Meet the Marlboro Man

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Recently by Bill Kauffman: The Populist Patriotism of Gore Vidal

     

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.

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Bill Kauffman’s [send him mail] most recent book is Ain’t My America: The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle-American Anti-Imperialism.

 

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