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Cynthia, The Celebrity Mannequin

The story of Pygmalion, from ancient Greek mythology, is well known. Pygmalion was a sculptor who fell in love with his own creation, which was an ivory statue carved in the shape of a beautiful woman. Pygmalion wished for the statue to become real so that she could be his bride. His wish was granted and they lived happily ever after.

Something similar happened to Lester Gaba, an American soap sculptor, who was asked by a luxury department store to design a mannequin for their window displays. After Lester saw the mannequin he had created, he was astounded by her beauty. He decided to make another one for himself. Soon, Lester Gaba began to take “Cynthia” out with him to dinner parties and gala events as if she was his date. Cynthia commanded attention wherever she went, and for a brief period during the 1930s, she became one of the most sought-after celebrity in Hollywood.

Cynthia, The Celebrity Mannequin

Lester Gaba grew up in small-town Hannibal, Missouri, but had big dreams of a grand life in the city. He was able to achieve it through his soap sculpting skills, which took him first to Chicago, then to New York City in 1932, where he went into fashion and retail and pioneered the design of department-store windows. In those days, mannequins were relatively unrealistic and were made out of wax that often melted in the sun right in the store window. Gaba wanted mannequins to be realistic and modelled out of real woman.

“Put Joan Crawford in a store-case, and even husbands will want to go window shopping,” Gaba wrote in a trade publication calling for a revolution in mannequin design.

When Gaba was commissioned by Saks Fifth Avenue to create a new line of window displays, he saw an opportunity. Gaba hired aspiring models from New York and asked them to pose for him, while he sculpted a life-size version of each woman out of clay. He then used the clay figures to make molds from which he casted mannequins out of plaster. Gaba called his new line of mannequins Gaba Girls. And like the real women after which these mannequins were modelled, Gaba Girls carried small imperfections, such as freckles and different-sized feet.

Cynthia, The Celebrity Mannequin

Cynthia with her creator Lester Gaba.

One of the women who modelled for Gaba was named Cynthia Wells. We don’t know much about her except that “she was quite slender” and had—to quote Alana Staiti, curator at the National Museum of American History— “very light-colored peach skin, blonde hair in a wig, very faint angular jawline, [and] very small, pointed upturned nose,” with a touch of “New York high society snobbery and humility,” as journalist Mitchell Johnson puts it.

Gaba fell in love with her—not Cynthia Wells, but Cynthia the mannequin that was modelled out of her. Gaba had another Cynthia made just for himself, and he took her out whenever he socialized with New York socialites. Soon, the 5' 6", 100-pound doll became a fixture of New York’s nightlife. Cynthia started appearing on glossy magazines alongside pictures of Hollywood stars, including a 14-page spread in Life Magazine covering her upcoming career as if she was a real person. As Cynthia’s fame grew, the country’s fashion houses took the opportunity to promote their products. They began to send Cynthia free dresses, shoes, furs and jewelry to wear during her outings with Lester Gaba. It was surreal, and understandably, not everyone understood the craze. Years later, Gaba himself confided in The New York Times reported Gay Talese: “Cynthia never made any sense.”

Cynthia, The Celebrity Mannequin

Before Gaba eventually came to his senses, World War 2 arrived and he went off to fight the country’s enemies. But before leaving, he sent Cynthia to stay with his mother in Missouri, where he left strict instructions that she was to be pampered like a real star, which entailed weekly beauty treatments and styling at the best salon in town. It was while receiving such a treatment at the local beauty salon, one day in 1942, that Cynthia slipped from the salon chair and shattered.

Undeterred, Gaba had another Cynthia built, and this one could talk, playing out pre-recorded sentences and a jaw that moved in sync. Gaba tried to bring her back to limelight by getting her her own television talk show, but the magic was over and the network, as well as the public, lost interest.

The current whereabouts of Cynthia is unknown. According to one source, Gaba left her at a friend’s attic in the East Village, where, in all likelihood, it’s still sitting in the dark, collecting dust.

Cynthia, The Celebrity Mannequin

Cynthia, The Celebrity Mannequin

Cynthia, The Celebrity Mannequin

Cynthia, The Celebrity Mannequin

Cynthia, The Celebrity Mannequin

Cynthia, The Celebrity Mannequin

Cynthia, The Celebrity Mannequin

Cynthia, The Celebrity Mannequin

Cynthia, The Celebrity Mannequin

Cynthia, The Celebrity Mannequin

Cynthia, The Celebrity Mannequin

Cynthia, The Celebrity Mannequin

References:
# 99 Percent Invisible, https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/mannequin-pixie-dream-girl/
# Time, https://time.com/3877720/life-with-cynthia-the-world-famous-mannequin/
# NY Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/06/fashion/06MANNIES.html

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