It was a somber finale here at the haute couture shows in Paris. As I was recovering from four days of fabulous fashion and fetes, word came from Morristown, New Jersey, that Eileen Ford, the founder of Ford models, had passed away at the age of 92. To say that Ms. Ford, with her husband Jerry, changed the face of fashion is an understatement. Their modeling agency, Ford, was founded in the 1940s and revolutionizing the industry. Cosmetics contracts, cancelation fees, the word supermodel: The Fords did it all. Six years ago, I met with Eileen and Jerry at the University Club in Manhattan for a story in V magazine. (Jerry passed away in 2008.) By then, she could have passed as anyone’s sweet, sassy grannie. But I could still see the steely reserve that made her an icon in the industry behind the twinkle in her eye. Here is that story.
Time magazine once said that Eileen Ford, the iron-fisted matron of the modern modeling agency, ‘was part pit bull, part den mother – and all business.’ Today, at a spritely 86-years-old, the founder of Ford likes to think of herself more maternal than canine (“I don’t like pitbulls anyway,” she says when reminded of the quote. “Couldn’t I have been a bijon with a bite?”). Delicately sat on a couch in Manhattan’s University Club – which she prefers as it’s, “across the street from my hair dresser, down the street from Escada and around the corner from Michael’s” – Mrs. Ford is perfectly coiffed and buttoned up in grey slacks and a navy cardigan with white knit piping; always within arm’s length is Jerry Ford, her husband of nearly 7 decades, business partner, protector and person she calls “the other half of my life.” These two people, both now frail yet fervent, changed the face of fashion. Literally. This industry has a habit of lauding its major players – so and so redirected fashion with a new cut or a fancy coat – but Jerry and Eileen Ford completely overhauled their industry, and the porcelain and lean features from which fashion hangs. Cancelation fees, collecting payment from the client and the model, weather permits fees and fitting fees – all of these were Ford initiatives. “Girls used to have to try on endless dressing for nothing,” Ford says in horror. The way Ford treated her models blurred the line between mother and manager. She redefined what it was to be an agent. As Time magazine put it, “She takes sugar and space and everything nice, and turns it into cold hard cash.”
DB: I’m told you modeled as a young woman, Mrs. Ford.
EF: Yes, for one month of the summer, for two years, when I was in college.
DB: I imagine its changed since then.
EF: Yes, today a model is paid. A lot! I got $5 an hour, which my father thought was a terrible sum of money for a girl, outside of being naughty. We carried hatboxes with our makeup and things. One was so proud to have a hatbox with an agency’s name on it.
DB: How did you get switch to the booking side? I read it started as a hobby for two girlfriends of yours.
EF: It was no hobby – it was a full time job. I needed money! Jerry was away in the Navy during the war, and when he came home he could go on a football scholarship to Notre Dame or play professional football for the Los Angeles Rams. However, I upset all those plans by getting pregnant. The agencies then were ridiculous, just terrible. No one got to the right place at the right time, and if you asked for a blonde you were sure to get a brunette. If going to college did one thing for me it got me organized. We had no money – he was 20 when we got married, and we were living with my mother and father. So I started booking two models, each paying me $65 a month. It was 1946, so that was a sum of money. And then more models asked to come on board. Jerry, who had never booked in his life, started when I was pregnant. In those days you were supposed to stay in the hospital for 10 days after you have a child, but I was kicked out after five cause I tied up the nurses’ switch board booking girls from bed.
DB: Did you have any idea you would spend the rest of your life doing that?
EF: How could you? When you’re young you never look at the future. But everyone was unhappy with their agencies, so everyone came to us. We’d sit in the garden of my father’s business, at Lexington and 29th Street, with two phones. Daddy finally got fed up with us tying up his lines too, so we found our own offices on 2nd Avenue. We sold our car to pay the rent.
DB: Ford famously became a family affair. Were the models looking for a den mother?
EF: Sort of. They wanted a manager too. Some of them didn’t like it; like Naomi Campbell, who left us – four times. Christy Brinkley told us recently when she stayed with us she would come down in her pajamas and say she was doing laundry. When she’d get to the kitchen she’d change into her night clothes, put her pajamas in the oven, and know we’d be asleep when she got home. The models ate with us, they stayed with us, I would teach them manners if I needed to. We would go to the Met Museum and lectures, and to the country on the weekends. We were the same age at the beginning, don’t forget. We’d eat together, drink together, stay out all night together. We had a great time – but we’d average 4 hours of sleep a night!
DB: Surely there was at least one wild girl. Was Gia ever with you?
EF: Once, for about four days. Dick Avedon called us; we told him we didn’t want her, but he promised she was totally reformed. The first thing she did was not show to a booking, so I told her not to come back. She told me that she was in a car giving her dogs a ride or something – I have no sense of humor about that sort of thing.
DB: Indeed, you had little patience for misbehavior. You were mom, manager and booker.
EF: And their friend. If a girl found herself in trouble, I helped them, got them into rehab or off whatever they were on. I just found a letter from a model which said she never thanked me for saving her life. She had overdosed, and when I couldn’t get her on the phone I had the superintendent break her door down and shove her into rehab.
DB: Were you an active scouter?
EF: I’m still an active scouter. If I see someone today I’ll speak to them.
DB: You had a theory: “bones and body, body and bones.”
EF: I said that a long time ago. It’s still true, but now I want to amend it to include one other thing: she just has to be born to do it. It’s instinct. Jerry says, “God made models. But he made very few good ones.”
DB: What about personality?
EF: Let me ask you one question about that: Naomi Campbell?
DB: Hey, she definitely has a personality!
EF: She has had a few personalities. She could be a sweet as pie on minute — but you put up with so much more now than I could. I’ve always said we’ve raised a lot of people’s children.
DB: Do you think you defined generations of beauty?
EF: I think I verbalized it. I didn’t make a new look – Christian Dior made a New Look. But I have a good sense of fashion; I could put people together.
DB: Some of your competitors, notably John Casablancas, criticized your tenacity.
EF: Oh, if he said something unkind about me I said a lot more unkind things about him. More than he could think of. It’s such a different mentality, that French-anything-goes view. I loathed that, and I made no secret of it.
DB: Who are some of the photographers you loved to work with?
EF: Dick Avedon. When he used my girls it was a dream come true.
DB: And your favorite girls?
EF: From the beginning: Mary Jane Russell, we adored Suzy Parker; Jean Patchett was our Babe Ruth, the first one to hit it out of the park. And I liked other people in fashion too – editors Eugenia Shephard and Sally Kirkland.
DB: Do you know the girls working today? Do you know Gisele?
EF: We’re going to see Gisele next week, but I’m talking about the ballet. That’s as close as we’ve gotten. The only one I’ve met is Chanel Iman, and I think she’s a darling girl. We’re really out of it.
DB: Maybe you deserve a break.
EF: Don’t forget, I’m 86. But we’re still interested in the industry. I still check in and send my bookers presents. This has been mine and Jerry’s lives. Actually, it’s been our life. Cause we’ve only had one together. And it was this.