Born Cecilia Ann Renee Parker, October 28, 1932, in Long Island City, NY; died May 3, 2003, in Montecito, CA. Fashion model. Suzy Parker, an American fashion model of the 1950s, became one of the first superstars of her profession. The flame–haired beauty, known for her outspoken pronouncements on the vagaries of her industry, went on to a career in film and television before settling in the Santa Barbara, California, area to become a wife and mother. Parker, noted the Washington Post 's Richard Pearson, "refused to take her profession entirely seriously, maintaining that she was no more than 'an animated clothes hanger.'"
Parker was born in 1932, but later shaved a year off of her age, causing many of the death notices to give her age as 69 when she died in 2003. Her step-daughter, Pamela Dillman Harman, also explained that Parker was a native of Long Island City, not San Antonio, Texas, as she had often claimed. Harman told Dennis McLellan in the Los Angeles Times, "She liked to cast a mystery over her background." Parker spent her high–school years in Jacksonville, Florida, and it was her older sister, Dorian Leigh, who first broke into the modeling field in the 1940s. Leigh was responsible for introducing her then–15–year–old younger sibling to Eileen Ford, head of a well–known Manhattan modeling agency, and Parker began modeling during her summer vacations in New York.
Parker's career took off after legendary Harper's Bazaar editor Diana Vreeland put her on the cover. She was photographed for that magazine and for Vogue in their typically lavish editorial spreads, and traveled frequently to Paris, France, to work with designers Christian Dior and Coco Chanel. Parker's high cheekbones, green eyes, and auburn hair gazed out coolly from magazine covers, Revlon ads, and a host of other sources, often photographed by the best fashion photographers of the day, including Horst P. Horst and Richard Avedon. She quickly became the standard–bearer for a new postwar American style, succeeding in an age "in which elegance and exclusivity were being pushed aside by sexiness and availability, and she could do both looks equally convincingly," noted the Times of London, which also called her "the epitome of the new American woman: healthy, assured, and in charge of her life."
Parker was said to be the first model ever to earn $200 an hour, and reportedly took home the then–astronomical figure of $100,000 during her top years. For a model, Parker achieved a level of international celebrity that had solely been the provenance of film and stage stars before her; she was one of the first fashion muses to attain household–name status. Yet she was also forthright about her profession and a host of other topics. She once told a reporter that she believed the institution of marriage destroys love, but then press reports surfaced that she was actually secretly wed at the time to French writer Pierre de la Salle; further evidence emerged that she had also been married briefly at 17 to her high–school boyfriend, Charles Staton. Mlle. Chanel was godmother to Parker's daughter with de la Salle, Georgia.
Eager to move beyond the confines of the fashion world, Parker tried her hand behind the camera lens for a time, apprenticing at the Paris studio of famed art photographer Henri Cartier–Bresson, and then working as an editor at French Vogue. She made her first film appearance in the Audrey Hepburn–Fred Astaire classic Funny Face, about a beatnik turned fashion model. Parker's personality was said to have been the basis for the character, with Astaire playing the Avedon–type role. She went on to star in 1957's Kiss Them for Me alongside Cary Grant, which was panned by critics, and in Ten North Frederick with Gary Cooper. "Parker's trademark in photographs and later on the movie screen was icy sophistication, often likened to that of Grace Kelly," noted New York Times writer Douglas Martin, "but in person she exuded a girl–next–door prettiness and a sort of wacky loquaciousness."
Parker also appeared in a 1963 episode of the Twilight Zone, but was married that year to actor Bradford Dillman (whom she met when they both appeared in the film, A Circle of Deception ), and cut back on her work considerably after the wedding. They had three children together, and the household included her daughter Georgia as well as Dillman's son and daughter from a previous marriage. The family moved out of the Hollywood area and north to Montecito in 1968, where she spent the remainder of her life. "She was a fabulous model and did enjoy that work because she was so good at it," Harman told the Los Angeles Times ' McLellan. After the stab at acting, as Harman noted, her stepmother "decided 'OK, I'm going to give up on this and devote my talents to being the best wife and mother,' and she really was that."
Parker died on May 3, 2003; she was 70. She is survived by her husband, daughter Georgia from a previous marriage, daughter Dinah and sons Charles and Christopher (with Dillman), stepchildren Jeffrey and Pamela, and four grandchildren. Ill for a number of years before her death, Parker was eulogized as the first "supermodel," the term later coined in the 1980s to describe highly paid fashion divas like Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington. Yet Avedon, who had photographed them all, asserted that Parker "gave emotion and reality to the history of fashion photography," the Los Angeles Times ' McLellan quoted him as saying. "She invented the form, and no one has surpassed her."
Chicago Tribune, May 7, 2003; CNN.com , http://www.cnn.com/2003/SHOWBIZ/Movies/05/05/obit.parker.ap/index.html (May 7, 2003); Los Angeles Times, May 6, 2003, p. B13, May 7, 2003; New York Times, May 6, 2003, p. C17; Times (London, England), http://www.timesonline.co.uk (May 9, 2003); Washington Post, May 9, 2003, p. B8.
— Carol Brennan