Style & Fashion


Carmen Dell’Orefice, fashion’s favourite senior citizen

The Times

October 30, 2010


“Sex has never been better: sex is between the ears. But marriage, at my age, is not a goal”

So that’s how to wear a black coat. I am no fashionista, but during our shoot, when Carmen Dell’Orefice lifts the scooped neck of her short black jacket and adopts a stance that is both confrontational and come-hither, a certain magic happens: the photographer starts click-clacking intently, the stylists look rapturously at each other. The hair and make-up artist observes, it must be said accurately: “Fierce. Fierce. Fierce.”

Dell’Orefice (pronounced “O’ray-fitchie”) is 79 and known as one of the world’s “oldest working models” – 63 years after appearing on the cover of American Vogue for the first time. That morning, back in 1947, she was so mortified when she saw her face on a copy of the magazine she hoped it would be just that one and not, as she soon observed, the whole stack underneath. Christian Dior had only just launched “the New Look” – it was a time when modelling was in its infancy and the beautiful women who paraded in magazines in designers’ finery were society ladies.

Dell’Orefice, despite that exotic name, came from the wrong side of the tracks.

She would be photographed by all the greats: Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Horst and Norman Parkinson, with whom she had an affair. Now she is famous for her sharp beauty and distinctive white hair. As well as modelling clothes for magazines and catwalk shows including Gaultier and Galliano, she has appeared in advertising campaigns for brands such as Rolex. Along the way, there have been many husbands, affairs, abortions and heartbreak; twice she has lost huge sums of money, once in the stock-market crash of the Eighties, and most recently a reputed $2 million [£1.26 million] as a result of financier Bernie Madoff’s fraudulent dealings.

It has not been a life half-lived. Dell’Orefice says she has “huge problems” finding everyday clothes to fit because she is not a sample size. This seems astonishing: she is tall, in great shape. She is a size 12 and she weighs, just as she always has as an adult between 9st 9lb and 10st. When she was 13, starting out as a model, she was 7st 2lb and recovering from rheumatic fever. She dreamt of becoming a dancer and had appeared with the Ballets Russes, but she had heart problems and was considered too tall.

As a child she was clearly already a determined free spirit. At the age of 7, she turned her back on the Catholic Church just before her confirmation. “My mother was finishing the hand-smocking of my Marriage to Christ dress when I realised that everyone was doing what they liked during the week and expecting absolution every Sunday.”

Her early home life was turbulent and she often stayed with relatives and foster carers. She recalls “all the unpleasantries of a bad marriage” as a little girl. “I was lonely. We were always moving around different parts of New York, so I could never establish proper friendships. My father was Italian, my mother was Hungarian; she was a ballet dancer, he was a symphony violinist 20 years her elder. Like many daughters, I was closer to my father. He was particularly refined, loveable, a pushover. I could wrap him around my little finger.”

Her mother “went out and scrubbed floors” and kept the house in order. She also thought nothing of hitting her daughter.

Today Dell’Orefice defends her mother vociferously. “She always stepped up to the plate on the big stuff; it was just everything in-between that was hell. She’d had to give up her dream of being a dancer.” Years after he’d left them, she tracked down her father to a rooming house. He was away on tour, so she painted his lonely attic room, put up a Christmas tree and bought him an Emerson radio. Her mother, who had taught herself English by reading the Webster’s Dictionary, put herself through university and became the foreman of a watch factory. “She died in my arms aged 94,” says Dell’Orefice. “In the last year or two she said, ‘I was a bad mother,’ and I would laugh, ‘Oh, yes, you were.’ ”

She seems remarkably without bitterness. “I didn’t hate her, I hated the circumstances,” Dell’Orefice says adamantly. “This was just after the war. Those times didn’t allow parents to spoil their children. We sold apples on the street.” She pauses and sighs. “You know what it’s like to start with nothing – and where you don’t want ever to return to, either by accident or voluntarily.”

This was the impetus behind Dell’Orefice’s work ethic from the moment she was spotted on a bus on the way to a dance class by the wife of a photographer. These early test shots didn’t lead anywhere, but her godfather contacted a friend at Vogue. Two weeks later she was being photographed by Horst,on a $7.50 an hour contract with the magazine. “In those days, a woman’s career options were schoolteacher, nurse or hooker. But it was like a death that I couldn’t be a dancer,” Dell’Orefice recalls.

She didn’t think she was beautiful, indeed still doesn’t. “I looked like a small man. I had every self-doubt and insecurity. My mother told me I had ears like sedan doors and feet like coffins. I was into upholstery and carpentry, making birdhouses. I thought I’d get married and have lots of children. I felt too stupid for anything else.”

But convention would not be her bedfellow. “Modelling was a total non-event for me,” Dell’Orefice says. “These people would say, ‘Wow, you’re really owning that look,’ but for a girl in a fur coat and hat, it just seemed a huge game of dress-up – except they booked me again, meaning I made some more money to take care of my mother.”

Penn shot her one day and thought her body had physically arrested, so soon she was having hormone shots to bring on adolescence and taking liver and iron tablets. Penn was quiet and shy, she remembers. Avedon, on the other hand, was more of an extrovert (“He hadn’t been in the war like Penn”), while Cecil Beaton proved “outrageous”. Dalí, for whom she posed nude, “was just a buddy – that’s how I felt about all of them”.

Dell’Orefice’s love life, on the other hand, makes Kate Moss’s exploits appear prosaic. She fell in love with her first husband, Bill Miles, when she was 16 and he was 26. She had three abortions before they married when she turned 21. “I was fixated with him, but he didn’t want to commit to me as he was having an affair with a much older married woman. I only got him when she died. It was terrible having the abortions – they were illegal at the time. One was on a doctor’s kitchen table in Brooklyn, the other two in Pennsylvania. But at least they were reputable doctors.”

Miles told her he would marry her before the third abortion, but Dell’Orefice said she’d only agree if they wed after she’d had the termination. She wanted him to love her for herself. Although the marriage did produce her only child, a daughter, Laura, Miles cheated on her, she says, took her money and was an absent father. Her second husband was almost the British politician Bill Astor – he was 60, the third Viscount Astor, she 28 – but she told him she wasn’t attracted to him. “I said, ‘Darling, what are you going to give me for a wedding present – a lover?’ He made me promise that if I married again he would have to meet them.” And she did introduce Astor to husband number two, the photographer Richard Heimann. Laura loved Heimann but he, as Dell’Orefice puts it, “though adorable, couldn’t bring up someone else’s child”.

She gave up modelling during her third and 11-year-long marriage to the architect Richard Kaplan. This relationship sounds the most emotionally taxing. As she says: “Eight incredible years and three horrific ones.” She wanted to be a homemaker and have more children, but her husband couldn’t – “The universe was trying to tell me something,” she reflects now. At one point Laura was treated for drug addiction. “She went to hell and back,” says Dell’Orefice, and their relationship suffered. Laura, now 57, is a family therapist in California and has offered this perspective on their relationship: “My mother always said, ‘You have your good looks in your own right,’ but I never believed her. She was like a Barbie doll to me, and I was just not there.”

Did Dell’Orefice ever do drugs? She looks alarmed. “I don’t know what you mean.” Did you ever take drugs? “For how long?” she answers. Just, have you ever taken drugs? “Have I ever had a cigarette in my mouth? Yes. Has anyone ever slipped me LSD? Yes, they have, thank you very much, and that was it.”

After she broke up with Kaplan, she disappeared for a while. Then, when she was 49, Norman Parkinson saw her on a New York street. “Hey, you,” he called after her. “What are you doing now? No one can find you.

For an old bag you don’t look so bad. Do you want to come to Paris and do some pics?” And so her career restarted. The industry today doesn’t value the “artistry” of the environment in which she first modelled, she says: all those size-zero girls “don’t look sensual. I hope they live through it all. It’s a demented view of how one should look.” Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell aren’t supermodels, she says; they’re marketing tools.

By the late Eighties, she and Parkinson were having an affair behind the backs of his wife Wenda and her partner at the time, US talk show host David Susskind. “He begged me not to marry David, and I told him he couldn’t leave his wife while she was so ill.

Then she died, and two weeks before David and I were due to marry, David died.” Parkinson was too angry at being rebuffed to contemplate finally being together. Then he too fell gravely ill. Dell’Orefice recalls telephone conversations to his hospital room where an assistant would convey Parkinson’s responses to her questions: two blinks for a yes, one for a no.

Her next partner, the multimillionaire Norman F. Levy, introduced her to Bernie Madoff, but Levy died in 2005. All that death, I say. “The universe has a way of pulling the rug out from under me,” she says with a genuine absence of self-pity. “You have to absorb the shock and get over it. Remember whatever it was for what it was. If you can’t fix it, so what? From a young age, I knew I was going to die. At least I can plan how to leave this planet in the most comfortable way.”

But losing her savings because of Madoff must have hurt? Especially after her Eighties financial losses, which had led to her selling vintage modelling pictures of herself. “The bad news is, the government is now asking for all the money I took out of the Madoff account, but as that was all interest above the original investment, I think it’s grossly unfair. They’ve threatened to subpoena me. I’m a model, not a financial expert; I trusted somebody who turned out not to be trustworthy. Why am I being punished?” Fortunately, she says, unlike other victims, she hadn’t over-reached herself. She’d already bought her apartment. “I didn’t want private jets, I don’t buy things I can’t afford. It changes the colour of my old age, but I’ll be fine.” She and Bernie and Ruth Madoff were not “close close – there were dinners on yachts and things like that” – but Dell’Orefice remains “in a state of horror and disbelief for all those whose lives were really ruined”.

Yet on Dell’Orefice goes, seemingly unsinkable, towards her 80th birthday. “I’m not going to have a party,” she says. “And I don’t believe in burial either.” Her body has had a lot of work, she admits. In her twenties she was a waterski instructor and she shows me her mottled skin where all the sun damage (“I didn’t go brown, I went black”) has left blotches: she has regular check-ups for malignant melanomas. She does her own hair (“I can’t be bothered with salons”). She has had plastic surgery on her nose twice: once after breaking it on a diving board when she was young; then five years ago when she tripped on a rug in her lobby. “I’m taking them to court; they hope I’ll drop down dead before we get there.” She’s had silicone injections and a full dermabrasion on her face. Eight years ago, Dell’Orefice had a hysterectomy after four benign cysts were discovered in her womb. “I can no longer be implanted with someone’s eggs and become the world’s oldest mother. Ha-ha! I wish I’d done it 30 years ago; I’ve never felt better. My oestrogen patch works brilliantly.” She has a new partner, a friend she has known for years – “Sex has never been better: sex is between the ears” – though says, while she loves him, “Marriage, at my age, is not a goal.”

If her modelling and style are an inspiration to older women, Dell’Orefice says: “My messages would be, ‘Hurry up and live every day you’re in,’ and [she shouts], ‘Be a f***ing organ donor.’” She smiles wickedly at my surprise at this sudden profanity and, with lip-smacking relish, downs the last of her vodka.