Published: December 22, 2009
December 27, 2009    

Yale Joel/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

THE SAVVY BUSINESS MODEL The cover of the Oct. 17, 1969, issue of Life magazine.

The Lives They Lived
The Lives They Lived

A look at some notable people whose lives, and deaths, were worthy of exploration and appreciation in 2009.

On the same day she graduated from Westinghouse High School in Pittsburgh, Naomi Sims set out for Manhattan, leaving behind a city where she never felt as if she belonged. She was like many New York aspirants — creative, ambitious, an escapee from somewhere too small and stifling. Except that her sense of isolation, in the place she left, was extreme. What Naomi Sims would soon experience was a newly arrived New Yorker’s fairy tale: extraordinary and nearly instant success.

Living with an older sister in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and attending the Fashion Institute of Technology, she found herself short on money and decided to try modeling. Without an agency to represent her, she cannily cultivated relationships with photographers and other figures in the fashion industry and, at 19, graced the cover of the August 1967 issue of Fashions of the Times, a supplement to The New York Times Magazine. The next year, she appeared on the cover of Ladies Home Journal — the first black model to be featured on the front of a mainstream women’s magazine.

Nearly six feet tall, with ebony skin and African features, Sims was regal in carriage and intuitive in her sense of style. She projected the rare and alluring combination of sultriness and rectitude. She walked everywhere in Manhattan, and her leggy strides once were described as “enough to sizzle the sidewalks on a cold day.” In 1973, she married the art dealer Michael Findlay and lived in an apartment filled with classical music and fresh flowers. Findlay told me about first meeting her at a party where Timothy Leary was wooing her. “She dissuaded him in a charming but definitive way,” he said. “With such aplomb.”

Such outward self-assurance gave no hint of Sims’s painful upbringing. Her mother, separated from Naomi’s father shortly after her birth, gave her up when she was about 10. Naomi spent time in a group home and then was raised as a foster child by a working-class black couple in Pittsburgh’s Homewood section. She would later recall that a younger foster daughter in the house, lighter in skin tone, was treated “like a daughter” while she felt more like a helper. Naomi’s mother lived about a mile away, where she raised Naomi’s two older sisters. (Why her mother gave her up remains unclear.)

Sims landed in New York at a cultural moment when the city’s aesthetic arbiters were ready to embrace her alongside the doe-eyed frailness of blondes like Twiggy, who came to New York at about the same time. Andy Warhol befriended her, and she was among the crowd at the Factory and Studio 54, but not every night. Sims was known within her industry as someone who showed up on time and prepared, usually having already done her own hair and makeup because few stylists knew how to work with a black woman.

Sims sold Avon products door to door during her teenage years and took lifelong pride in having been a top seller. She modeled for just five years before creating and selling a line of wigs for black women, later adding cosmetics and hair products branded as the Naomi Sims Collection. She also wrote books stuffed with no-nonsense advice directed at black women, giving guidance on how to speak (no swear words), how to write a résumé (on heavy bond paper) and how to shake hands (never while seated).

They were the kind of rules that might help outwardly order a life when it grew internally chaotic, which happened often to Sims. Her bouts of furious creativity and then depression were diagnosed as bipolar disorder in her mid-30s. She told almost no one about her illness, which crippled her at times and led to several hospitalizations. “She suffered without the support of many who knew her,” says Michael Findlay, whose marriage to Sims ended in divorce after 18 years.

In 2005, Sims was among the honorees at the Oprah Winfrey-sponsored “Legends Ball,” saluting 25 trailblazing black women. It was a rare public appearance. The woman who had flashed onto the New York scene had by then receded so deeply into privacy that some friends did not know she had left Manhattan until the announcement of her death. She had lost control of her business, experienced financial setbacks and lived for the last decade, before succumbing to breast cancer, in Newark.

Bob Findlay, the son of Sims and Michael Findlay, spent many years helping his mother find care and thinking about how to square the different parts of her life. “She was the person at the breakfast table in her bathrobe, without makeup, telling me to pick up my stuff,” he says. “But there were these pictures of her in the apartment, from her modeling days, and she was impossibly glamorous. I spent hours looking at those pictures.”

He remembers his mother once waking him up in the middle of the night when he was a child and the two of them walking for hours on the city streets. He thinks he was not quite 5: “We walked all around Manhattan, and she just talked and talked. It felt like an amazing adventure with my mother, but looking back on it, I think it was more than that.”

Bob Findlay says his mother never spoke publicly about her mental illness, and told few friends, out of a sense of propriety and perhaps from a fear of damaging the Naomi Sims brand. “Three months ago, as she knew she was dying, she told me, ‘I’m ready to share it.’”

Michael Sokolove, a contributing writer, is the author of “Ticket Out.”


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