updated 05/16/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 05/16/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Her own destiny is, however, not quite enough for her. Eileen Ford likes to handle the fate of virtually everyone around her. Still flourishing after 60 years, she—with her husband, Jerry—heads the most successful modeling agency in the country. Together they have created a business that turns the long slender figures on the head sheets that picture their models into fat round figures on the agency's balance sheets. Eileen Ford, as she will be the first to admit, has helped to mold the taste of a nation. Beauty, be it Jean Shrimpton's or Capucine's or Cristina Ferrare's, is essentially what is seen in the eye of Eileen. That is how she likes to think of it, anyway.
"I really prefer light-eyed models," she will announce gravely. "They photograph more easily. Of course, I come from a light-eyed background, so maybe that influenced my taste." She points to a picture of a pretty young woman. "Cute, isn't she? Too bad red hair doesn't sell." And freckles? "It's not good to have freckles," she says.
Eileen Ford picks at her food and asks her husband to fetch her an aquavit. It is Friday night, and the couple are watching Wall Street Week at their country home in Connecticut. But even now the beauty business is never far from her mind. It is the only business she knows, and nothing and no one she sees flickering on the tube is exempt from her thumbnail critiques.
"I can't stand Lou Rukeyser," Eileen snaps at the TV screen. "He has a new hairdresser." When a female Middle East expert launches into a discussion of oil prices, Eileen points a peremptory finger. "I could make her into a true beauty," she declares.
This preoccupation with what is proverbially only skin-deep is not second nature to Eileen Ford; it is her first and only nature. It was Ford's notion of the ideal height, the properly wide-spaced eyes, the correct protuberance of cheekbones, breasts and hips that brought Lauren Hutton to fame and fortune. It was Eileen, too, who nurtured Christie Brinkley and Cheryl Tiegs and Suzy Parker, to name just a few of the more prominent beauties. Not all Ford alumnae remember their mentor fondly. In fact, some seem to have quite forgotten her.
"Hello, Jane," Eileen greeted a former model a few years back.
"Do I know you?" wondered the woman.
"I used to be your agent."
"Oh, really?" replied Jane Fonda. "And when was that?"
Eileen shrugs off this example of rank ingratitude with pursed lips. Even if Jane Fonda chooses to forget, Eileen Ford knows what she's done with her life and talents. She has donated to a grateful nation granite-hard standards of what constitutes beauty. "There's no question I did that," she acknowledges proudly. "I create a look and I create a style. American women mean a great deal to me. They're such lost souls, particularly the women of my generation. And women need so much help. They never have anyone to turn to. I help them understand how they can look better, how to do this, do that, get a job. And they're very trusting. Like little lost kids."
The trusting souls come to her Manhattan agency in droves. On any workday you can see them there, waiting patiently in the reception room. The homely in low-necked blouses, the jellied thighs peeking from short-shorts. The too-short and too-heavy, the too-old and the too-ordinary and, inevitably, the very lovely. All these women dutifully sit and wait, hoping Eileen Ford will emerge from her office, eye them, and select them for a few years of glamour. And sometimes she does.
"Most of our models have just walked in off the streets," she says, "although I also find them on countless trips to Europe—particularly Scandinavia. I operate by instinct. It's a process I cannot explain, but the prettiest girl on the block is not always the best model." The Fords have seven people working for them who deal exclusively with new models, getting their hair styled properly, their makeup perfectly applied, and introducing them to the better photographers. "Still," says Eileen, "I can tell one girl to do something, and she understands immediately. And the next girl—you can put her in a Valentino and she still looks like she just came out of a K mart. It's a difference in mentality."
If a new model from out of town has nowhere to stay, the Fords often put her up at their East Side town house. This has been their practice for most of their 36 years in business, and their children, Jamie, Bill, Katie and Lacey, all grew up with an assortment of beauties who had to conform precisely to Eileen's standards of behavior.
"Mainly, Mummy reinforced their morals," recalls 27-year-old Katie, who, like her sister Lacey, 25, and her brother Bill, 30, works for her parents' agency. (Daughter Jamie, in her mid-30s, is an interior decorator.) "And if a girl didn't go along, Mummy definitely put on the reins. She even kicked some of them out." Cheryl Tiegs, who has been with the Ford agency since 1976, concurs. "Eileen is hard where her standards of discipline are concerned. There are too many beauties around to put up with girls acting up."
Eileen is also known for being appallingly blunt. When car manufacturer John De Lorean got busted on cocaine charges last October, Eileen's first thoughts were of his wife, Cristina Ferrare, one of her prize models. "Cristina will probably lose some of her accounts now," she mourned. "I'm absolutely devoted to her. But if you were a cosmetics company, what would you do? If I were John De Lorean, I'd commit suicide."
When sex chronicler Shere Hite was working as a model more than a decade ago, she attended a party at the Ford town house. A woman a bit too old to enter the profession was trying to change Eileen's attitude—to no avail. "Oh, you're 25?" said Eileen. "Well, the best you can do is go to Europe and look for a husband."
Ford's reign over her own family is no less decisive, and Jerry, 58, is the first to point this out. Easygoing and soft-spoken, he makes most of the business decisions in the agency, while his wife watches over the models. But life is not so easy for the Ford children who work for their parents.
"I'm not a hard-to-work-for person," Eileen insists stoutly.
"You're impossible," her husband dryly observes.
The pampered only daughter of Loretta and Nathaniel Otte, whose business was rating the credit of large corporations, Eileen grew up on Long Island with three brothers. She was affluent, popular with boys and, to hear her tell it, deliriously happy. "My family believed I could do no wrong," she says with a radiant smile. "That's probably why I have utter confidence in myself—even when I shouldn't have. I got everything I wanted from my parents: Brooks Brothers sweaters and Spalding saddle shoes. None of the people I grew up with had identity problems. We all had perfectly marvelous lives."
After graduating from Great Neck High School and then Barnard College, Eileen met Jerry Ford, two years her junior and a varsity football player at Notre Dame. Three months later, on Nov. 20, 1944, they were married. "We eloped," Eileen recalls. "No one who knows me well could ever explain it, but I decided to elope because I knew if I didn't right then, I would never marry him. I knew my parents would say no. They would have wanted me to marry someone who'd finished college, which Jerry hadn't—someone who had a chauffeur and a governess when he was a kid. There's no reason in the world why things worked out for us as successfully as they did. But if Jerry Ford left me, I'd kill him."
Not that things always went smoothly. "Once Jerry was really mad at me," Eileen says. "He told me I had to mend my ways or we'd be divorced."
"I told her she was too bossy," says her husband. "So ...," says Eileen, smiling placatingly at her spouse, "so I mended my ways. That's why I'm so docile now."
Two years after they were married, a pregnant and less-than-docile Eileen decided she and Jerry, who worked for her father, could use some extra cash, and she began handling modeling bookings for two of her friends. It was a profession not entirely alien to her, Eileen having modeled briefly herself. "She was certainly very good-looking," says her husband. She was also, at 5'5", too short for modeling. By the time his wife had acquired six clients, Jerry Ford decided to enter the business as well. By 1948 the couple was grossing $250,000, manning seven phones and, even then, setting rules for their models: no deodorant ads, no bra ads, no bathtub poses and no excessive display of bosom.
Times and rules have changed, but the most essential contribution of the Fords has not. Very simply, they revolutionized modeling, bringing to it some hardheaded business sense. When the Fords first began, models were responsible for setting and collecting their own fees. "It was a way of doing business that was partly responsible for the demise of John Robert Powers and Harry Conover—agencies that once led the field," says Jerry. He estimates the Ford agency, the biggest profit-maker in the business, will earn about $5 million in commissions this year. That makes its competitors mad. In some cases, very mad.
"Eileen is a mean person," says John Casablancas, who knows that his chief competitor returns the compliment in full. Until six years ago he operated his modeling agency out of Paris and had a good working relationship with the Fords. Then he opened up the highly competitive Elite Agency in New York. At that point they sued him for, among other things, allegedly breaking an oral agreement not to compete in their territory. "Eileen is Mr. Hyde," he says. "And Jerry is Dr. Jekyll. When I came to New York, my major problem wasn't lawsuits. It was personal attacks on how I directed my life—as though I was some kind of fiend with Roman orgies. She's a sour, nasty old lady with a lot of enemies."
In a business where top models can earn up to $15,000 a day and an agency collects from 10 to 15 percent as its fee, competition to snag the big money-earners is ferocious, and sniping among agency heads is commonplace. "Eileen is a very domineering lady," says one rival. "She is strong-willed and opinionated, and at Ford's there is fear and apprehension about anyone else making a decision. Eileen berates anyone who doesn't fall into line."
That goes for everyone, even her best models. To a weary young lady who had stayed up all night with her boyfriend, Eileen Ford once delivered this tart pronouncement: "Look, dear, you're a mess. If you want to model, fine. If you want to fool around, that's fine too. But you can't do both, so make up your mind, and that's it."
Critics say this single-minded certainty, which brooks no argument, extends to Eileen's taste in beauty as well—to the detriment of her agency. "There were years when Eileen wouldn't even look at a model who was not blond," snipes one agency head.
"Well," purrs the author of all this controversy, "I feel that my ideas of beauty have been given very strong backing by Botticelli and a few others. Slender hands, long neck, long limbs—look at Nefertiti. She was very teensy-weensy with a long neck and wide-spaced eyes." If those standards seem excessively narrow, Eileen has been known to stretch them on occasion. It was she, after all, who in the early '60s welcomed to her fold China Machado, who, with her tilted eyes and tawny Eurasian coloring, was not exactly a precursor of Christie Brinkley. Still, Eileen prefers few deviations from her Nordic norm. "There's a big difference between exotic and beautiful," she declares. "China was essentially a figment of my imagination. Now, Suzy Parker was a figment of everyone's imagination."
A few concessions could not be avoided. When a beautiful young creature named Brooke Shields joined the agency at age 8, the Fords began a children's division, although Eileen says, "I don't approve of it." When models began to insist on working well past their dotage (i.e., 34 and older), she formed yet another division. "But I won't have anything to do with them," she says flatly. "I know how old I am. And I don't want to look at a magazine and see an old trout like me."
Her detractors claim that she lives in the past. That her insistence on mothering sophisticated young women is passé and, in any case, futile. That with the passing of Eileen and Jerry, whenever that day should come, the agency might well founder. Casablancas likes to say that "when Eileen talks of her achievements, she never talks about models. She speaks about ex-models like Margaux Hemingway and Suzy Parker." There are new kinds of beauty, say her rivals; only Eileen still relies on the tried-and-true classical faces.
But Eileen Ford sips delicately at her aquavit, unconcerned, and reveling in the only world she knows or cares to know. "What it is," she says hesitantly, "what it really is, is I live in a wonderful world of make-believe. A world of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. A world of Winnie-the-Pooh and Edward Bear. Things like that. Wonderful things. Funny things."