Mimi Weddell Obituary

Manhattanite, model and stylish subject of a 2008 documentary called Hats Off

Mimi Weddell disproved F Scott Fitzgerald's belief that there are no second acts in American lives. From the age of 65 until her death at 94, she at last earned her living the way she had always wanted – as a model with a neat sideline in movie bit parts, listed among New York magazine's 50 most beautiful Manhattanites and the subject of a documentary. Mimi had put in the hard work, and kept up the effort, swinging on the rings at the gym through her 80s even as her spine curved and she shrank six inches in height, willing to the end to stand the whole day at an open audition for a job.

In so far as anybody can pin down the facts of her youth and middle age, she had come (as the unglam Marion Rogers) from Williston in North Dakota, via a not-to-be-mentioned first marriage and divorce in Boston, to New York in 1941. What she had wanted since the age of 16 was to put her foot on the bar of the Hotel Astor, to drink Brandy Alexanders on the St Regis hotel roof garden, to admire hats in Peacock Alley in the Waldorf Astoria. She found employment for a while as assistant to the New York Times fashion editor. After her second marriage, in 1946, to Richard Weddell, an executive for the classical division of RCA Victor records, and the birth of their two children, she went out to earn when money was short (especially after Richard lost his job and became an art dealer in the mid-1950s). She found work as a temp secretary, or in advertising and modelling. Mimi took acting classes and had an off-Broadway walk-on. Richard died in 1981, and his widow was unexpectedly free to be her unusually stylish self.

Mimi didn't deign to deny her age. As the casting director Jennifer Venditti said, nominating her for that beautiful people list: "She has such elegant style and willowy posture, but she doesn't try to conceal her wrinkles and signs of ageing; she's a whole package." Mimi stood on her head – "I believe in getting the blood to my head" – but never on her dignity; any tiny role in anything would do, low-budget horror movies, or The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), or Heartburn (1986), or a guest spot on television's Law & Order. Mimi played a grande-dame grandmother in an episode of Sex and the City; her personal style of wardrobe was much closer to the eclectic collages in which Patricia Field dressed Sarah Jessica Parker for the series.

Many women, as they age, find no fun in clothes, no novel possibilities in garments, only moths and regrets. That didn't apply to Mimi, who revealed her ankles in cropped pants or rolled up the sleeves of a perfect white shirt. She didn't look foolish. It's evident in all her commercials and ads for Nike, Juicy Couture, Burberry, Louis Vuitton, and in her editorial pictures in Vogue and Vanity Fair, that she wasn't fantasising that she was 16 again, or even 35. She was loving the new clothes, enjoying the now, and projecting a unique persona – the sophistication of a long-gone Manhattan (Mimi could pose with elbows out and wrists extended after the manner of 50s model greats such as Dovima, and she seems to have been the last woman to know how to gesture with a cigarette holder), plus the zest of a beginner. It was all still a thrill.

The only taste that dated Mimi was her passion for hats. She shared an Upper East Side apartment, which she had bought cheaply in 1970, with her daughter Sarah, son-in-law, grandson and 150 or so hats, boxed and not, from the 1930s to the couture present. The film director Jyll Johnstone decided to follow Mimi around with a camera intermittently over 12 years, and called the resulting documentary, released in 2008, Hats Off. Hats On would have been more accurate. "Rise above it" was Mimi's motto, and she could rise to any headgear, however unlikely. There's a sequence in the film, in between Mimi's punishing gymnastics, tapdancing, singing and casting calls, when she takes a ride on the back of a motorbike, cool in jodhpurs, huntsman's jacket and boots. She's as elegant as Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, and almost as youthful, and she wears her visored helmet with elan. "Hats give you a frame," she said. "However dreary you feel, if you put on a hat, by golly, you've changed everything. I keep telling my daughter, my granddaughter, everybody, if you don't wear a hat, you're missing it. "

Daughter Sarah didn't concur: "She was almost like a performance artist. She would walk down the street wearing a pith helmet. It could be embarrassing."

Mimi's son Tom and Sarah survive her.

• Mimi Weddell, model, born 15 February 1915; died 24 September 2009


Veronica Horwell

The GuardianTramp

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