Ilona Royce Smithkin, unlikely fashion and art muse, dies at 101

Ilona Royce Smithkin, who as an orange-haired nonagenarian with matching two-inch lashes caught fire in the fashion world, starring in a documentary film and joining fashion campaigns for brands like Coach, while also throwing embers in many other fields as a muse for photographers, filmmakers and artists – a cheerful character who took a lifetime to build after a bleak childhood – died Aug. 1 at his home in Provincetown, Massachusetts. She was 101 years old.

The death was confirmed by Melinda Levy, a longtime friend and trustee of her estate.

Ms Smithkin’s rise to fame began with a rumor.

In 2010, photographer Ari Seth Cohen, who started Advanced Style – a style blog for women over 60 that later became a book series and film on the same topic – overheard a friend talking about ‘a “magical woman with fiery red”. longest hair and eyelashes we’ve ever seen. He staked out a store she would have visited.

Soon after, he spotted a woman on the street in Manhattan’s West Village who was around 4ft 9in tall and wearing hand-painted sneakers, matching baby blue clothes, and diamond-studded sunglasses, with eyelashes protruding. It was her.

Mr. Cohen asked to take the photo of Ms. Smithkin. She exclaimed “Of course” and kicked in the air.

“I immediately fell in love,” Cohen said in a telephone interview.

He began to tour the fourth floor of Ms Smithkin’s West Village, a small studio so filled with fabrics, handbags, paintings, magazines and hats that the door couldn’t open fully. Ms Smithkin served coffee or vodka – “the only two things I can do,” she explained – and described how she made her own caftans and transformed things like letter organizers and jewelry typewriter springs.

With no intention of making a film, Mr. Cohen and a friend, Lina Plioplyte, began videotaping their conversations with Ms. Smithkin. In 2014, it became a documentary, “Advanced Style”, focused on some of the main recurring characters of the blog.

In the film, Ms. Smithkin, a painter by profession, combined striking personal revelations with slapstick comedy. “I became myself maybe 10, 12, 13 years ago,” she said, despite being 94 when she was released. She joined a friend in her 90s, who she said suffered from memory loss, to sing a duet “You Make Me Feel So Young”.

“I don’t think ‘Advanced Style’ would have been a fraction of what it is without Ilona,” Mr. Cohen said. “She gave it depth. She was the star.

Ms Smithkin began modeling, appearing in campaigns for Karen Walker’s eyewear and Mara Hoffman clothing. She was called a “92-year-old style legend” by Page Six of the New York Post, who described her dancing at the Jane Hotel in the West Village without noticing that her scarf had caught fire from a candle. proximity. Another party animal doused the flames with champagne.

To those boogieving at the Jane Hotel, Ms Smithkin might have seemed a vaudeville figure, her flamboyant outfit fun enough for a spin in the spotlight. But she had a “stable of mentees”, made up largely of artists, who knew better, said one of them, actor Erik Liberman.

“She noticed who was attracted to color and light, and who wanted to understand the source of color and light,” Liberman said. “For those looking for a more in-depth conversation, the fabulous hats, scarves and possibly even eyelashes came along. “

Mr. Liberman would often show up at Ms. Smithkin’s studio at any time to take a nap between Broadway performances. When, as an aspiring actor in his late twenties, he started spending time with Ms Smithkin, he brought notebooks to record what she said. She asked him to take his own creative powers seriously, rather than seeing acting as a form of submission to someone else’s vision.

“It changed the whole course, especially of my young career,” Mr. Liberman said.

Mrs. Smithkin was born Ilona Rosenkranz on March 27, 1920. Her father, Mordko, was an engineer; her mother, Frida (Lubinski) Rosenkranz, was a housewife.

This information comes from immigration documents. In April 1938, the family moved from Berlin, where Ilona grew up, to New York. They listed their race as “Hebrew”.

As an adult, Ms Smithkin avoided discussing her background, saying when asked she had few memories. But in a 2004 documentary about her, “Ilona, ​​Upstairs,” she attributed the way her head sometimes involuntarily shook to the experiences she had at the age of 11 when the Nazis began their ascent in power.

“It’s not Alzheimer’s disease, it’s not Parkinson’s disease,” she said of her tremors. “It’s that terrible, pent-up fear.”

In the United States, his parents anglicized their names as Max and Frieda, and the last name became Royce.

According to Ilona’s petition in the early 1940s for naturalization as a citizen, she was born in Berlin, but later said she was born in Poland. She started making art at the age of 5 and studied at the Reimann School of Art and Design in Berlin, the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Belgium, and the Art Students League of New York.

A year after immigrating, when she was 19, Ilona married Irving Smithkin, a linotype operator. He died in action during World War II and was buried in Italy.

Ms. Smithkin painted and made a living as a milliner, factory worker, glass shade painter and movie opener. She moved into her West Village studio in 1947.

In the 1960s and 1970s, she began teaching art classes in Kentucky and South Carolina, traveling to small towns and using church basements and funeral homes as classrooms. In 1975, she began teaching painting lessons on the South Carolina Educational Television Network.

When she was not on the road, Ms. Smithkin divided her time between the West Village and Provincetown. She has met and portrayed writers like Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, and Ayn Rand.

In interviews, Ms Smithkin spoke of having had an eye-opening and finally becoming authentic herself around the age of 80, around the same time she started performing songs by Marlene Dietrich and Edith Piaf in Provincetown. and in New York venues like Joe’s Pub. She wore stilettos, stockings, and a revealing dress, and until she had hip surgery in the mid-80s, she ended every show by doing a split.

By her own admission, she didn’t have much of a voice, but neither did Dietrich, she said.

Ms Smithkin leaves no immediate survivors, but she has developed a ritual to mark someone as part of her inner circle.

You walked into his studio and sat down on a chair next to his bed. She studied your face. She chose a pencil. Then, for about 20 minutes, you stood still as she portrayed one of your eyes.

“You talk; I want to hear from you,” she said as she drew, according to “Insomniac City,” a memoir by photographer Bill Hayes in which he described sitting for a portrait of the eyes. “Right now you’re the person. largest in the world. “

It was, Mr. Liberman said, a “spiritual experience.”

“She became supernaturally still, and her observance probed the depths of who you were,” he added. “She could conjure up the entire cosmos of someone’s being through the microcosm of her eye.”

Alain Delaquériere contributed research.

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