Lester Gaba was an artist with a specialization in sculpting . Growing up in Hannibal, Missouri while his parents were working hard in the general store that they own. Lester was spending a good chunk of his time drawing instead. When he was ten years old he decided to enter a sculpting contest backed by Procter & Gamble with the medium being soap. That contest even though he lost left a huge impression on him. He decided then and there that he would only sculpt with soap.
He went on to an art college in Chicago and then landed a job at Balaban & Katz theater Corporation. The head of the art department was so captivated by Lester’s soap art they starting to use it in magazines covers and quickly caught the attention of other advertising companies. Lester’s soap figurines became the rage and his name was quickly known as the only person at the time to specialized in creating works of art with soap.
Lester decided to move to New York City in 1932 and there he had a massive career moment. Although there a many different stories of what happened. One theory is that he was at a party in Chicago and befriended a socialite who owned a major chain of department stores called Best & Company (1879-late 1970’s) in New York City. She knew of his art and asked him to create some kind of art installation for the department stores that would make it both fashionable and attract shoppers to their stores. He then created a line of mannequins that he named Gaba Girls and made them to look like popular socialites of the era:
Another theory is that when he moved to New York City. Saks Fifth Avenue approached him to create the same idea and execute the same concept. Either way the Gaba girls became a very popular and talked about thing in New York City. Lester started using other material to create his girls so they had a longer shelf life: Plaster of Paris become his choice art material. His choice to move on to a different material was due to the weight. Soap in the shape of a human could weigh up to 200 plus pounds vs plaster of Paris is a lighter material and weighs much less.
One particular Gaba Girl become more popular than the others. There was one that was made in the likeness of a well known wife of an industrialist named Cynthia:
Cynthia became the most popular Gaba Girl due to her human like posing and very human realistic features. One of her more famous posing is the one pictured above. She has hair, freckles and even had one foot smaller than the other.
She began receiving hundreds of letters of fan mail, a lot of well known jewelry and fashion houses like Cartier, and Tiffany’s began to send her items which made her closet the envy of the everyone. Even Saks Fifth Avenue issued Cynthia a credit card from them. So she can shop there anytime!
Cynthia was invited to the best parties in town and was even extended a wedding invitation of the wedding of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson:
Cynthia was even given season box seat tickets to the Metropolitan Opera House:
There was even a time where she had her own newspaper column and radio show.
She even had a movie credit in a movie called “Artists and Models.” A 1938 comedy with Jack Benny and Ida Lupino.
Of course anywhere that Cynthia went Lester went as well. There was even a Life Magazine cover and cover story with her and Lester out on the town:
However Cynthia had an horrible accident when she was sitting on a chair getting her nails done and broken in to hundreds of pieces in the late 1930’s. Her demise was even reported in the newspapers. Lester was able to make her own again late 1941 however in December 1942 Lester was drafted into the army. So she went into forced retirement while he was serving in the army. By the time he got out Cynthia was no longer the popular “it girl.” She went missing in 1952 and was never to be found again.
Lester however went on to a great career past his Gaba girl craze. He took a mixture of careers. He was everything from a newspaper writer, a professor and he created and enlarged the visual merchandising field. Even writing a book in 1952 called “The Art of Window Display”. That is a landmark book in the visual merchandising field. He died in 1987.
This amazing short:
Until Next time!!!
2 thoughts on “The It Girl of the 1930’s: Cynthia the Mannequin”
99% Invisible did an episode on Cynthia the mannequin (ep. 380, Mannequin Pixie Dream Girl)
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Omg I have to listen or watch!!!! Is it a video or podcast??