The words are barely credible. For over thirty years the name 'Vanek' was synonymous with life modelling in London. From the mid-sixties to the mid-nineties, if you didn't work through Miss Vanek, you didn't work.
Miss Vanek was born in Czechoslovakia in 1905. At some time in
the 1930s she emigrated to England, and began working as a life model.
Most of the female models of those days managed to establish reputations
as eccentrics, and Miss Vanek was no exception. One story has her
running down the stairs of London's Chequer Centre and out into
the busy street, stark naked, screaming "Fire!" when an
alarm sounded (there was no fire).
In the late sixties, her friend Quentin Crisp suggested she should retire from modelling and she took his advice. She was already helping some colleges to find models, and she decided to become a full-time model booker. Instead of taking commission from models, she charged the colleges, schools and clubs for the service, a tradition carried on by our own Bare Facts booking service. By the 1970s she had become a household name among all those connected in any way with life art in London.
Opinions about Miss Vanek became sharply divided. Roughly speaking, tutors and artists idolized her for the way in which she provided them with models who never complained about pay and working conditions, while models often found working through Miss Vanek a less than happy experience. You simply didn't dare complain about pay or conditions, with the result that pay in London sank lower and lower, and such things as changing facilities were totally neglected. You were often expected to work when and where directed, and a 7.30a.m. call with an assignment for the same day on the other side of London was not uncommon. If she double- booked you or sent you to the wrong place, there was no compensation. You weren't even supposed to mention the error. You had to be very careful how you spoke to her if you wanted to carry on modelling (and you had to remember to send her a Christmas card each year thanking her for all her help).
But Miss Vanek could be charming, sympathetic and generous, and some models will tell you how much she helped them in times of need, particularly with accommodation in one or other of her Hampstead houses. Models she knew well could call at her rambling Haverstock Hill place and were usually made to feel very welcome and given a meal, a privilege enjoyed by myself on one occasion in the 1970s.
Despite her autocratic approach and unpredictable moods, it cannot be denied that Miss Vanek was held in awe and admiration by at least as many people as opposed her domination of the scene. The great thing about Miss Vanek was that she made it impossible for an agency to sew up the London scene and take commission from models. She managed to carry on booking models well into her nineties, something which intrigued the media. Journalists and TV researchers made several attempts to arrange interviews with her, but she gave them short shrift. When she eventually gave up booking models, she had set the stage for RAM and its Bare Facts services. We took over most of her model booking duties and carried on the work of preventing any agency from getting its claws in.
A few of us knew that her first name was Margaret, but you wouldn't dare address her as such. Miss Vanek had modelled in an era when models were always addressed by the tutor as 'Mr', 'Mrs' or 'Miss'.
The power of the name 'Vanek' is difficult to convey to the present generation of models in London. The Register of Artists' Models, about which Miss Vanek was rumoured to have been scathing, will not let her name disappear from memory.
Margaret Vanek, born 27 March 1905, died St Mary's Hospital Hampstead 30 May 2003. The funeral took place at St Dominic's Priory Church, Parkhill Road, Belsize Park, London NW3 on 10th June. She was buried in the family burial ground in Bournemouth.