Legacy of a Modeling Agency

The recent passing of Melissa Stevens, heir to the Patricia Stevens Modeling School and Career College, has given us cause to take a look through one of the most extraordinary collections in LaBudde’s holdings: the Patricia Stevens Collection. This collection, which Melissa donated in November 2011, contains the company records, advertisements, photographs, and other ephemera. There are hundreds of items in over fifty boxes and together they offer a complete account of the history of the company.

1973 photo of Flo Stevens (bottom right) and her three daughters (clockwise from bottom left) Patricia Jr, Sheila, and Melissa.

Melissa’s mother, Florence Czarnecki Stevens became “Patricia Stevens” only after her 1946 marriage to a young Chicago entrepreneur named James Stevens. Before he met Flo, he had already named his training school, a business designed to help women navigate the postwar work world. Flo – or Mrs. Stevens as she was often addressed – grew the school into a franchised operation with 55 branches. Its headquarters were in Kansas City, on Country Club Plaza. (Longtime KC residents may recall the Stevens-sponsored annual Easter parade that ran up until 1995). A full account of the Stevens’ family and their company could occupy an entire book. Melissa Stevens took over the company after her mother’s death, and up until her own recent passing was working to revive the company. In a 2012 interview with The Pitch, she said “All I really need…is a runway, a makeup table, a mirror — and me.”

Secene from 1973 Easter Parade

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One of the items Melissa Stevens donated was a large scrapbook filled with letters of appreciation written to her mother Flo. Among the letters are many from former students and employees. Flo Stevens appears to have had a special relationship with many of her graduates and employees. One student said that Flo was “the woman who changed my life.” Another wished “I could explain how much I think of you. You have been like a big sister to me and you have my deepest respect.” Still another told Flo that “my heart had adopted you as a second mother.” Other students wrote about how the Stevens school could help them with self-esteem issues or help them conquer their fears. Some of her graduates went on to pursue careers in acting or fashion, or interior design. Reading their letters, they all give some credit to Florence Stevens for their success.

The most poignant letter in the collection is from one of Stevens’ employees. She [find her name] writes to Flo about a 14 year old girl – Marilyn – who wanted to be a model and was attending classes against her parents’ wishes. Her parents believed that any kind of modeling would “lower [Marilyn’s] morals” and corrupt her. The letter explains that Marilyn might not be destined for a modeling career, but that she at least deserved the chance to follow her dreams, even if she was still young.  

Notes from students and local womens groups

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Notes of appreciation from students and local organizations

There is, I think, a contradiction buried at the heart of the Stevens collection. On one hand, the modeling school may seem anachronistic by today’s standards. Expectations for women were undoubtedly different in the 1960s and 70s than they are now. On the other hand, based on these letters Stevens’ modeling, etiquette and career-related courses do seem to have changed young women’s lives for the better. Women in the 1960s and 70s were starting to make social gains that still haven’t been fully realized. The Stevens school embodies both of those: recognizing that even though women were still expected to behave in certain ways, there were also new opportunities opening up for them, and they would need appropriate education and training in order to succeed. In short, Stevens tried to provide both of those. Perhaps then there is more to the modeling school than meets the eye. Projecting our modern ideas backwards even a couple generations isn’t always wise. As antiquated, unhealthy, and even incorrect as instruction about posture, diet, personal care and etiquette may have been, it’s clear at least some of Stevens’ students found what they learned empowering and that they credited her with helping them improve their lives.   

 

Patricia Stevens Collection – Evolution of the Adolescent Female

Patricia Stevens started her career as a professional model in Chicago in 1945. The late Florence Czarnecki Stevens became “Patricia Stevens” only after her 1946 marriage to a young Chicago entrepreneur named James Stevens. Before he met Flo, he had already named his training school, a business designed to help women navigate the post-war work world.

An early subscriber to Stevens’ vision was Howard Hughes. The millionaire industrialist and Trans World Airlines chairman was Jim Stevens’ first big client. Hughes hired the new company to train TWA stewardesses when the airline was still bKIC Document_Page_3ased in Kansas City. In 1948 every airline attendant hired by TWA was trained by Patricia Stevens with guaranteed placement by TWA; that division was called Stevens Air College. They even had half an airplane in their building to help in their training. The Patricia Stevens Career College & Model Agency came later. Jim’s sister, Bernadine, legally changed her name to Patricia; but Flo, the woman who everyone assumed was the real Patricia Stevens, never did. In the late 1950s the Patricia Stevens School System chose Kansas City as a home base owing to the fact that the Kansas City Market was the most difficult in the franchised chain of 55 schools to operate. The chain of modeling schools and talent agencies bearing her adopted name extended across the country

Flo’s three daughters – Patricia Jr., the eldest; Melissa, the second born; and Sheila the youngest – were groomed to be stylish, poised and popular. They weren’t just the daughters of a familiar local brand; they were walking advertisements for the family business. The oldest daughter, Patricia, was voted Miss Teenage Kansas City in 1968. The youngest, Sheila, dressed up as the Easter Bunny every spring for the Easter parade, which Flo Stevens started on the Country Club Plaza in 1960. This popular tradition continued for over three decades, until its swan song in 1995. KIC Document_Page_1

The Stevens collection shines a reflective light into the past and the antiquated mind set of what a woman’s role was to be in contemporary society. It was Patricia Stevens charge to indoctrinate young women to the importance of personal appearance and proper deportment. Informational handouts and class curriculum dictate the need to begin a regiment, beginning as a young child, establishing wardrobe colors which will best suit personality and social acceptance. Levels of training included modeling courses, fashion merchandising, charm classes and business classes. Modeling students were groomed to participate in fashion shows and other such events as well as compete in local and national beauty competitions. Debbie Bryant, Miss America 1966, was a graduate of the Patricia Stevens School. KIC Document

The Patricia Stevens Collection is a wake-up call to those who came of age in an era when women held a social status unique to those of today’s standards. It is enlightening to say the least, with elements of humor, shock and, at times, disbelief. Confidential correspondence speaks to a level of hero worship and even psychological dependence  on the Matriarch of this organization, Flo Stevens who, according to her students was either embraced or rebuked. There would be no middle ground. It is rich in content for a researcher interested in the study of women’s historical cultural issues. It is also the story of a family – the Stevens family, a single mother and her three young daughters – who lived and breathed for what they felt was a noble cause; and, for the most part, who felt their students to be part of their extended family.

Teresa Wilson Gipson, Library Information Specialist II, LaBudde Special Collections

Some Excerpts from:
Ferruzza, Charles. “Melissa Stevens – heir to the Patricia Stevens Modeling School – refuses to be forgotten.” Pitch Weekly. August 9-15, 2012.