Suzy Parker (born Cecilia Ann Renee Parker; October 28, 1932 – May 3, 2003) was an American model and actress active from 1947 into the early 1960s. Her modeling career reached its zenith during the 1950s, when she appeared on the covers of dozens of magazines and in advertisements and movie and television roles.
She appeared in several Revlon advertisements as well as in advertisements for many other cosmetic companies, including Solo Products, the largest hair care product company in the country at the time. (Models did not have "exclusive" cosmetic company contracts until Lauren Hutton and Karen Graham in the early 1970s).
In 1956, at the height of her modelling career, she became the first model to earn $100,000 per year ($940,000 today). A song that The Beatles wrote for her, though not released on record, appeared in their 1970 documentary film Let It Be, which won the Academy Award for Best Original Score.
Suzy Parker was born Cecilia Ann Renee Parker in Long Island City, New York, to George and Elizabeth Parker, who married in 1916. She had three older sisters: Dorian, Florian, and Georgiabell.
Her mother Elizabeth believed she was undergoing menopause, but then discovered she was several months pregnant with her youngest child, Cecilia. Her father George disliked the name Cecilia and called her Susie, a name which Parker would retain throughout her life. A French Vogue photographer later changed the spelling to "Suzy".
In 1947, when Suzy Parker was 15, her sister Dorian Leigh, already one of the top models at the time, introduced her to modelling agency Eileen Ford.
Dorian Leigh started her modelling career only a few years ago and very quickly became one of the top models in the world, arguably the "world's first supermodel" along with Lisa Fonssagrives.
Dorian also built her own modelling agency but decided to close it after marriage in 1947.
Dorian telephoned Ford Modeling Agency and told Eileen and Jerry Ford that she would sign on with them if they also took her younger sister, sight unseen. Eager to represent Dorian, they agreed. Expecting to meet a similarly petite, extremely thin, flawless, pale-faced, electric blue-eyed, raven-haired younger version of Dorian, they were shocked to meet Suzy for the first time. A 15 year old girl with a height of 5'10", big-boned, and had carrot red hair, pale-green eyes, and freckles.
Suzy Parker's photo appeared in Life magazine shortly after. That same year, she had one of her first magazine advertisements for DeRosa Jewelry. Although she still lived with her parents in Florida, she stayed in New York City with Dorian when she had modeling assignments there. Dorian introduced Parker to her fashion-photographer friends, Irving Penn, Horst P. Horst, John Rawlings, and a young Richard Avedon. Parker later became Avedon's muse, she said years later that "The only joy I ever got out of modeling was working with Dick Avedon."
In 1950, Suzy Parker and her high-school sweetheart, Ronald Staton (some sources cite Charles), drove to Georgia to secretly marry. She wore a bikini with a raincoat on top for the ceremony.
They moved to Pennsylvania and rented a house near where her sister Dorian was living with her husband and children. While Ronald was attending the University of Pennsylvania as a freshman, Parker was busy modeling in the United States, and more and more, Europe.
On one of her work trips to France, Parker met journalist Pierre de la Salle at a Jacques Fath party outside of Paris. She returned to the United States and asked Ronald for a divorce, who would only agree if Parker gave him a large monetary settlement, paid for plastic surgery on his nose and paid for his acting lessons. She agreed, and their divorce was finalized in Mexico in 1953. Ronald was killed years later in an automobile accident.
Suzy Parker was the first model to earn $200 per hour and $100,000 per year. Vogue declared her one of the faces of the confident, post-war American woman. By 1955, she owed income taxes on her modeling income from previous years, amounting to more than $60,000 in back taxes and rapidly accumulating penalties, an enormous amount at the time. Jerry Ford paid her tax bill and found her assignments.
She worked non-stop for Revlon, Hertz, Westinghouse, Max Factor, Bliss, DuPont, Simplicity, Smirnoff, and Ronson shavers, to name a few. She also was on the covers of about 70 magazines around the world, including Vogue, Elle, Life, Look, Redbook, Paris Match and McCall's. After being introduced to, and taught photography by, war photographer Robert Capa, Parker was briefly listed as a member of Magnum Photos.
Parker and Pierre continued to date for years despite Pierre's numerous infidelities. She also was paying for his high cost-of-living expenses. They married about 1957 or 1958, but the couple kept it a secret.
Suzy Parker’s most important connection to Europe and France, however, is not her French husband, but Coco Chanel, who became a close confidante, giving Parker advice on men and money as well as creating numerous Chanel outfits for her. Suzy Parker also became the so-called signature face of the Coco Chanel brand.
Related article: Elegant love: When Coco Chanel meets Suzy Parker
In 1958, Parker was a passenger in a car her father was driving when they were hit by an oncoming train. Her father died of his injuries at the hospital. Parker was hospitalized, with broken bones and embedded glass (with her face untouched), under the name Mrs. Pierre de la Salle. The press jumped on this, but Pierre continued to deny that they were married.
After recovering from her injuries, Parker became pregnant and Pierre de la Salle left her and the baby. She said, "He didn't want to be a father. I already hired a nanny... he was gone, history."
She gave birth to their daughter Georgia Belle Florian Coco Chanel de la Salle in December 1959, whose godmother was close friend Coco Chanel. Parker named her daughter after her older sisters Georgiabell and Florian and purposely left Dorian Leigh's name off, as Parker was fed up with Leigh's promiscuous lifestyle and her not taking care of her children.
A top model already more famous than her sister Dorian Leigh, Suzy Parker also became a film actress.
Her first film role was in Kiss Them for Me (1957), playing the main interest of Cary Grant's character. Soon after she accepted a cameo role in Funny Face (1957), on screen for two minutes in a musical number described as "Pink Number".
In 1960, while filming A Circle of Deception (1960), she met actor Bradford Dillman at the set. She was still married to Pierre de la Salle but no longer living with him. Dillman was ending his first marriage and dating Juliette Gréco at the time. Parker obtained a divorce and married Bradford in 1963 on board a boat at sea. She changed her name to Suzy Parker Dillman following the marriage.
In 1964, Suzy Parker suffered another car accident while nervously rehearsing for her famous appearance in the tv show The Twilight Zone.
After that, she mostly retired from modeling and took care of her three children with Dillman: daughter Dinah and sons Charlie and Christopher, as well as two step children: Jeffrey and Pamela, Dillman's children from his first marriage
The family lived in Bel Air, Los Angeles, until her daughter Dinah was bitten by a rattlesnake in the yard and almost died. They then moved to Montecito in the Santa Barbara area, where Suzy remained until her death in 2003.
Parker enjoyed being a stay-at-home mother and she was an excellent cook. Her sister Dorian Leigh also loved cooking and became a Cordon Bleu-level chef after retiring modelling.
Suzy Parker long suffered from allergies, and in the 1990s, developed ulcers. During surgery for an ulcer, her vital signs disappeared on the operating table, but she was resuscitated. She never fully recovered and developed more ulcers and diabetes. She had multiple hip surgeries, and then her kidneys began to fail. She spent the last five years of her life in and out of the hospital.
Parker decided to end dialysis treatments. She returned home and died at age 70 surrounded by family at her orchard in Montecito, California on May 3, 2003. Her husband Bradford Dillman died in 2018 at age 87.