Vintage News | Pat Cleveland: Early Supermodel and Author With Many Tales

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Pat Cleveland in her home studio in New Jersey. Credit Chad Batka for The New York Times.



The peacocks were rooting around in the bushes, strutting and pecking and ruffling their trains. Occasionally, one — Boy or Big Boy, say, or Snow White — struck a pose, tipping its beak up to emit a banshee shriek.

“They’re just a bunch of drama queens, honey,” said Pat Cleveland, as she sat in the backyard of her house in a rural part of New Jersey, sipping on a sinister-looking juice drink the color and texture of algae. Drama queens, as it happens, is a topic on which Ms. Cleveland has some stories to tell.

This she does in “Walking with the Muses,” a picaresque new memoir about a tall, skinny mixed-race girl (“not black enough to be black or white enough to be white”) hailing from a section of East Harlem that she terms the Golden Edge.

In her 1950s childhood, Ms. Cleveland writes, that neighborhood was still representative of a now largely bygone city, a place where “the Jews, the blacks, the Irish and the Puerto Ricans all had a corner of their own.”

Ms. Cleveland took her leave from childhood’s haunts fairly early and through the kind of cinematic turn of fate that seems to have characterized much of her life. A Vogue editor discovered the then-14-year-old on a subway platform, chased her down and set her on the road to becoming a fashion model.

“Model” is probably too limited a job description for a woman who, through a singular combination of moxie, off-kilter beauty and preternatural energy, spent the next five decades romping across continents and stamping her imprint on an industry that, if it didn’t always know what to do with her, inevitably succumbed to her goofball appeal. 

“Pat was a muse for Halston, Stephen Burrows, Giorgio Sant’Angelo and Antonio Lopez,” Diane von Furstenberg, the designer and chairwoman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, wrote in a recent email from Tokyo, where she had paused briefly on her way to Bhutan. “She was, and is still, magical.”

Whether on catwalks in New York or the various European capitals of fashion, Ms. Cleveland made for an unconventional model, one not classically beautiful and yet “a more gorgeous version of Josephine Baker,” as Ms. von Furstenberg said.

Dancing, twirling, strutting on a runway and “moving like no one else,” as the designer added, Ms. Cleveland had an effect on the catwalk best captured by another top model of the era, Janice Dickinson: “When she moved, she painted the air around her with the clothes.”

To comprehend what Ms. Cleveland is to the recent history of fashion, it probably helps to consider what fashion is not anymore: an insular and largely tribal business dominated by cliques and elites. Compelling to a largely cult fan base, fashion in Ms. Cleveland’s 1970s prime was anything but the corporate juggernaut and global entertainment spectacle it has since become.

American fashion, in particular, during the era when Ms. Cleveland first appeared, was also more porous and racially diverse than it would be in the subsequent decades. Success in the business was measured in those days not by social media metrics but by an ability to bewitch the cognoscenti, to make yours a name they whispered about.

And seemingly Ms. Cleveland has been an object of fascination for those around her almost from the time she was born 65 years ago to a white Swedish saxophonist and an African-American artist from the South. Soon after, Ms. Cleveland’s father, Johnny Johnston, returned to Sweden, leaving her mother, Lady Bird Cleveland, to raise her freckle-faced young daughter alone.

“If you’re a single black woman and have a Swedish lover, life is never going to be easy, and Lady Bird didn’t have the opportunities in life,” Ms. Cleveland said. “But her lesson to me was always, whatever your circumstances are, it’s up to you to create your own world.”

She was sitting at a picnic table in the mild spring sunshine. Behind her was a clutch of the tame peacocks that had strayed from a nearby farm and into the yard of her modest split-level house one day and somehow remained.

Set amid a row of cookie-cutter plots carved from rich local farmland, the house was Lady Bird’s until her death last year from Alzheimer’s disease. More than a decade ago, Ms. Cleveland and her husband, the photographer Paul Van Ravenstein, returned to the United States from the Italian mountain village where they’d been living, to care for the ailing woman.

“I tell my kids I expect them to do the same for me,” Ms. Cleveland said of her son, Noel Van Ravenstein, a sometime model and yoga teacher, and her daughter, Anna Cleveland, who herself has cut a considerable swath through the modeling business in recent years.

Throughout the house hang scores of the prolific Lady Bird Cleveland’s paintings and drawings; images of black historical figures crowd the walls there, stand five deep in a storeroom and are even taped inside kitchen cabinet doors.

A parallel domestic presence is that of Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, the Hindu spiritual leader who counts Ms. Cleveland among her devotees. Dressed in a raspberry-colored T-shirt and snug plum jeans, Ms. Cleveland looked surprisingly fresh that day, particularly given that she’d driven home from Manhattan at 6 in the morning, after a marathon all-night photography session with Anna Cleveland for a catalog.

The prosaic suburban setting seemed a far cry from her glamorous work life and from the high-life haunts Ms. Cleveland depicts in her book.

It was not easy to square the serene figure at the picnic table with the goofball naïf who over the years found herself on coke-addled jaunts through the Serengeti with tempestuous models and photographer divas; who spent a thousand nights clubbing in New York or Paris fueled by lavish quantities of Champagne and other stimulants; who embarked on nearly that many libidinal adventures along the way.

“I practically killed myself at the Tenth Floor,” she remarked offhandedly, referring to a members-only 1970s gay dance club made famous in Andrew Holleran’s novel “Dancer from the Dance.” “I was wearing platform shoes and went up on a ladder and started laughing and dancing because we all had poppers and I almost fell off.”

“Walking with the Muses,” a densely peopled and illustrated volume, is studded with the boldface names of Ms. Cleveland’s acquaintance (“Diane Vreeland was a freak and she liked the freaks,” she remarks), and amorous partners — Mick Jagger, Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty make appearances — but also with cultivated figures from her mother’s Harlem Renaissance coterie. It was Carl Van Vechten who snapped some of Ms. Cleveland’s earliest photos.

What’s notable about Ms. Cleveland’s story is its grounding in an untutored wisdom, her own canny powers of observation and a willingness to write with candor about professional challenges that, as often as not, were rooted in race.

When she first appeared on the scene, according to André Leon Talley, a contributing editor of Vogue, Ms. Cleveland was a type of model people hadn’t seen before. “A skinny girl from Harlem with no boobs and a frizz of hair,” is how she describes herself.

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