She invented the modern modeling business and shaped the world's view of human beauty
Eileen Ford, who co-founded Ford Models with her husband Jerry in 1946 – essentially inventing the modern modeling business, and exerting enormous influence on the world’s views of human beauty – has died at 92.
She had been hospitalized last week after suffering a fall at her New York apartment.
In a statement to PEOPLE about her mother, Katie Ford said:
“Eileen loved Jerry and her family and her friends, as well as Le Cirque, football, ballet, bellini’s, Benny Goodman, 21 , books on history, the New York Post and The New York Times, Seinfeld, The Stork Club, her flower garden, The Ritz in Paris, champagne and caviar; great food and deli; Harry’s Bar in Venice, Frank & Ella, Aquavit, Quogue, Fairfield, Oldwick, the townhouse on 78th Street, beautiful models, photographers, fashion, Fred Astaire, and life in general.
“She was interested in everyone, and truly LOVED her husband of 64 years, Jerry, and her children, Jamie, Billy, Katie and Lacey, and her brothers Tom, Bill, and Bobby, and her grandchildren Tiger, Gerard, Jamie, Gered, Alessandra, Isabel, Will and Emma (and her adored five great grandchildren).”
With Jerry running the business and Eileen handling the talent, Ford Models helped evolve modeling from a mostly part-time, poorly paid hobby into one of the world’s most glamorous occupations, turning attractive girls next door into multimillionaire celebrity supermodels.
Ford introduced the world to Candice Bergen, Ali MacGraw, Jean Shrimpton and Lauren Hutton in the 1960s, and Brooke Shields (who joined the agency at age 8), Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell and Rachel Hunter in the 1980s.
Ford championed American models, turning their clean, fresh, radiant, wholesome look into the standard of beauty.
“There’s no question I did that,” she told PEOPLE in 1983. “I create a look and I create a style. American women mean a great deal to me. They’re such lost souls, particularly the women of my generation. And women need so much help. They never have anyone to turn to. I help them understand how they can look better, how to do this, do that, get a job. And they’re very trusting. Like little lost kids.”
Eileen Ford was born Eileen Otte on March 25, 1922, the pampered only daughter of Loretta and Nathaniel Otte, who ran a business rating the credit of large corporations. She grew up on Long Island with three brothers.
“I got everything I wanted from my parents: Brooks Brothers sweaters and Spalding saddle shoes,” she told PEOPLE. “None of the people I grew up with had identity problems. We all had perfectly marvelous lives.”
In 1944, after graduating from Great Neck High School and Barnard College, she met Jerry Ford, two years her junior and a football player at Notre Dame. They were married three months later.
Two years after that, Eileen, who had briefly worked as a model herself, began handling modeling bookings for two of her friends. Within two more years, she and Jerry had a fast-growing business that would change the world.
Eileen, who could be brusque and extremely demanding of her models, was unapologetic about her idea of beauty. “I feel that my ideas of beauty have been given very strong backing by Botticelli and a few others,” she told PEOPLE. “Slender hands, long neck, long limbs – look at Nefertiti. She was very teensy-weensy with a long neck and wide-spaced eyes.”
“Eileen was an outspoken and controversial woman, never afraid to offend in defense of her traditional standards and, in particular, of the welfare of her models, to whom she was fiercely protective,” says Robert Lacey, author of the forthcoming Ford biography Model Woman, due from Harper Collins in early 2015.
“Eileen Ford treated her models as her own children – many stayed with her and her family in their Manhattan town house at East 78th Street. With her husband Jerry she worked to improve models’ working conditions and wages, moving away from payment by the hour or day to the concept of payment by ‘usage,’ which laid the economic basis for the phenomenon of the supermodel.”
Ford had an exceptional eye for talent, but didn’t always get it right. “Grace Kelly and Marisa Berenson were among the models she rejected,” he says.
Jerry and Eileen’s daughter Katie took over management of the agency in 1995, and Jerry died 13 years later. He and Eileen had been married for more than 60 years.
Over the years, Eileen Ford’s all-consuming influence had waned somewhat, as other modeling agencies had grown and her ideas of classical beauty had come to seem dated. But all the while, she remained happily committed to them.
“I live in a wonderful world of make-believe,” she told PEOPLE. “A world of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. A world of Winnie-the-Pooh and Edward Bear. Things like that. Wonderful things. Funny things.”
• With reporting by SIMON PERRY