A lovely life taken by smoking

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In 1969, just two years after Wilhelmina Cooper started her own modeling agency, I was privileged to interview her in New York City at a trendy spot called Sign of the Dove.

She had been one of the most recognizable models of her time in the late '60s and early '70s and she was considered the last star of the couture era in modeling.

She had appeared on 255 magazine covers, including 27 on American Vogue, a record.

Her more than 10 years as a model were the years I became acquainted with the fashion industry as a young woman. That face and swan-like neck were so memorable. I was trembling at the thought of being opposite that famous face.

I am reminded of that day because of a dining experience I had recently. I was seated with a friend in the smoking section (just three tables) of a restaurant. We were lucky to get a table on a Friday Downtown show night, so it didn't bother me.

When a young man at one of the tables asked if we minded if he smoked, I really didn't mind.

I did, however, want to tell him not to, for his own good health. He said he was 29, somewhat addicted, and I suppose he thinks he has plenty of time to quit, or might not at all. I'll never know.

It made me think of Wilhelmina, someone who we thought had it all. She died in March 1980 at age 40.

Unlike Dana Reeve, who died this year of lung cancer and did not smoke, Willie, as she was known, puffed away continuously, even during our lunch.

I would learn years later that this noted beauty, born Gertrude Behmenburg, also suffered as an abused wife of an alcoholic husband, the late Bruce Cooper.

Their daughter, Melissa, told Michael Gross (author of "Model: the Ugly Business of Being Beautiful") she believes her mother chose to kill herself with cigarettes instead of facing, and fixing, her horribly imperfect life.

Even casual, she was the personification of a model as I imagined one to be. They aren't always.

Her modeling fee, $60-$75 an hour, was top dollar at the time and she earned between $60,000 and $70,000 a year. Some models today earn that much in a weekend.

She had ordered eggs Benedict with a tomato. She told me tomatoes were her weakness, and she obviously had never tired of them.

She said she had weighed 159 pounds when she started to model. She lost about 10 pounds when Paris discovered her, and she eventually found she felt her best energy when she was around 126.

"I was always the heaviest model," she said. And she always had to wear a girdle.

Who knew? But back then, many women wore girdles.

"I could appear slim by the way I posed, but I became determined to lose weight, and I simply began to starve myself."

She wasn't exaggerating as she shared her "diet" secret as a model with me this hot summer day. Daily she drank a half glass of tomato juice, black coffee -- and smoked cigarettes. Then more coffee, and more cigarettes.

Every Wednesday she would allow herself a small bowl of tomato soup, and on Sundays a tiny steak and one piece of Melba toast.

"I'm still young, [she was 30]" she said, "and I am used to hard work, which is why I started the agency. She told me that day her husband was "the big boss" and the brains behind the business.

A few years before our interview when she was in her prime, I had seen her posing at the fountain at New York City's Plaza Hotel, surrounded by cameras and stylists and a gawking public.

She was a true mannequin, standing on that wall in a gorgeous gown. I was late for my appointment, but I became a gawker, too. I couldn't help it.

Ten years after this lunch, Willie would succumb to lung cancer. She would have turned 67 last month. The agency, with new owners, still bears her name.

It always pleased me that two models from Pittsburgh, Naomi Sims and Mary Madden, were described by Willie that day as "two of my best girls."

Don't smoke.


Barbara Cloud can be reached at bcloud@post-gazette.com .


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