More than a modeling agency pioneer, Eileen Ford, who died Wednesday at the age of 92, helped introduce a Who’s Who of beauties to the American cultural landscape.
The cause of Ford’s death and location had not yet been confirmed Thursday.
In 1946, Ford revolutionized the modeling business by starting an agency with her husband, Jerry, in their Manhattan apartment. Their aim was to maximize models’ bookings and manage the professional lives of their clients. Over the nearly seven decades she ran Ford Models, the straight-talking Ford steered Twiggy, Lauren Hutton, Cheryl Tiegs, Christie Brinkley, Christy Turlington Burns and other top-tier models into superstardom. With each generation, she ushered in a new cast of beautiful faces. In the Forties and Fifties, it was Dovima, Jean Patchett, Suzy Parker, Tippi Hedren and Monique Chevalier. By the Sixties, the standouts were Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Ali MacGraw, Penelope Tree, Grace Jones, Veruschka and Martha Stewart. And the three decades that followed brought a new wave of talent, including Kim Basinger, Beverly Johnson, Naomi Campbell and Elle MacPherson, among others.
In an interview Thursday, Brinkley recalled first connecting with Ford through photographers Mike Reinhardt and Patrick Demarchelier. In the late Seventies, they phoned Ford from Paris, where Brinkley was living at the time, and urged her to see the young talent. Soon after, Brinkley planned to visit her parents in Palm Springs, Calif., and Ford invited the striking blonde to visit the Fords’ home there. “I met with her and showed her the few photos I had. She said, ‘I don’t like these at all. But you are great.’” Brinkley said. “Eileen said, ‘Those photos are awful, but we will change all that.’”
While Ford’s management style was like “a stern mother,” Brinkley said she was “really just a sweetheart” who knew everyone in her agency, as well as what was going on in their lives, what their strengths were and what they would excel at. “That personal connection to everybody is what made her so wonderful,” Brinkley said. “She knew the business and she made the business.”
In a 2010 interview with WWD, Ford mentioned how more than 100 of her former models had contacted her on a birthday. “Their lives were very important to me. It wasn’t just a business. Our business was built on trust. They trusted us and we loved them,” she said.
Being a modeling agent was an avocation, not a job for Ford, who first spied Vendela in a Stockholm restaurant and Estée Lauder’s first big face Karen Graham at Bonwit Teller, according to Ford’s daughter Katie. “Her greatest thrill was to spot a model in the daily course of life, one that was not introduced to her. She would often spot a girl she thought could model and follow her for a few blocks, assessing her first appraisal throughout her surreptitious chase,” the younger Ford said.
After the Fords moved to an Upper East Side brownstone in 1955, they started inviting new models to live with them in the summer to help them adjust to city life. An avid entertainer, Ford was sure to put the up-and-comers to work in the family’s house and garden. On weekends, they often traveled with the family to their summer house in Quogue. Photographers, stylists and editors routinely joined the gang for lunches and dinners. Katie Ford recalled how director Dick Richards reminisced about his young days as a photographer: “When Eileen invited me for the weekend, she asked me to paint my bedroom…had she asked, I’d have gladly painted the whole house.”
A former model herself, the New York City-born Ford spent two of her Barnard College summers learning the ropes. In 1944, she and her midshipman husband eloped before he was sent to the South Pacific for two years. During that time, Ford worked a series of different jobs, such as secretary for lensman Elliot Clark, a stylist at Arnold Constable department store, a copywriter and a Tobe Report fashion writer. While helping a few model friends with their bookings, Ford decided their agencies were less than honest. Her husband soon recognized the viability of her business and joined in the endeavor. Early on, they sold their car to buy office furniture, and in 1948 Life magazine featured them in an article pegging their gross billing at $250,000 after just one year in business.
In 1995, Ford passed the torch to her daughter Katie, who took over the company as chief executive officer. The younger Ford held that role until Ford Models was sold to Stone Tower Equity Partners in 2007. More than three years after the fact, Ford told WWD, “We’re not going to live forever. We know that. And we gave it to the children. I don’t think you can give a business to a child and say it’s yours and then tell them what to do. My daughter sold the agency and she’s devoted her life to prevent human trafficking. I’m so proud of her.”
Ford’s tips to up-and-comers extended to their elders: “My advice is to their parents. Let your children know that you believe in them. That’s true about being a successful model agent, too. The model has to know that you believe in her. And gosh knows we did.”
Turlington Burns said Thursday, “I was fortunate to have worked in the industry at a time when legends like Eileen Ford were still reigning. Being a part of the Ford Agency when I began my career was truly special. I will always remember Eileen and her indomitable presence with fondness and gratitude.”
Ford Models said Thursday, “Eileen Ford was an industry icon and pioneer, and everyone in the Ford Models family will miss her dearly. Eileen’s contributions to the modeling and fashion industries are unmatched. She founded Ford Models 68 years ago and, due to her unwavering passion, curiosity and drive, grew Ford into one of the world’s most prestigious agencies. We are incredibly proud and grateful for her revolutionary spirit and the values she instilled in Ford Models.”
With an Irving Penn photograph of 10 statuesque models hanging above her desk at work, Ford often dressed in a pencil skirt and shirt with a sweater casually tied across her shoulders, and she made it known that her models should always look pulled together. Along the way, Ford penned five books about beauty. She and her husband delved into cosmetics with Eileen Ford Makeup for Models, which was later sold. While she was not known to mince words, she appeared teary in the HBO special “About Face,” when she said, “I’ve read from time to time that I’m cruel, that I turn down models. If I did say no, it’s the best thing I could do,” explaining that telling a short model that she could get work would be dishonest. (She also was known to stand up for her clients’ best interests, her daughter Katie said Thursday.)
As the modeling business edged into celebrityhood, Ford said, “It’s very bad for the model business. It didn’t surprise me — it troubled me. I felt very sorry for them because covers count for the model. On the other hand, my idol was Katharine Hepburn. I loved the way she looked, the way she dressed — everything about her.”
Through it all, Ford considered her marriage to be her greatest success. (Jerry Ford died in 2008.) She told WWD, “Jerry and I worked together and then we’d go home to see our children. We were married two months short of 64 years. And Jerry’s two-and-a-half years younger than I. I’m an original cougar.”
Not one for words to live by, Ford said, “I live day to day, and so far it’s worked out. I’m really lucky. That’s a good song, ‘Lucky to Be Me.’ I am lucky to be me. It isn’t that I’ve wound up the richest woman in the world. I’m not the poorest woman in the world, but I certainly think I’m one of the happiest — and luckiest.”
In addition to her daughter Katie, Ford is survived by three other children, Jamie, Billy and Lacey, as well as her brother, William Otte.