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Willette Murphy Made History as a Black Woman in 1961. But It’s No Big Deal; She’s Used to That

On July 27, 1961, a groundbreaking issue of Mademoiselle quietly appeared on newsstands. At first glance, aside from it being the annual college issue, it was nothing out of the ordinary: lots of ads, makeup tips and campus fashion. But on page 229 was something never before seen in a major American fashion magazine: a black model.

That model was Willette Murphy, then a 22-year-old UCLA economics major and senior class president, showing off some of the latest “scrambled” separates on the UCLA campus. Now, she is Willette Murphy Klausner, a theater producer who counts her appearance in Mademoiselle—an influential fashion magazine published from 1935 to 2001—as just one of many “firsts”: First female and first black senior class president at UCLA; first black merchandising executive at Bloomingdale’s in New York; and first female corporate VP at MCA Universal Studios. Now in her 70s, the unstoppable Ms. Klausner has produced numerous productions, including Kat and the Kings on Broadway, Hurlyburly starring Sean Penn in Los Angeles and Three Mo’ Tenors, a long-running theatrical concert performed nationally and internationally since 2001.

Ms. Klausner chats with On This Day In Fashion assistant editor Cody Bay in an exclusive interview, dishing about being chosen for Mademoiselle, unseating a top Danish model from her throne and what she learned about her knees.

On This Day In Fashion: How were you chosen to be in the August 1961 issue of Mademoiselle?

Willette Murphy Klausner: I was on Fashion Board at UCLA. I was on just about everything—I don’t even know how I got on Fashion Board [a group that modeled for school fashion shows]—and all of us tried out for Mademoiselle. There were actually two women selected from UCLA. She was white and I was black. Selecting two people was very rare, I was told at that time. One thing I do remember from that time was I had very, very thin ankles, which I’d never been particularly impressed with, and one of the ladies, Marjorie Lenz—I think she was the Los Angeles contributing editor—she said, “Oh my gosh, look at her legs! Aren’t they beautiful?” And that was the first time I had heard that in my whole life.

What did you wear for the shoot?

I don’t remember, but it was not glamorous or exciting.

So then how big of a deal was your race? Were the people at Mademoiselle saying, “Hey! Let’s put a black model in”?

It was clearly an accident, as far as I knew. What’s very interesting is that there was another woman whom I met subsequently in the past couple of years, who coincidentally tried out at the same time I did. She is black and was not chosen. And while she didn’t imply that it was a race thing, she sort of thought that it could be that they weren’t ready for black models. But it was the same year that I was chosen. And I only found out about this in 2007. For her it was a big deal because they hadn’t selected her, and for me it was not a big deal because they had selected me.

And you didn’t even know at the time that you were the first black model to appear in a major American fashion magazine. You only found out later after the New York Times called your parents?

It seems we all found out closer to the time when the issue was released. I guess my sister found out, she said, when the New York Times called my parents. I think that was the first time we really realized that this was something more than just another thing that I did.

Were they proud?

Oh yes, everything I did they were proud of. See, I was very actively involved. I was raised in Santa Barbara, and I was in the top 26 who graduated from Santa Barbara High School. At UCLA I was class officer all the way through, and then I was the first woman and first black senior class president, so by the time I was in Mademoiselle I had done quite a bit for a little girl from Santa Barbara. In those days, race was less focused on, at least in a town as integrated as Santa Barbara was. I don’t mean to say that it was perfect at the time—blacks couldn’t work in retail stores and they couldn’t clerk in the banks. I remember after I left, I found out that someone was “the first black clerk.” I didn’t even know that was a practice until I found out later that there was a “first.” When I was raised there, we just had to work hard and no one talked about race. Obviously we knew we were different, obviously things were not equal, but at the same time, it was not focused upon. Compared to the South, if you grew up in most Northern towns, even though the people were probably no more accepting of blacks, it wasn’t as obvious. You could live your life for the most part, and you probably did separate things.

What did your parents do?

My father was the leading caterer in Santa Barbara and my mother helped him. We had a catering kitchen next door to where we lived and we all washed dishes, peeled onions and did whatever had to be done for his big parties. So we grew up not very poor, but we ate extremely well. Everything they ate, we ate! He did not shop separately for us than he did for his clients. And as it turns out now, my husband and I are considered “the couple that ate the world,” because I know every major chef in the world and food is a major hobby of mine.

You were a founder of the Food Institute.

Yes, I founded the American Institute of Wine and Food with Julia Child and Robert Mondavi in 1981. Those people were two of the most amazing people in the world. Major ambassadors for food, I’ll tell you!

Going back to the Mademoiselle story, you said that you were very pleased to be picked but that it was more interesting than exciting. What did you mean by that?

Because it wasn’t such a big deal. I don’t think we all focused on wanting to be models in those days. I was an economics major, and my head was certainly not in becoming a fashion model. I didn’t feel I looked good enough to be a fashion model, number one. I wanted to go into business of some sort. So the next year I went to the Tobe-Coburn School [for Fashion Careers] in New York. In the days that I went there, it was the major fashion merchandising school in America, and buyers from every retailing organization from Tiffany to Bloomingdale’s to Macy’s all came from Tobe-Coburn School. So by getting into Tobe-Coburn I became assistant buyer at Bloomingdale’s. We were taught all about Balenciaga, Givenchy, how to pronounce the names, what to recognize in the fashion trends, everyone in the fashion world who was important, and then obviously merchandising.

So you were always more interested in the business aspect of fashion than in modeling?

Yes, I was the first black fashion merchandising executive at Bloomingdale’s in New York. But I also did a second stint in Mademoiselle magazine in 1962. That was in the spring after I had moved to New York from Los Angeles. I kept in touch with the women at Mademoiselle— they were just wonderful to me and they knew I needed money so they put me in the issue— and paid me for that one!

You didn’t get paid for the first one?

No, that was “an honor,” my dear! You know how that works.

So what did that first fashion shoot change for you?

I lived in Copenhagen for a year after working at Bloomingdale’s. I was visiting the person who later became my husband [attorney Manuel S. Klausner], who was at the University of Copenhagen on a Fulbright. Within a month my money ran out, because that’s how stupid I was: I had no idea that you couldn’t live on $300 for a long time and travel around all the time. So I ended up having to model. I started out as an art-school model, where all you do is just go in and sit down. A friend of mine who was in the art school said you could earn $1.50 an hour just sitting there, and I thought that was a great thing. But then she told me her cousin was a fashion photographer and he had lost his major model. They’d had a big fight on the eve of a major fashion show where they were introducing a new German fabric and so now he needed a new model. She remembered that I had modeled at Mademoiselle, so I presented myself. Jean Voigt—he was the top Danish fashion designer at the time—hired me before I even took off my coat, and I became the leading fashion model in Denmark for a year. They took me around for this German fabric company and I did the international tour, I think I did three cities… He had to teach me how to walk the runways. It was quite an interesting experience for a “non-model model.”

I subsequently ran into the woman I had replaced about six years ago, and she told me how all the girls had regarded me that year I was in Copenhagen. Not speaking Danish, I had really no clue. I thought they were all nice enough to me! But I was getting a lot of the jobs just because I was certainly the only black woman who had modeled in Denmark. They were very friendly and certainly helpful, often sharing useful modeling tips with me. The other models were probably just a little jealous—it was nothing serious. If I had been in their shoes since I was certainly not the professional that they were, I might have felt some annoyance, too.

So you were getting the jobs just because you were black?

No, they selected me because I was different. All those gorgeous Danish women! The woman I replaced was the top. In fact a couple years before he died, Jean Voigt came to Los Angeles and we had dinner and he basically told me, “I was desperate to find something that was going to be unique and different!” He was always dramatic. He subsequently was the major designer for the opera and theater in Copenhagen.

Did you consider yourself a fashionista in those days?

No, but I was always well dressed. My father was extraordinarily well dressed, particularly for a man who didn’t have a lot of money. I think we all inherited that, because even when I was working my way through UCLA I was known to be very nicely dressed. And I would buy one outfit every semester. I dressed in a lot of black and white. I remember once buying color—I think it was a gold yellow—and everyone was just shocked. Even in those days I just did the basic black and white. Just keep it simple and look nice.

Is that how you still do it?

Oh no, I’m worse than that now. Now it’s all black. When you ask what my style is, it’s clearly determined, and I’m not kidding, by TSA [Transportation Security Administration] rules and the fact that I travel up to two-hundred thousand miles a year as a theater producer. I’m often away for two to three weeks and I travel with a 24-inch rollerboard and a second handbag that fits my computer, and that’s it. So if you’re going to be away for weeks like I am, you’re going to wear basic black, great earrings—beautiful, incredible earrings from Gerda Lyngaard (Monies), this wonderful designer in Copenhagen—a top that can be rinsed out and scarves. Like that, you can do a lot with a very little amount of space.

We know that back then, models weren’t expected to be six-foot-two and weight 110 pounds. Did you fit into any sort of model mold?

I was not six-foot-two, I was five-eight-and-a-half. And I probably weighed 121 or 122 in those days. Yes, I was tall and thin, so I did fit those criteria. I remember one of the ladies at Mademoiselle told me about being a fitting model. She said you could get good money and the designers would just fit the clothes on you. So I went and tried to be a fitting model and found out that I was extraordinarily long-waisted and that I had “low knees.” That was the most fascinating information about myself that I have ever heard. And it’s true! It certainly explained a lot. Because being very long waisted gives the illusion of being taller than you really are. And then with the low knees, it’s okay, as long as you cover your knees. For most of my life, I’ve worn the midis. Remember the midis? I took to that style very well because they dropped below the knee, so no one could tell.

You were probably never self-conscious of it before.

I wasn’t self-conscious before, but it was a valuable piece of information! Once you know who you are and what your problems are, it’s easy to address them. Most people don’t figure out why they look the way they look in clothes. That was probably the most important thing I learned about modeling ever. It was certainly the most useful. —Cody Bay

All photos from Mademoiselle, August 1961, except bottom photo, courtesy of Willette Murphy Klausner. The Mademoiselle text reads: “Pied, as in type, as in piper, as in ponies: that’s the way we like our separates scrambled at UCLA and everywhere, USA” and the caption reads: “Lamb, pied with stripes, with herringbone tweed—that’s the scramble worn by senior class president Willette Murphy, ’61. The cardigan is white pretend lamb lined in gray striped silk, the blouse matches lining, the shaped skirt is black and white tweed.”
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