When Nancy O’Neal Ford puts on her blond wig and slips into her short shorts and boots, she quickly conjures up a delightful memory of the 1950s. Nancy was the real-life model for Poteet, the Lolita-like character that cartoonist Milton Caniff created for his Steve Canyon strip. From the day she turned up on Air Force Colonel Canyon’s doorstep fresh out of the “Little Dogie Orphanage” in Poteet, Texas, she kept sending out romantic signals (despite the fact that she was possibly his long-lost cousin, whom he had adopted). Steve, a perpetually strong, silent stiff, remained uninterested.
Nancy’s story ever since has been like Jon Peters’—except in reverse. At the time Caniff chose her (from 300 contenders in a Houston Post contest), she went on a publicity whirl to New York, was offered career guidance by the late Jayne Mansfield and dated LBJ aide Jack Valenti. But she turned down any overtures that might take her away from Texas. Now, at 41, she lives in Austin and works for a beauty salon chain called Hair Naturally.
As for her decision, she reflects: “I was only a teenager, and you know how it is. You always think you’ll go back someday and do it right.” Instead Nancy married a jazz saxophonist, Jimmy Ford, and had two children. Jennifer is 14 and Ty 12. Currently separated from Ford, Nancy says, “I don’t really regret not following through on offers I had back then, but I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I had stayed in New York.”
Of course, Poteet reappears in Steve Canyon every year. She is, says Caniff, “a full-grown, developed and ready dame”—and still has the hots for Steve (though he’s nominally married). There is also a life-size tile mural of Nancy on the city hall lawn of the real Texas town of Poteet, 100 miles from Austin. But, more important, says Nancy, is the awareness of her children. “Golly, Mom, you were famous!” she quotes them, with Poteet’s fetching smile.