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July 20, 2009 3:16 PM

Eye, Fashion

Speakeasy: Dorothy McGowan

Dorothy McGowanPhoto by Melvin Sokolsky Models aren't generally the most loquacious bunch. In fact, talking seems to be generally discouraged among their numbers: they are meant to be visual entities, whose mystique is only heightened by the lack of...

Dorothy McGowan
Dorothy McGowan
Photo by Melvin Sokolsky

Models aren't generally the most loquacious bunch. In fact, talking seems to be generally discouraged among their numbers: they are meant to be visual entities, whose mystique is only heightened by the lack of verbal insight they give. As such, it is usually assumed they don't have very much to say.

Fortunately, Sixties mannequin Dorothy A. McGowan was perfectly at ease last Friday evening when the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Harold Koda and historian Kohle Yohannan chatted with her before a screening of William Klein's "Qui êtes-vous Polly Maggoo?" in which she stars. (It was part of a film series in conjunction with the current "The Model as Muse" exhibit at the Met's Costume Institute. This Wednesday, Isaac Mizrahi will speak about his documentary "Unzipped.")

The Brooklyn-born McGowan, child of Irish immigrants, was discovered at Kennedy Airport and joined the Ford agency's roster in 1959. She went on to work with Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and Melvin Sokolsky; nab four Vogue covers back-to-back, and most famously, become one of Klein's favorites and the star of his 1966 French film.

It was all a rather bemusing trip for the young Bay Ridge native, who claimed, "I had no ambition for the future."

"What happened that made you see [modeling] as a career opportunity?" asked Koda.

"Everyone would say to me, 'You should be a model.' I wasn't stylish. I was long and lanky and had a baby face," explained McGowan, between sips of water. "I saw this ad that said 'Wanted: model trainee.' And so I went to this place and this man asked me to come back the next day...it was a model agency on East 40th Street. When I was leaving his office, somebody said, 'Who was that girl?' and he said, 'Oh, she's not interesting; she's too skinny.'"

"Last time that was ever said in fashion," said Yohannon to much laughter.

In the satirical film, McGowan (whose nickname was Maggoo) plays Brooklyn-born supermodel Polly Maggoo working in Paris. She becomes the subject of a French TV documentary series "Qui êtes-vous?" and is simultaneously courted by both the filmmaker and a Soviet prince, all to her bewilderment.

"I met William Klein in 1960 in the offices of French Vogue. I was working with Penn and I guess he saw some of my pictures...and he asked me if I would do some pictures [with him]," said McGowan, who stopped modeling in 1974 and has since earned both a bachelor and graduate degree in the arts.

And despite Klein's infamously intimidating reputation, McGowan was a willing foil.

"People were terrified of Klein as though it was a lion's den; I was never more at home."

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