The Replacement Girl: A Life in 24 Frames

By John-Michael O'Sullivan

A biography of Barbara Mullen, one of the twentieth century's great fashion models

Thursday, 8 June 2023

The Last Word

I’d thought, that after everything — after ten years, twenty-five drafts, hundreds of interviews and thousands of pages of research, in libraries across two continents  — I’d at least get to write The Replacement Girl’s ending myself.

But, as ever, I hadn’t reckoned with Barbara Mullen.


    In her modelling days, they’d called her ‘The Electric Hip’ : a fearless, live-wire figure, endlessly twisting, bending and stretching, to hit the perfect pose the second the camera shutter clicked. And after her days as a top model ended, she transferred those same skills to the art of conversation — and to the art of delivering killer parting shots.

    It was a skill she’d had decades to hone in Klosters, where village life was dominated by the greatest talkers of the era; Gore Vidal, Swifty Lazar, Salka Viertel, Irwin Shaw. ‘Barbara is the life of any party she attends,’ one Sixties visitor confirmed. ‘— plays Elaine May or Mike Nichols with the timing of Bob Hope.’


    Every time we met, she’d find a way to end the visit with some spectacular new piece of information — always flung at me, offhandedly, as I raced to catch flights back to London, never giving me more than a few seconds to respond. 

    I was clambering out of her car at the airport one afternoon — parked on a red line, engine still running — when she suddenly mentioned a memory from her Harlem childhood, of the time her mother brought movie star Anna May Wong home to visit. And after years of not being able to find her first wedding album, it turned up (minutes before the local print shop closed, and just before she and her husband left Zurich forever) — complete with an unexpected extra, a snapshot showing Barbara being flung round a St. Tropez dancefloor with Orson Welles. 

    “Thanks for having me.’’ I yelled, already halfway out the door, that last time I saw Barbara in person. 

    “You can’t say that!” she shrieked back, indignant. “I haven’t HAD you. YET.”


    All the phone calls we’ve had since then (four years, and one pandemic) end the same way — light, breezy conversations, stopped dead in their tracks by a killer final sentence. And then — because, after six decades in Switzerland, European habits died hard — she’d sign off before I could, slamming the phone down midway through a waterfall of ‘Ciao’s’.

    Each call found its way into the book’s final chapter — a section that’s stretched, by now, far longer than I’d ever intended. I ended up adding an afterword, just to find some space for my own thoughts, and to draw the whole thing to some kind of conventional conclusion.


    But last weekend, when I called to wish her a happy 96th birthday, and to tell her that the book we started working on a decade ago had finally been sent to the publisher, she had something new to say.

    So now, even the afterword’s been extended. 

    And Barbara’s had the last word, once again. 

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