Shortly after he got back from Greece, David was at a party and was introduced to a woman named Connie Brown. After finding out that he was “between engagements”, she told him she had something in mind for him and could he please come ’round Monday morning at 9:00. So, promptly at 9:00 on Monday morning, he presented himself at #21-3465 Côte des Neiges. It was the Constance Brown Modelling and Talent Agency. Walking into the front office, David found it empty. Not unfurnished, just un-staffed. On the desk near the door was a multi-line phone… and all the lights on it were flashing. David knew at once that one of those lights was probably Connie, calling to tell him she was running late. So, he started answering the phone, flashing light by flashing light. The first one wasn’t Connie, but somebody urgently needed a model next week, so David grabbed the pen and pad that were on the desk and took down the information. The next line wasn’t Connie either, and the first line was flashing again…
At about half-past 10, Connie came in to find David, going flat out, answering phones, taking messages (in Pittman shorthand) and doing just fine, thank you. And so began what David (mostly) fondly recalled as his “Three Years Before the Phones”. With at least 10 incoming lines, a pair of large Rolodexes, and a stable of talent that ran the gamut from Veruschka to a trained squirrel, David was The Man at the agency.
David’s start with the Constance Brown Agency (Canada’s largest at the time) coincided with the lead-up to Expo 67, and Connie landed the contract to provide all the talent for the Canadian pavilion there. This gave Our Mister Nixon lots of opportunity to visit Expo, both for business and for pleasure. His Expo passport is crammed with the stamps and insignia of virtually every pavilion at the fair. The agency was only a few Metro stations away from the Expo site, and David was there a lot throughout the six months’ run.
Even when David wasn’t physically present at the fair, his image was. Before Expo opened, the agency was approached by representatives from the Quebec government, looking for models for photographs to be used in their pavilion. One “type” they needed was a naval officer. David sent out all kinds of male models but none was quite right. Finally, the Quebec rep came into the office again and told David that what they were really looking for was… him! They needed a man with a beard – a REAL beard – and David was their man. And so, clad in naval gear and peering into a radar screen without his glasses on, David’s image was enlarged many hundreds of times and used as part of a photo montage of life on the St. Lawrence high on the walls of the Quebec pavilion.
David loved to tell “muddling” stories. The term “muddle” came from the usual pronunciation of the word “model” used by Eastern European immigrants, along the lines of “I vunt a muddle for my drasses.” David often said that if you were looking for a muddle, you’d come to the right place! Our Mister Nixon got on famously with all the models, even those who didn’t officially work for Connie Brown, and they all loved him. His models would send him postcards from all over the world when they were either on a photo shoot or on vacation. However, they were apparently not always the best-behaved lot while at the office:
The one part of the modelling biz David didn’t like much was the child models. Not because of the children themselves, but because of their mothers! David said that the days when he had to do auditions or a photo shoot with kids were the worst. A few of them had their heads on straight and were good folks, but a majority were archetypal stage mothers who wanted nothing but the best for their little stars, and would stop at nothing to get it. Oddly enough, the only photos David saved from his modelling days were of a few kids. And where are they all now?
Among David’s cast of models were those who were demonstrators or “parts models”, who specialized in modelling shoes, gloves, hats, and so on. One parts model who was also a demonstrator was familiar to anyone who saw Kraft commercials in the 60’s. Lois Fleming was the hands of the Kraft Kitchen, always whipping up some culinary nightmare that included Miracle Whip, sandwich spread, and/or miniature marshmallows, accompanied by the mellifluous deep voice of Bruce Marsh, who made it all sound so yummy.
One of the big single-name models of the 60s, along with Sabrina and Twiggy, was Veruschka. A clothing manufacturer called David and said they wanted Veruschka to model their new line and no one else would do. David said of course he could get her. After getting off the phone, he dashed to Connie’s office and asked “Who’s Veruschka?” Connie knew of her and said she worked for Eileen Ford in New York, so David scurried off to call the Ford agency and a deal was struck. Veruschka’s fee was a whopping (for 1967) $1000. Per day!
On the day of the photo shoot, David recalled, the sponsors and various agency reps joined the camera crew at the studio bright and early to see the legendary German model at work. Not too long after the appointed time, Veruschka arrived with her entourage of SEVEN people. She didn’t look like much of a model at that time of the day, apparently, slouching over to a chaise longue on the set and flopping down on it. Three members of the entourage set about preparing makeup, hairstyling equipment, reviewing the garments the model was to wear, and pouring Veruschka champagne from an ice bucket they had brought. The other four members of the party turned out to be a string quartet, who promptly sat down to play. The sponsors and agency folks, including David, were quite impressed. They were obviously dealing with an artiste.
After what seemed like hours of the thousand-dollar-a-day model lying still, drinking champagne and listening to her quartet, the sponsors were getting somewhat antsy, wondering just when she was going to start doing something that looked like modelling. David was dispatched to enquire when she might be ready. He was told in icy Germanic tones that, “When Veruschka is ready, Veruschka will tell you.” This message was then relayed, verbatim, to the sponsors. “Oh,” they said.
After another hour (or so it seemed), Veruschka rose from her chaise, snapped her fingers and began her transformation into Veruschka, the model. David said that, once the lights were on and the cameras snapping, there wasn’t a bad photo in the lot. The sponsors were thrilled, although David said he had to go out for several drinks afterward “to decompress”.
An Expo Mystery
The theme of Expo 67 was “Man and His World” and its symbol was a circle of stick figures, ancient symbols of people, with their arms upraised. An animated version showed people of different nationalities in their native costumes instead of stick figures. At one point, it was decided to shoot a photo from above using live people in the same positions as in the animation and Constance Brown was to provide the talent.
As David told it, he set about rounding up various types from the agency’s roster and staff from the various national pavilions at the fair. He finally had everyone he needed… except an Eskimo (as they were called then). He said, “Where the hell was I supposed to find an Eskimo in Montreal in August?” A couple of days later, he was walking past the main downtown Birks store and there in the window was an Eskimo, in his furs, carving soapstone. AN ESKIMO?!?! David zipped into the store, asked for the manager and said, “How much is that Eskimo in the window?” It seems that Birks had brought the artist down from the Arctic to demonstrate the art of soapstone carving and had provided him with a refrigerated booth in the front window for his demonstrations, hence the furs. The man was delighted to be asked to participate in the photo shoot and everything fell into place.
David said that the day of the shoot was clear and hot, as Montreal can be in the summer. The dozens of models all showed up and got into their costumes. The camera boom was ready, high overhead to take photos looking down at the performers, who were to join hands above their heads, looking up at the camera, in a living representation of the Expo theme. Well, it turned out that some nationalities didn’t want to stand next to other nationalities. Fine. That was sorted out. Then a cloud came by and the light wasn’t as good, so they waited a bit, with everyone in costume. When the cloud moved on, it was even hotter and not everyone was looking or feeling as fresh as they might. The male flamenco dancer who was next to the Eskimo then had an attack of what David called “the vapours” because of the increasing aroma of fish coming from the man’s furs. Meanwhile, the poor man in the furs was almost perishing from the heat. Finally everyone was in position and photos taken. Success!
It could well be that David’s memories of the photo shoot as described were a bit muddled and that the studio version above was indeed THE live photo of the Expo logo. There is no mention and no trace of an image as he described to be found on “the interwebs”. But it was a very good story… especially the Eskimo.
The NFB Connection
Montreal is home to the National Film Board. Through his contacts at Connie Brown’s, David met several of the leading lights of the NFB, including the filmmakers who had come ’round while he was in Phnom Penh in 1955. Among the people David met at the NFB were Norman McLaren, Guy Glover, his life-partner and NFB narrator/director, and an animator/actor, Grant Munro. David and Grant became good friends, and Grant made it a point to introduce David to what he considered “the right people”. David often described those “right people”, his friends at the Film Board as “creative lunatics”. Connie Brown provided many film extras and bit players for movies being shot around Montreal, including those of the NFB. David made a point of always sending what he called his more “interesting-looking” models to NFB shoots.
Grant Munro was an avid world traveler, sending postcards to David, sometimes only vaguely addressed, that were always colourful, if somewhat illegible.