I recently had lunch with my favorite model. Nah, not Cheryl Tiegs, pin-up girl of many a 1970s lad, but Bill Clune, the fittest-looking 85-year old since—well, since his dad, who lived to a hale 105.
Bill rode the whirlwind for a decade, 1955-1965, as perhaps the highest-paid male model in America. He worked with the chichi photographers of the day: Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Mark Shaw, Frank Scavullo (whom success renamed Francesco). Bill was television’s first Marlboro Man, though he struck his cowboy pose sitting atop a split-rail fence in the Elliot Unger Elliot Studio on West 54th Street, five thousand martinis east of the lonesome prairie.
Bill had pedigree. His father, Henry W. Clune, was the star of Frank Gannett’s Rochester newspaper and a novelist praised by the likes of Dawn Powell. His mother, Charlotte, daughter of adventurer Joe “King of the Klondike” Boyle, swam the 100-meter freestyle for the 1920 U.S. Olympic team at Antwerp.
Their son, however, was floundering. He’d been fired from his weekend Rochester DJ job—spinning “Clune’s Tunes”—after a mike caught him uttering mild profanities during a Mutual Network religious program. That was probably the last time Lady Luck rejected Bill Clune.
At loose ends in 1953, he climbed into his 1941 Ford and with $100 in his pocket drove to New York City. Reversing that tired Frank Sinatra song, Bill figured that if he couldn’t make it in Rochester, he may as well take Manhattan.
A friend introduced him to John W. Harkrider, who had directed the 1929 Flo Ziegfield extravaganza “Glorifying the American Girl.” Harkrider, whom Bill remembers as a “nut box,” got him a job posing as a rapist for Howell Conant in True Detective. Bottom’s barrel was being scraped, but Bill was on his way. (So was Conant, who would be Grace Kelly’s palace photographer.)
Soon, Clune’s long-nosed handsome mug was all over the place: Harper’s Bazaar, Mademoiselle, Esquire, Vogue, Life, the Saturday Evening Post. He had the outdoor look prized by Marlboro, which had been a lady’s cigarette—its motto was “Mild as May”—until undergoing phalloplasty on Madison Avenue. (Bill was a stranger to the demon weed, so he spent the weekend preceding the Marlboro shoot gagging his way through a self-taught smoking tutorial.)
Hearst columnist Dorothy Kilgallen gushed, “Flicker scouts are excited about the male model of the moment—Bill Clune. He’s the son of a Rochester newspaperman, and the experts think he may be another John Wayne.” Patrick Wayne was closer to the mark, though you can glimpse Bill as the coalmine owner in Martin Ritt’s cave-in “The Molly Maguires.”
Bill surveys his career with a charmingly wide-eyed wonder. Did he dislike anyone? “Dorian Leigh,” he spits out, suggesting that the author of the autobiography The Girl Who Had Everything didn’t. He also cites Millie Perkins, the New Jersey model who played the mysterious woman in Monte Hellman’s 1967 cult western “The Shooting”: “God she was nasty.”
Bill bought the farm in 1958: a Greek Revival farmhouse and 80 acres in Livingston County, New York, where he raised ducks and pigs and cattle and chickens. On Saturdays, he and his wife would “hop in the car and go driving looking for real people because the rest of the week I was living in an unreal world.”
Look magazine ran a four-page profile titled “The Double Life of a Farmer” in which Bill was depicted riding a tractor, oiling a hay cutter, sitting in a hayloft, and otherwise modeling the agrarian life. His wife was pictured aiming a .22 at something—maybe a woodchuck, but quite possibly at Bill, who was a chronically unfaithful husband. He lost the farm when he lost his wife.
Bill’s friend Colin Fox, the British sailor who donned an eye-patch as the Hathaway Shirt man, once was asked how people respond when they find out he’s a male model. “Contempt,” Fox replied. “This is usually followed by envy. They’re thinking: ‘Look at that conceited imbecile, making all that money just for smirking into a camera’.”
Yet Bill muses that his experience flip-flopped the stereotypes. Life on the farm is thought to be all honest toil and the world of high fashion a pit of glamorous decadence. But he greatly admired the work ethic of the best models and photographers, and he was puzzled to receive checks from Uncle Sam paying him for not growing corn or wheat. Sometimes the focus is hard to find.
Bill works still, his plummy voice much in demand for voice-overs. He’s also peddling a memoir: the story of how Boy Scout virtues—be punctual, helpful, friendly—and a prodigious heterosexual appetite kept him plenty busy in the “Mad Men” age.
Bill Kauffman’s column “Home Plate” appears every month in The American Conservative. If you enjoyed this article, please support the magazine by making a tax-deductible donation.