Brutally frank and intuitively accurate in her assessment of catwalk hopefuls, Eileen Ford discarded 199 applicants out of 200. A ruthless business woman who worked in harmony with her husband Jerry, together they reigned supreme over the model agency business in America for sixty years. Ford inspired loyalty and once she had adopted a modelling protégé she looked after them like a mother at her house in The Hamptons on Long Island and was largely responsible for introducing an ethical code of conduct into the business. Eileen “discovered” Lauren Hutton, Cheryl Tiegs, Jerry Hall, Christie Brinkley, Naomi Campbell, Beverley Johnson and Elle Macpherson amongst hundreds of others. She transformed modelling into a financially viable and respectable career for the model. In the 1970’s the Fords stymied the playboy Frenchman John Casablancas, of Elite Models in Paris, attempt to snatch her business by rallying her peers and blocking him in a war worthy of a television blockbuster series.
A genealogical mongrel Eileen Ottensoser was born in Manhattan in 1922 to upwardly mobile parents with aspirational and style conscious values that were to become her trademark. The young Eileen had to jettison her Jewish heritage to be accepted into Barnard College New York, as at the time only a small quota of Jews were allowed places in “Ivy League” Universities, Eileen reckoned that she had a better chance of securing a place on merit in the 80% of non-Jewish places; she changed her maiden name to Otte and developed an increasingly WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) identity.
By her own admission she had many proper (innocent) romances and hastily married a naval officer, the marriage equally hastily broke up in favour of debonair pilot but their passionate affair ended when he was killed in 1944.
The young Eileen had to jettison her Jewish heritage to be accepted into Barnard College New York, Eileen reckoned that she had a better chance of securing a place on merit in the 80% of non-Jewish places; she changed her maiden name to Otte.
Enter Jerry Ford who swept her off her feet, another naval officer and athletic footballer, they eloped and lived happily ever after. After brief spell as a reporter, photographic stylist and models secretary Eileen and Jerry set up their own modelling agency enterprise. With her eye and his management skills they were destined to dominate the international modelling scene. The Ford’s relentless work ethic and tyrannical brilliance and training often propelled their models into future stratospheric careers beyond modelling.
They expanded, developed businesses all over the world for associated creative artists (photographers, make-up artists and hairdressers), children, plus-size and older models and an international talent contest for what became known as the Ford Supermodel of the World.
Ford died in 2014 at 92 years, gracefully ageing models were among the 650 guests attending her memorial service at St Thomas’ on Fifth Avenue.
Robert Lacey, historian and author of the notable studies of Queen Elizabeth II, The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Princess Grace of Monaco, is renowned for his impeccable research which he now brings to “Model Woman”. With access to the agencies records and memorabilia, interviews with Ford family and friends this correspondent, who during those intoxicating times was a fashion editor for British Vogue, can vouch that Lacey presents an acurate and fascinating insight into the trajectory of both the glamourous and treacherous world of the Supermodel and her maker. This is a compelling summer read for fashionistas, published by Harper Collins on July 16th as a hardback and ebook.
“Everywoman can be her own sort of beautiful — all it takes is know how” Eileen Ford.