Rudi Gernreich, the influential fashion designer of the 1960s, had an interesting connection to Lee Marvin. I bring this up as the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles begins its exhibition of Gernreich’s work tomorrow, May 9th, thru September 1st.
It may seem strange of course for Rudi Gernreich and Lee Marvin to even be mentioned in the same breath but there is indeed a connection. The designer, famous for many things (most notably the daring topless swimsuit of the 1960s), was also friends with Lee Marvin’s first wife, Betty. According to her wonderful memoir, Tales of a Hollywood Wife, she almost became the model for that topless swimsuit but instead opted for something else. As she explained in her book….
“I was at a cocktail party given by my good friend, fashion designer, Rudi Gernreich. He was introducing his line of rather shocking black knit bathing suits, and early in the evening he asked me to model one for the guests. I ducked into his bedroom and put the the thing on, but I couldn’t imagine what he was thinking.
“Come on, Rudi, I look like my grandfather in this,” I said, posing in the skimpy, tight suit with holes the size of silver dollars. The reflection in the mirror of my small breasts, narrow hips, and long, thin legs was confirmation.
“Wrong,” said Rudi definitively. “You have the body this suit was made for.”
[I said] “You’ve got to be joking.” But he wasn’t.
“Maybe I should give you the topless one to wear!”
“Not on your life,” I told him, “But, okay, just for this evening I’ll model.”
[…..] Lee also liked the way I looked in Rudi’s clothes. He thought I had great style. One evening he told me he’d seen me on Wilshire Boulevard. “You looked so damned good. I thought, What a beautiful woman. I’ve got to check her out. I drove up along side the car and there you were — my own wife!”
Betty also recounted how Gernreich helped her enter the world of high fashion, resulting in her pioneering effort to bring haute couture to Rodeo Drive. She dubbed the boutique Paris V for the five French designers she brought to Beverly Hills: Christian Dior, Lanvin, Guy Larouche, Jacques Heim, Jean Desses. The boutique would also become an important factor in her husband’s TV & film career, but not the way she had envisioned it. For the details on that bittersweet story, you have to read Lee Marvin Point Blank….
– Dwayne Epstein