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Pretty in a vacant kind of way

By Ben Cosgrove, Life.com
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Thu September 5, 2013
"Cynthia" became a household name after a 1937 Life magazine spread. She became an A-list celebrity and top fashion houses sent jewels and dresses. "Cynthia" became a household name after a 1937 Life magazine spread. She became an A-list celebrity and top fashion houses sent jewels and dresses.
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Cynthia the mannequin
Cynthia the mannequin
Cynthia the mannequin
Cynthia the mannequin
Cynthia the mannequin
Cynthia the mannequin
Cynthia the mannequin
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Life magazine launched the career of an up-and-coming starlet with a photo spread
  • She became an A-list celebrity
  • Cynthia was a mannequin

(CNN) -- In 1937, Life magazine launched the career of an up-and-coming starlet with a photo spread that, overnight, made "Cynthia" a household name. She became an A-list celebrity, top fashion houses sent jewels and dresses, and she was briefly engaged to one of radio's biggest stars.

There was just one minor catch: Cynthia wasn't human, she was a mannequin -- a plaster, dead-eyed dummy. Pretty, in a vacant kind of way, but a dummy.

Her creator, Lester Gaba, was a Missouri shopkeeper's son with dreams of a grand life in the big city. He achieved it through his uncanny skill at one of the Great Depression's quirkier national crazes -- soap sculpting. Buoyed by the fame he earned as a soap sculptor, Gaba moved to New York in 1932, where he went into fashion and retail and pioneered the design of mannequins that combined style with realism. Cynthia was his star, accompanying him to nightclubs and social events. Not bad for a blonde who couldn't speak a word, smile or even blink.

Read the full story and see the entire gallery on Life.com.

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