China Lets Her Wall Down

China Machado in her Gramercy Park office suite. | DAVID NOH

China Machado in her Gramercy Park office suite. | DAVID NOH

Age inevitably brings with it thoughts of mortality, which can be depressing, but then — especially in New York — you can meet all kinds of people older than you who are fabulously going so strong that you think, “Hey, I might have another 35 years or so to go!”

Such a walking, breathing inspiration is the groundbreaking fashion legend and early supermodel China Machado. It was she who broke the color barrier by being the first non-white woman on the cover of a major fashion magazine (Harper’s Bazaar) and went on to an enviably long career at the top. She followed that by becoming the fashion director of Harper’s, while leading a kissed-by-fate, only-in-the-movies kind of divine life most of us only dream about.

Machado is 86 and looks decades younger, with more energy now than I’ve had at any time in my life. I’d met her at a wonderful event celebrating Deborah Riley Draper’s film “Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution,” about the mythic fashion show Machado was in, where American designers knocked the French off their ruling fashion pedestal and our own swirlingly magnificent ethnic models showed all those demure Caucasians just how it was done.

A fabulous supermodel’s fabulous life

A dream of mine came true when she agreed to do an interview in the Gramercy Park aerie she uses as an office when in town from the Hamptons, where she’s lived for years. She unfolded her life for me like the wittiest Scheherazade — a slightly risqué one, at that — only this storyteller was able to illustrate her account with a lavish myriad of incredible photos on her handy laptop.

Born Noelie Dasouza Machado in Shanghai to Portuguese-Chinese parents, her father, founder of the Hong Kong-Shanghai Bank, who was forced to emigrate to Argentina during the Communist era. It was while staying with her brother in Lima, that, at age 19, she met the legendary bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguín, who easily persuaded her to run away with him to Mexico.

“I didn’t speak to my father for 15 years — he was so handsome and intelligent, but he cut me off in disgrace. And then, it was too late really to ever connect again because I had already gone through all my formative years. I can’t believe it was more than 60 years ago, but, as long as you live life to the fullest, it doesn’t matter.

“If Dominguín walked into a room even today, all the women would want him and all the men would want to be like him. Six feet tall, so gorgeous, fun, and intelligent, with this kind of sexuality that was unbelievable. He was the whole package. I went with him to Mexico and Venezuela and then to Spain, where no woman talked to me for two years while I was there. I was la puta [the whore], a mestiza, but I was a kid, a virgin when I met him. I didn’t know anything and the next moment I’m meeting his friends, Hemingway and Picasso, names I may have only read about.

“You mention the book and film, ‘Blood and Sand.’ That film affected me enormously when I saw it as a kid — I wanted to marry Tyrone Power [who played a renowned bullfighter], and then I grow up and who do I meet but this bullfighter. Of course, I’m going to go with him, and everyone was like, ‘What is this Chink doing over there?’

“I didn’t know whether to look at the bullfights and sometimes I didn’t want to go, although he dedicated bulls to me. Yet, if I stayed home, it would be worse, of course. I worried about him: here’s this guy who on Sunday afternoons, once a week, goes and puts his body in front of a bull!

“I was such a kid. I didn’t have money or clothes. It wasn’t that he knew how to take care of a young girl. Everybody else had their own money and clothes, and there I was. I didn’t dress badly and I happened to be okay-looking at the time, so I got away with a lot more than anyone else [laughs]. But, unfortunately, I wasn’t able to hold him.”

The end came in Madrid, at a party that was attended by Ava Gardner and Lana Turner, who came together.

“Ava was so beautiful and my icon — I used to have her picture on my wall. Can you imagine, and then I have to meet her this way: she and Lana thought no one spoke English. They saw Luis and one said, ‘I think I’ll get him,’ and the other said, ‘Not if I get him first!’ Lex Barker was married to Lana and he was there, and they had a terrible fight and left.

“So, Ava stayed, and, at dinner, she was sitting next to Luis, and she put her hand right on his thing! What do you do? Slap her and say, ‘Take your hand away?’ [laughs]. Omigod! But, I must say, she was absolutely gorgeous, funny, and charming. She drank like a fish, which unfortunately makes the skin grow thick and her body wasn’t perfect — short legs — but don’t get me wrong. She was gorgeous! She was also six years older than him, but she said, ‘I’ll put you in the movies,’ and who was I, by comparison?

“I left for Paris and San Tropez, and he kept coming back to me. We saw each other until 10 years before he died. I guess he was drunk and he fell and hit his head in the bathroom. That’s what I heard. Bill Holden went the same way.”

Yes, William Holden was another China lover: “A very nice man, charming, very intelligent, and very correct, but he had his demons. He was an alcoholic, but as a person he had very high standards and treated people very well. He would talk to you and find out who you are. Most men don’t. I was with him right after he made ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai,’ and he was gorgeous. But he had a very strange marriage to Brenda Marshall, an actress of the 1940s. When he married her, she had divorced a husband for him and was older. She was the bigger star, but after he made ‘Golden Boy,’ he was the star and she apparently resented that.

“This guy had an affair with an actress every time he did a film because their marriage was very bad. When I met him, they were separated, a difficult time for him. He had his own life, but took care of her and adopted her daughter. He had a vasectomy after they had two sons. He became embittered, but he was always very upfront, a straight talker, no bullshit or primping. In the studio, he never ate with the big shots, but always in the commissary with the crew and he knew all their names. I left him after about a year, because I wanted to have children.”

Holden even tried to get Machado into the movies, in his “The World of Suzie Wong,” as well as the movie “Gambit,” which was eventually made with Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine, “about this bust of an Oriental woman that a very rich man had, who looked just like Shirley. Bill introduced me to Cary Grant, who would have maybe co-starred with me in that. One afternoon, we had lunch at the Sherry Netherland with this producer, Bill Dozier, who was married to Joan Fontaine. (I’m like you, David, we know everything about everybody!) Then we crossed the street to the Plaza, where Cary was. We got to his suite and it’s all dark, and out of this darkness, he came. Gorgeous beyond anything! The body, the movement was catlike, every gesture! I was petrified and could hardly talk, but they did talk for a while. Dozier tried to convince him to do the movie but he said, “I’m going to do “North by Northwest,” but I’ll think about it.’ I went to Hong Kong with Bill Holden for ‘Suzie Wong,’ but I was not an actress and not really interested in being in movies.”

What Machado was, above all, was a model of the highest order, and to watch videos of her, say, swanning about the salon of Balenciaga in the 1950s, looking like nothing so much as an exquisite Eurasian princess, is to savor human refinement at its most soignee. She laughed all of this off to me, with a modesty that felt utterly genuine.

“No, David, it was never hard for my two daughters growing up with me — the ‘icon’ — as their mother. Because I never thought I was good-looking. Okay, I wasn’t bad, but growing up, I swear to God, you never saw a picture of anybody who looked like you. So I thought, ‘I can’t be good-looking.’ I remember I thought my cousin was nice-looking, but nobody ever told her so or photographed her.”

Machado was at a cocktail party in Paris, and the directrice of Balenciaga saw her and asked if she wanted to be a model.

“It was all by accident. When I went to the salon, they told me Balenciaga had gone to Spain, but why don’t I try Givenchy? I went there, and they thought I was the replacement model for a girl who was sick. So they put me in the fashion show and, afterwards, Givenchy, this gorgeous man, only about 26 then, 6-foot, 6, with more class than I have ever seen in anyone — he should have been Louis XIV — asked if I wanted to model for him.”

Machado became his top model, along with three others: “Kouka, who was an Argentine; Denise, who thought she was the reincarnation of Garbo, and Peggy Roth, who was kind of ugly but had terrific chic! There were seven other models in the cabine. Some of them had three outfits. I had 36, so instead of going back to the dressing room, we would do it around the corner, because I had to go right out again. Philippe Venet would put me in all these suits, and Givenchy wanted me because I had a very straight back, no ass, straight shoulders, no bust, and a long neck. With other girls, he had to put padding in the coats so they would fall right and with me he didn’t. I was like a coat hanger.”

Audrey Hepburn was Givenchy’s most famous and loyal client and friend.

“All of her clothes were fitted on me and I met her many times, even did a Paris collection show with her. She was darling, but completely reserved. The kind of person who, if she goes to the hairdresser, she doesn’t read a magazine or have her nails done. Only the hair, completely focused, only one thing at a time. Her house in Switzerland had no noise because her son was sleeping upstairs. She was adorable and charming, but completely disciplined to a point that was too much of a point. Very focused, and knew exactly what she wanted.

“She had been with a very wealthy English guy, James Hanson, her first love, and then she fell in love with William Holden, too. But she didn’t marry him because he’d had that vasectomy and she also wanted children. So she married Mel Ferrer, and then that Italian doctor. And she ended up with Rob Wolders [famous for also being with two other older actresses, Merle Oberon and Leslie Caron]. He was gorgeous and willing to just hang around, and these women all had money, so he lived off them. She was charming, but I think that people found her very cold. All her character was in her movies, but in private life maybe the only man she ever loved was Bill Holden. I don’t know.”

Machado indeed ruled the runway, but it was in print that she came into her real glory, photographed by Avedon for that historic Harper’s cover.

“The publisher told him he couldn’t use me because I wasn’t white and all of the Southern subscribers would cancel, but Dick said, ‘If you don’t let her be the cover I won’t sign my new seven-year contract.’ He never told me this; I found out 20 years later. But how nice of him and how lucky for me! He also shot me for the first nude in the magazine.”

It all began when Machado arrived in New York from Europe, “the highest paid runway model there. I arrived at Harper’s at 8:30 and at 11, I walked into the office of [editor] Diana Vreeland. I’m standing there and she’s looking at me, and I thought she was gay. ‘Exquisite!’ she says, ‘Marrrvelous!’ She was hysterical and talked all rubbish. But she made everybody believe it, and was very charming and very smart. When she had nothing to say, she’d say something ridiculous, and everybody would go, ‘Oh my God! [Laughs.]

“She immediately put me in the Fashion Group winter collection show, which was then the biggest in the world. I opened the show in Balenciaga hot pink pajamas, standing on a 40-foot ladder. I just hoped I wouldn’t break my neck as I came down to this huge stage, and thought, “I’m gonna pee, already!’

“I had never been photographed before, but Avedon saw me the next day in his studio. I was still jet-lagged and carried my bag with all my shoes, makeup, and wigs, like we did in Paris because we did everything ourselves. And there was Kenneth to do my hair and Ernie from Revlon for my face, and Adolfo puts a little hat on me. Avedon said, ‘Be careful of the bones! Make her pale — I only want to see the line of her face.’ He told me to turn around, and then said, ‘Beautiful!’ Oh my God, Avedon saying this to me — I’m ready to faint! He took the most famous pictures of me, and that’s how I broke in. I was so lucky!”

After the modeling and her editorship at Harper’s ended, Machado never really looked at fashion again: “I couldn’t stand it anymore: the constant politics going on and badmouthing everyone and who sits in this seat? l mean, life isn’t worth it. And I’m so crazy. I really don’t give a fuck, and that’s my strength.”

Machado, a happy grandmother now, went on to be a television producer, costume designer, and gallerist, while raising two beautiful daughters from her first marriage to Martin LaSalle, who starred in the Robert Bresson film “Pickpocket.” She also did spectacularly well in real estate, selling her five-bedroom Central Park West apartment which had once been Ring Lardner’s, as well as an eight-bedroom home in Water Mill. She has been happily married to Ricardo Rosa for 38 years.

“With men, I was lucky. I’ve never been alone for more than two weeks. Every man I ever met came to my house because I was always giving dinners and parties. I’ve always been happy; that was my luck. Not that I didn’t have bad things happen to me. The breakup with the bullfighter still affects me now He was the love of my life, but I’m very self-preservative. I’ve always made my own money — never taken anything from anyone — but I don’t want people biting pieces out of me. You can do anything you want, as long as you’re happy, but don’t take anything away from me. It’s hard enough to keep myself together without that.”

She has already written her memoirs and is launching a new venture: a line of sumptuously chic and very versatile wraps under her own name, China.

“It’s just something to keep busy. I don’t have a lot of money, but I don’t have to work and have a very nice life— a beautiful Sag Harbor house with a wonderful rose garden right on the water, traveling a lot, marvelous friends.”

As for her spectacularly ageless beauty, she again pooh-poohs it: “I thought everybody was crazy to think of me as beautiful! As for facelifts, I haven’t done a thing because a dentist can’t even come near me. I’m already ready to scream from the pain because I’m the biggest coward in the world! I left it all this way and I don’t care. It’s too late now, anyway!”

Don Ameche and Gene Tierney in Ernst Lubitsch’s "Heaven Can Wait." | COURTESY: FILM FORUM

Don Ameche and Gene Tierney in Ernst Lubitsch’s “Heaven Can Wait.” | COURTESY: FILM FORUM

At the very top of my list of movie directors is the ever scintillating Ernst Lubitsch, and one of his best, ‘Heaven Can Wait” (1943) is coming to Film Forum on June 17 (209 W. Houston St., through Jun. 23; filmforum.org).

This lavish Technicolor period farce was penned by Lubitsch’s best screenwriter, Samson Raphaelson, and spins the tale of a randy ne’er-do-well (Don Ameche), and his lovely, long-suffering but very savvy wife (Gene Tierney). It’s filled with delicious set pieces: rich kids’ hoarding and reluctant exchanges of precious beetle bugs, Tierney’s hilariously vulgarian, combative parents; Marjorie Main and Eugene Pallette battling over the comic strip Katzenjammer Kids; my favorite character harridan, Florence Bates, meeting a well-deserved fate via Satan, played by Laird Cregar, that will have you literally howling from the funny shock of it.

t’s only marred by Ameche’s bland affability standing in for the real charm a Cary Grant might have so easily provided, but that in no way ruins this sophisticated gem, the wittiness of which is most happily echoed in the current film delight, Whit Stillman’s “Love and Friendship,” also highly recommended, with a transcendently comic performance by Kate Beckinsale.

Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com and check out his blog at http://nohway.wordpress.com/.

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