OUT OF FOCUS - Barbara Mullen

‘The New Beauty is Part Attitude’ | John Rawlings for Vogue, October 1947

by John-Michael O'Sullivan

Six girls, as separate and distinctive as cartoon characters. Suzy Parker was the Technicolor sex bomb: red curls, hourglass curves, sea-green eyes. Evelyn Tripp was the quiet one: frail and exquisite, her face slanting away from the camera in flat, luminous planes. Sunny Harnett was the knowing platinum blonde, with razorblade cheekbones and a smear of lipstick for a smile. Dovima was the aristocrat; endless white limbs and those soaring, implausible eyebrows. Jean Patchett was the gorgeous, golden-eyed, All-American girl, whose mole predated Cindy Crawford’s by forty years. And then there was Barbara Mullen, halfway between ugly duckling and swan; beanpole-tall, wide-eyed, with slicked-back hair and a rosebud mouth - for all the world like a Mary Poppins illustration sprung to life. Six girls whose faces and bodies would dominate the magazines of the Fifties; girls who would fade away when the Sixties exploded, their world of grainy black-and-white replaced by one framed in Technicolor close-up. 

I first heard Barbara Mullen’s name last September, in an FT interview with photographer William Klein. I knew little about Fifties modelling, but Klein’s description - “She was a tough Irish-American living in Brooklyn and she had a foul mouth, she was not at all [well-bred]”  - didn’t square with the world of poised sophistication the era’s photography suggested. So I began, casually at first, to research this half-invisible girl. Online searches showed someone frustratingly elusive; a collision of outstretched arms and soft planes, blurred into vagueness in photographer Lillian Bassman’s radically intimate images. That’s almost all there was. But the rise of picture-hosting sites like Pinterest and Flickr has made the internet ever-hungrier for beauty (and strangely nostalgic about the kind of beauty it values) - and as the months went by the trickle of photographs became a flood. And yet the more I found, the less straightforward Mullen became. As Bassman’s muse, she glided through frame after frame like a ballerina; for Richard Avedon she was sophisticatedly graphic, in vibrant colour or startling black-and-white; on location in India with Norman Parkinson she could be subtly, un-placeably exotic; whilst for Klein she turned self-parodying clown. The other girls were always reliably and recognisably themselves; but Mullen, it seemed, was constantly shifting, her face switching from soft uncertainty to wry elegance, from girl-next-door to woman-of-the-world to serene couture swan. And off-duty, she looked different again - her features less composed, her almost-prettiness askew, as though she and the woman on the magazine covers were utterly disconnected. 

It’s been 57 years since Barbara Mullen left New York. She lives in Switzerland with her second husband, in an apartment with windows which look across rooftops to deep blue mountains. In her living room, the sill is lined with American totems: the Chrysler, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State. But Manhattan, and her modelling career, seem lifetimes away. She’s bemused (and amused) by the notion that anyone would be interested in her: “No-one knew our names. No-one whistled at us on the street. We weren’t anything special. But we were young, and we were thin, and we were DAMN lucky.”

Initially, that luck meant that the eighteen-year-old Mullen was able to trade in her hated beauty-parlour job for a well-paid life as a department store mannequin, showing clothes to Bergdorf Goodman’s wealthy clientele. And after two years at the store, her Cinderella moment happened. Vogue wanted to shoot a Mark Mooring dress, which the designer had cut to Mullen’s tiny frame. But it wouldn’t fit any of their models; and so an editor sneaked back of house at Bergdorf’s to track the mannequin down. And the following day Mullen found herself, terrified, sitting for Condé Nast photographer John Rawlings, following the polite instructions coming from behind his bulky 10 x 8 Deardorff. She still has that image: a nervous, hardly-breathing girl on a green sofa, her dress swamped in tulle, with the words beneath heralding the coming decade: THE NEW BEAUTY IS PART ATTITUDE’.

Paris had become the the undisputed centre of fashion that spring, thanks to Dior’s New Look: but the New Beauty Vogue was referring to would be defined, and photographed, in Manhattan. The magazine’s editor, Jessica Daves, pinpointed the change; 'Over the years the style of beauty … offers a commentary on public taste in women. In the early 1950’s the type veered sharply, and there came to be a group of mannequins in the French tradition of the belle laide … Barbara Mullen was the first of these to be accepted as a top mannequin. Her eyes were slightly too prominent; the proportions of her face were not those of classic beauty. But the proportions of her body were made for modern clothes. Her tiny head, long neck and delicately elongated torso were the essence of the new elements. Barbara Mullen became one of the queens of the modelling kingdom in both Paris and New York"

Belle laide; ugly pretty. Daves’ words put Mullen into a tradition that began with Marion Morehouse in the Twenties, and would resurface, decades later, with models like Kristen McMenamy and Erin O'Connor - women with a changeling beauty, always more comfortable when disappearing into a role. As she recalls, it was simple: “I was quite shy. I’m not shy now, but then I was quite a shy girl - and the camera didn’t talk back. It really was just a relationship between you and the lens. You stepped into those wonderful clothes, and you were taken out of your everyday element. We were just ordinary girls. But you felt … ”, Mullen pauses, and waits till the right word floats towards her before exhaling, pleased again “ … ELEVATED.’

Ordinary girls, in wonderful clothes: it’s a contrast we take for granted now. Before Mullen’s day, fashion models had largely been society women - exactly the kind of women who would have been buying and wearing couture in their privileged everyday lives. But she happened to arrive on the scene when extraordinary-looking ordinary girls were being discovered by accident (just as Kate or Naomi would be decades later) - shopping at Bloomingdales like Evelyn Tripp, or on the street like Dovima. She and her contemporaries took their success seriously: visiting European models were stunned by the rigid discipline of these tall, Ford Agency-schooled Americans, with their immaculate grooming, their armour of girdles and falsies, and their benzedrine-and-coffee diets. Models had to work fast, and work hard (Jean Patchett’s family still have her meticulously-kept appointment books, recording a schedule which typically crammed multiple sittings into a day), and did their own hair and makeup as part of the package - but the money was terrific. At her height, Barbara Mullen was making $50 dollars an hour; in an era when the average American wage was $3,000 dollars a year, she could make twenty times that. In 1955 Photography magazine placed her alongside Jean Patchett, Evelyn Tripp and Dovima on a cover headlined ’MEET THE MOST EXPENSIVE MODELS IN THE WORLD’. She was at the top.

But the fairytale was crumbling. One day, Mullen’s husband, Jim, was walking through their Long Island home with some contractors. He stopped on the stairs and said the same sentence, three times over. It was nothing, but it it was a nothing that within months had turned into a diagnosis of terminal brain cancer. And once he checked into hospital, he was gone. The Fords were her rock: they ensured she was booked solidly, knowing she needed the money to keep up the mortgage and pay the endless stream of medical bills. And they looked after her. One night, in desperation, she called them for help, and Jerry Ford came to her rescue. Whatever happened between the two of them afterwards - and the Fords would always that anything DID happen - Mullen ended up alone.Jim died, and within the space of a year she had moved to Paris permanently, searching for a clean start.

That restart meant that she’s kept little from her New York years. There’s an out-take from an Avedon shoot in 1950, where he’s scribbled tongue-in-cheek suggestions for improvement across her glum expression (and a poster from his retrospective fifty years later, scrawled with the words: Barbara. This is an order! You must be at our opening at the Met Museum. Dick.” She didn’t go.) And in a nearby drawer she keeps another invitation, from another show she didn’t attend: Lillian Bassman’s, in 2008. This one is signed too; 'For Barbara; The best of the best.’ 

The story of how Bassman first met Mullen - a bedraggled, unpromising-looking girl in a shapeless coat, who turned up as a last-minute substitute one Christmas Eve - has become the template of model myth. Bassman remembered, “She was just this nothing, but she was magic. Absolute magic. I think there is a talent, an innate appreciation for form, for line, even for fashion itself. And those who are the great models - and there aren’t very many - they have it. Barbara had it.” William Helburn, one of the era’s most prolific commercial photographers, offers another perspective on her success. “She was just outstanding, as good a model as there was - every bit as good as Shrimpton or Twiggy. She had a very unique face - well, she wasn’t Shirley Temple, know what I’m saying?” (And Helburn suggests that it may have been that same chameleon-like uniqueness - that lack of apple-pie approachability - that would ultimately have limited Barbara from continuing her career into the TV age.)

When I visit Barbara Mullen I come armed with 200 pictures I’ve found on the internet, stacked in chronological order from 1947 to 1963. Some are shots she’s not set eyes on in decades; some she’s never seen at all. But each unlocks its’ own recollection of time and place - looking the other way, back into the camera lens: the studio lights, the hovering editors. Inevitably, those memories have been smoothened and gentled by time; but she claps with delight and shouts “MY dress!” when she sees a Nina Leen shot from LIFE of her in a Miguel Ferreras gown (one of the first things she ever bought with her modelling money). She goes rigid with fury when she recalls how Norman Parkinson spoke to the Indian child who shared her last Vogue cover (she finished the assignment, but when she got home she rang her agent and refused to ever work with the photographer again.) She remembers sharing a dressing room at Milton Greene’s studio with Marilyn Monroe, and being led astray through the bars of Paris by Christian Dior and Bebé Berard on her very first trip to Europe. And she still wonders, looking at the glaring gap, why Irving Penn - of all the photographers of that period - never seemed to think she was anything special. And late in the afternoon, just before I leave, she gravely raises the Ford affair. Her gaze resting on a blurred portrait of Jim, she sighs, “You know, you can’t do anything about your mistakes. But all I remember about that time was that I desperately - desperately - needed to be held.”

The last shot in my pile dates from March 1963. It was Mullen’s final editorial for Vogue: wearing Dior, cigarette in hand, staring down the barrel of William Klein’s lens. Two months later, Klein was in London, shooting a 20-year old Jean Shrimpton. Shrimpton wore Dior too, and the strapline read 'THE NEW BEAUTY’ - just as it had below Barbara’s first picture, 16 years before. Mullen knew it was time: and she walked away with little trace of nostalgia or regret. Or, rather, she dissolved - just as she did in every Bassman picture. Despite her prolific output and exceptionally long career, she’s absent from most histories of modelling. Apart from that Photography cover, she’s missing from almost every group photograph of the period. In fact, apart from the story of the Ford affair in the Michael Gross book, Model, it’s as though she was never there. 

The other models from that 1955 Photography cover are dead now: the last, Jean Patchett, passed away in 2002. They’re almost all gone, actually; Sunny Harnett, Cherry Nelms, Anne St Marie, Mary Jane Russell, Dorian Leigh, Ruth Neumann. There’s just a few, slightly younger women left - immortals like China Machado and Carmen Dell'Orefice, and invincible Warhol survivor Ivy Nicholson. And there’s Mullen, her hair still drawn back into an expert, disciplined bun (and still with the capacity to startle you with a sudden, graceful movement, even in a sweatshirt and jeans.) There are few people alive today who can tell you what it was like to be photographed by a teenage Richard Avedon, or mimic Dovima - squawking with fear - petrified of the elephants around her in the photo that would make her immortal; who can remember sitting with Coco Chanel in the exquisite luxury of her Rue Cambon apartment - and who in the next breath can flip back to the present, giving those spectacular eyes a 360-degree roll at the mere mention of Heidi Klum’s name. She answers my phone calls with a cheery ’Still here!’, and bickers half-seriously with her husband when he threatens to set her up with a Wikipedia page. She’s not the tough Brooklyn girl that William Klein remembers anymore (she never was - Mullen spent her childhood in Harlem); nor is she Bassman’s incredible 'monster’, blossoming only for the camera’s caress. And she’s not the party-loving force of nature Francesco Scavullo described (though she’s hilarious after a few glasses of wine, and confesses that those enigmatic, away-from-the-lens poses which became her trademark were a useful morning-after disguise.) It’s hard, in fact, to reconcile any of the contemporary descriptions with the woman sitting across the table from me - just as it’s hard to reconcile any two photographers’ interpretations of that elusive face. In a phone conversation with William Klein, he asks “Tell me, does she strike you as a typical Swiss housewife now?”; when I pass the message on, Mullen laughs, “Well, isn’t HE still nice and bitchy!!!" 

She doesn’t understand modern magazines - the tortured poses, the flesh-flashing."Is that supposed to be sexy?” she appeals. And she doesn’t think she’d have made it now; not in this world where becoming a model isn’t a wonderful accident anymore, but a fiercely contested ambition. We talk for six solid hours, and then Mullen and her husband drive me to the nearby station. As I turn away, she dashes out of the car for a final hug - and then speeds off, without looking back.

Barbara Mullen | William Klein for Vogue, March 1963

A shortened version of this piece was published in The Observer on 11th August 2013