I was at my desk at Ladies' Home Journal one spring morning in 1996 when the phone rang.
"It's Eileen Ford," said a cultured voice. "I'd like to take you to lunch."
At first I thought it was my office assistant, playing a practical joke. Why would the godmother of the supermodel (who died July 9 at 92) be calling me?
As a young editorial assistant, I had done photo shoots with some of Ford's top discoveries - Cheryl Tiegs, Lauren Hutton, Christie Brinkley - but I had never met the woman who almost single-handedly transformed the modeling industry into something both legitimate and lucrative. By 1996, however, I was the beauty and fashion director of a top women's magazine, and we were on the verge of launching a new publication - MORE magazine - aimed at women 40 and up. Could that be why Ms. Ford wanted to see me?
Remember, girlfriends, this was back in the Dark Ages when no normal woman admitted to being 40, let alone 50! So I was curious - and nervous - about the prospect of lunching with the legendary queen bee of beauty. (Which didn't stop me from talking about it - OK, bragging about it - for days beforehand.)
Lunch was at the Four Seasons on East 52nd Street - major power-broker territory. The 74-year-old Ford showed up glowing with energy; tanned and toting a chic handbag, she looked slim and trim in a pink tweed suit I'd swear was Chanel. We introduced ourselves, bonded over the discovery we were both Long Island girls, then ordered. (Ford's choice of entree - a baloney sandwich on rye - was not on the Four Seasons menu, trust me.)
"What makes a great model?" I asked Ford.
"It's an undefinable factor, like a special chromosome," said the talent titan famous for spotting supermodel Vendela in a Stockholm restaurant. "I can't describe it. I just know it when I see it."
Then, kicking off her heels under the table, Ford revealed her agenda: "How do you think advertisers will respond to a magazine that celebrates older women?"
I was used to that query by now, so I was ready with a response: "Hopefully, they'll realize we're the ones who have all the money!"
Once MORE was launched and thriving, I wound up featuring many a Ford model in its pages: Beverly Johnson, Brooke Shields, even Twiggy. Their longevity in the business is a testament to Ford's eye - and foresight.
Back at that lunch table, meanwhile, she was not quite finished flouting convention: When we got around to coffee, Ford pulled a bag of Famous Amos chocolate-chip cookies out of that designer bag and asked me if I'd like a couple for dessert. The mother of all supermodels was really just one of the girls.
I never saw Eileen Ford again, but I'll never forget how she exuded youth without trying to look young. In a world of wannabe beauties - pumped, plumped and primped, filled, whittled and chiseled - Eileen Ford was the real deal.
Photos: Marty Lederhandler/AP Photo; Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
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