Before the age of Internet celebrities, a superstar named Cynthia made the cover of LIFE Magazine, appeared in a movie with Jack Benny, and had her own box seat at the Metropolitan Opera House.
But Cynthia was a mannequin.
I “met” Cynthia during a visit to the Hannibal (Missouri) History Museum a few months ago. Her creator, Lester Gaba, was born in Hannibal and, at the age of 10, entered a soap sculpture contest sponsored by Procter & Gamble. He didn’t win, but the contest sparked a fascination with sculpting soap.
After attending art school in Chicago, Gaba worked as an artist and became a proficient soap sculptor. His carvings were so lifelike, they were used on magazine covers and marketed as soap for children, and soon Gaba was earning a living as a soap sculptor.
In 1932, Gaba moved to New York City and began creating window displays for Saks Fifth Avenue. He fashioned a mannequin after an actual woman named Cynthia and created an entire persona for her. Gaba wanted women to relate to his models, so he gave Cynthia freckles, pigeon toes, and different sized feet. As part of his marketing scheme, he treated Cynthia, who weighed only 100 pounds, as if she were real, taking her out on the town and introducing her to his friends. LIFE Magazine photographed Cynthia in 1937 in various locations around New York City to show how lifelike she was, and Cynthia and Gaba became famous.
|Cynthia (far left) and her creator,
Lester Gaba, riding a tourist bus
in New York City.
Alfred Eisenstadt/LIFE photo
Cynthia received jewelry from Cartier and Tiffany, minks from furriers, and the latest fashions from upscale designers. Saks Fifth Avenue gave her a credit card, and the Metropolitan Opera House provided a subscription for a box seat. She had her own newspaper column and radio show, and received huge amounts of fan mail. She attended the theater and restaurants, nightclubs, and upperclass gatherings. To explain her lack of speech during these personal appearances, Gaba claimed she had a chronic case of laryngitis.
Because of Cynthia’s popularity, Gaba carved other life-sized mannequins, dubbed “Gaba Girls,” for the windows of New York City’s leading department stores. Each one was modeled after a New York socialite. Still, Cynthia held the most prominent position and traveled about the city with Gaba. She even went to Hollywood and appeared with Jack Benny in the movie Artists and Models Abroad in 1938. Unfortunately, however, she received no listing in the film’s credits.
|Cynthia getting a manicure.
She had the bad habit of smoking, which
was considered fashionable at the time.
Alfred Eisenstadt/LIFE photo
Sadly, one day Cynthia fell out of a chair in a beauty parlor and shattered. The press reported her demise. Gaba appeared distraught but later he pieced her back together (or perhaps created an all-new Cynthia--reports differ). When the army called up Gaba in 1942, Cynthia retired from her modeling career. She reappeared briefly in a 1953 TV show but, like many other aging celebrities, she had lost her appeal. She disappeared and has not been seen since. The final resting location of the other Gaba Girls is also unknown.
Cynthia changed marketing for department stores. Like Cynthia, Gaba’s window displays became more creative and alluring rather than simple displays of available items. Although Cynthia no longer graces the pages of fashion or news magazines, her story lives on.
Multi-award-winning author Marie Wells Coutu finds beauty in surprising places, like undiscovered treasures, old houses, and gnarly trees. All three books in her Mended Vessels series, contemporary stories based on the lives of biblical women, have won awards in multiple contests. She is currently working on historical romances set in her native western Kentucky in the 1930s and 1940s. Her historical short story, “All That Glitters,” won honorable mention in the 2023 Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest.
Another historical short story tells of a cafe waitress who waits for the love of her life to come back to her after the war. “A Song for Annie” is available free when you sign up for Marie's newsletter here. In her newsletter, she shares about her writing, historical tidbits, recommended books, and sometimes recipes.