modeling career secure, Suzy decided to tackle new horizons like acting. (As she was known within the fashion world for her talkative and assertive nature, bringing voice to characters seemed like a natural fit!) In fact, she may be one of the first cross-industry stars that didn’t come from a Vaudevillian background. Her first big break was with Cary Grant in the 1957 film Kiss Them for Me. She did join her friend and fellow icon Dovima for a cameo in Funny Face that same year. In fact – Audrey Hepburn’s character in the film was inspired by Suzy herself! After a decade of life on the screen, Suzy closed that chapter of her life with one exception: an appearance in the 1970’s Beatles documentary film Let it Be. Pretty cool in and of itself, but the cool factor goes through the roof when you learn they wrote a song for her, named for her. Not many people can say they inspired music legends! The spotlight had shone brightly on Suzy, but after some personal tragedies she decided it was time to focus on family. Suzy’s career resilience transferred to her new life as mom and wife. A family trait as Dorian went on to be an award winning chef after her catwalk days were in the rearview mirror.
What’s been interesting about this journey through her life is that while the clothes Suzy modeled were different than what we see today, the “fire in the belly” characteristic we admire in our modern supermodels is there in spades. We’ve talked about the power of women in unexpected contexts before and, for me, it just goes to show that in every era we find Renaissance women: the gal who tackles all sorts of ventures with enthusiasm. Her journey from A to B is rarely linear – bobbing and weaving along – and that gives me a source of strength when my own path veers unexpectedly. I’ll leave you with a pretty cool sum-up of Suzy’s influence and mystique. Richard Avedon, the famous photographer, is quoted as describing Suzy as “‘my most challenging and complicated of muses.” Tell me, dear reader, when you think about spunky vintage gals… who comes to mind first? Let me know in the comments…