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 the documentary “Advanced Style” and joining fashion campaigns for brands like Coach, All throwing embers in many other areas as a muse for photographers, filmmakers and artists – a cheerful personality who took a lifetime to build after a bleak childhood – died August 1 at her Provincetown home , 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 blog dedicated to the style of women over 60 that later became a book series and film on the same subject – 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.

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

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

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

He started visiting and then bringing friends to 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 fit. open completely. 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 machine springs. to write in jewelry.

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 focusing on some of the blog’s main recurring characters.

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 “You Make Me Feel So Young” as a duet.

At her age, she said at one point, “I can’t buy green bananas anymore.

“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. that his scarf had caught fire from a nearby candle. Another party animal doused the flames with champagne.

For some boogieing at the Jane Hotel, Ms. Smithkin might have seemed a vaudeville figure, her flamboyant outfit a pretty fun schtick 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 drawn 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, eventually, even the 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.

Another admirer was burlesque artist Dita Von Teese, one of the many who made a habit of saving Ms Smithkin’s voicemail messages. Ms. Von Teese took the practice a step further. She would deliberately avoid answering Ms Smithkin’s calls before immediately calling back, to obtain a permanent recording of her friend’s voice.

Ilona Rosenkranz was born on March 27, 1920. Her father, Mordko, was an engineer and her mother, Frida (Lubinski) Rosenkranz, 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 that she had few memories or that it was not the right time. 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 Nazi Party began its rise to 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 in interviews that 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 famous writers like Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill and Ayn Rand.

In subsequent interviews, she mentioned 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 added.

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

You walked into her studio and sat down in a chair next to her bed, your knees almost touching. Mrs. Smithkin studied your face. She chose a pencil. Then, for about 20 minutes, you stood still while Mrs. Smithkin portrayed one of your eyes.

“You speak; I want to hear from you,” she would say while drawing, according to “Insomniac City,” a memoir by photographer Bill Hayes in which he describes sitting for a portrait of the eyes. the most important person 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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