Carmen’s parents were Italian and Hungarian. They were constantly breaking up and getting back together. Because of this, Carmen lived in foster homes and sometimes with other relatives.
In 1942, Carmen reunited with her mother and moved to New York City. At the age of 13, while riding a bus to ballet class, she was approached to model by the wife of photographer Herman Landschoff. Her test photos, taken at Jones Beach, were a “flop” according to Carmen. Her godfather though introduced her to Vogue, where Carmen signed a contract for $7.50 per hour in 1946 at age 15. She appears in the December 15, 1946 issue of VOGUE as Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White and Cinderella along with supermodel Dorian Leigh, actors Ray Bolger and Jose Ferrer.
Despite modeling, Carmen and her mother were poor. They had no telephone and Vogue sent runners to their apartment to let Carmen know about modeling jobs. She roller-skated to assignments to save bus fare. Carmen was so malnourished that famed fashion photographers Horst P. Horst and Cecil Beaton had to pin back dresses and stuff her body with tissue.. Carmen and her mother were also accomplished seamtresses and made extra money making clothes. One of their customers was Dorian Leigh. Carmen would later become best friends with Dorian’s younger sister, model Suzy Parker. Together they would be bridesmaids at Dorian’s second wedding to Roger Mehle in 1948..
In 1947, Carmen got a raise to $10–$25 per hour. She appeared on the October 1947 cover of Vogue, at age 15, one of the youngest Vogue cover models ever (along with Niki Taylor, Brooke Shields, and Monika Schnarre). Carmen was also on the November 1948 cover of Vogue. She worked with the most famous fashion photographers of the era including Irving Penn, Francesco Scavullo, Norman Parkinson, and Richard Avedon. Carmen was photographed by Melvin Sokolsky for Harper’s Bazaar in 1960. The iconic image titled, Carmen Las Meninas is world famous and has been collected internationally. Sokolsky also photographed Carmen for classic Vanity Fair Lingerie campaign in which Carmen obscures her face with her hand. She also became Salvador Dali’s muse.
Despite early successes at a very young age, modeling agent Eileen Ford refused to represent her and Vogue lost interest in her. After doctors prescribed shots to start puberty, she instead started working for catalogs and lingerie, making $300 per hour. It was then that she joined Ford in 1953.
Carmen met and married Bill Miles in the early 1950s. Bill would pick up her weekly modeling checks at her agency and only give her $50 of it. They had a daughter, Laura, and divorced soon after.
In 1958 she met photographer Richard Heimann and married him only six months later. She decided to retire and he promptly left her.
Her third marriage was to a young architect Richard Kaplan in the mid-1960s. Their marriage lasted nine years. Desperate, she decided to return to modeling in 1978 and continues to work to this day. In the 1990s and 2000s, she modeled for Isaac Mizrahi’s clothing line at Target, as well as Cho Cheng and Rolex. Carmen is featured regularly in their advertising campaigns appearing in Vogue, W and Harper’s Bazaar.
In the late 1980s, Carmen was engaged to television talk-show host David Susskind. He died before they were married.
Losing Life Savings to Bernard Madoff in 2008
In the 1980s and 1990s, Carmen lost most of her money in the stock market. She was forced to auction off her famous modeling photographs from the 1940s-1980s through Sotheby’s.
In April 2009, Carmen was interviewed for Vanity Fair magazine’s story “Madoff’s World.” Photographs of Carmen and photographs she took of Madoff appear in this article.
In 1994, with what little money she had left, and with money from boyfriend Norman Levy, she invested with Madoff. For twelve years, Ruth and Bernie Madoff and Carmen and Norman Levy were a “foursome,” traveling and partying together on lavish yachts.
Levy died in 2005, at age 93, and Madoff was the executor of his will, which had $244 million in assets, according to Carmen. Madoff further used this money to lure in about 13,500 individuals and charities. She continued to regularly have dinner with the Madoffs after Levy’s death.
In December 2008, a 68-year-old friend who invested her life savings with Madoff, telephoned Carmen to inform her that she too, had been swindled. Carmen said, “For the second time in my life, I’ve lost all of my life savings.”.