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The Pixie Pioneer

Impish Babette March put on that white bikini and launched an institution

It's getting on toward evening in Southampton, N.Y., and Babette March (pronounced Marx) is wearing jeans and a blousy man's jacket. She looks as much the gamine as she did 25 years ago on the cover of SI's first swimsuit issue, shot in the Mexican resort of Cozumel.

She has been called the Sweetheart of the Style Boom, the Queen of the Go-Go-Baby-Doll Era, the Ruby Tuesday of the Round-Legged Girls. Her luminous green eyes, high cheekbones and enchanting elfishness helped define beauty for a generation of American women—and men.

The highest-paid model of her day, Babette, as she became known across the U.S., was as ubiquitous as Beatle-mania: a mod princess romping through the world's fashion magazines. She frolicked across tennis courts, lounged on automobile hoods, vamped in black leather miniskirts, leopard-skin pillbox hats and five sets of false lashes. "A lot of it was fun," she says. "O.K., maybe just some of it. O.K., O.K., maybe just a little of it."

She knew the Smart Set and the Beautiful People. "But I never got involved with the drug set or the weird people," she says. "O.K., so I danced all night and met the Rolling Stones. I was still pretty innocent, though."

She was born Barbara Marchlowitz 47 years ago in Berlin. Her father was a mechanical engineer who moved the family to Brazil, back to Germany and then to Canada. At 17 she went to hairdressing school in Toronto, but she had higher ambitions. So Barbara became Babette and, with the help of a photographer friend, she set out to conquer the world of high fashion.

"The trick is to make an impression," Babette says of her assault on the New York modeling agencies. "My gimmick was terrible clothes." She bought Levis, Keds and a sweatshirt and rubbed them on the sidewalk until they looked grungy. Instant bohemian. "I shocked so many people!" she says. To add contrast to her ensemble, she carried a Gucci bag.

"Babette had a wistful, frisky animal spirit, like Leslie Caron in Gigi," says photographer Fred Smith, who shot the 1964 SI cover. "She became an instant star. She walked into the Ford Modeling Agency one day and was out working the next."

"I was struck by her impish look, her waifish quality," says Eileen Ford, the doyenne of American modeling and cofounder of the agency. "She looked so engaging and guileless with her huge eyes, the wide mouth and her funny little teeth."

She quit modeling in 1976 and retired to a 54-acre farm outside Montreal. The farm, which was owned by a doting Canadian industrialist ("He was my playmate," says Babette), had nine pedigreed cattle, a milk cow named Buttercup, 40 sheep, 80 chickens and ducks, three horses, 15 dogs and 18 cats. "I played farmerette," she says. "We didn't have any help. I did everything myself." She churned butter, smoked hams and salmon and marketed her own jams, pickles and vinegars. "Babette is a terrific gardener, a great ice skater and the best cook in the world," says Ford. "She's also the most creative person I've ever met. She even painted animals on stones."

Babette now makes a living painting them on clothes. She daubs raccoons and parrots onto T-shirts and denim jackets. Her sweatshirts glow with the light and color and nonchalant playfulness of a sunny morning on a slightly exotic seacoast. "I still get inspired by that swimsuit assignment in Cozumel," she says. "It was as much fun as any assignment I ever had."

Cozumel was a virgin paradise in the fall of 1963 when SI landed its invasion force. "It was wild, wild, wild," says Babette. "There was nothing there but a Mexican air force base and a tiny hotel. When you turned on the shower, salt water came out."

The swimsuit delegation was met by the outpost's chummy commandant, whose 450 pounds were partially obscured by G-string briefs. He was armed with a bottle of tequila and a roast chicken, and flanked by two shirtless pilots. "In those days, we didn't bring any hairdressers or makeup artists." says Smith. "Models were less inclined to be mannequins. The job required some acting ability, and Babette was up for anything."

That included slipping into a daring white leather bikini for the cover shot. The suit had one drawback—water. "It got horribly heavy and soggy," Babette says. "I hated that bikini. I couldn't wait to get out of it."

Not that she had much left to wear in her Cozumel hotel room. Every day articles of clothing owned by the SI crew disappeared: shoes, shirts, underwear. "The commandant told us not to worry," says Smith. "He said the workers just wanted to maintain their reputations as thieves. He assured us that everything would be returned when we left." Sure enough, on the last day, everything was miraculously back in place. "Folded nicely." Smith says.

The following Christmas, Smith received an envelope from the base commandant. Inside was a half pound of Cozumel sand and the message, BRING BACK GIRLS.

Meanwhile, Babette had become an object of desire. SI readers requested dates and proposed marriage. The boys at the Naval Officer Candidate School in Newport, R.I., asked her to reign at their spring ball.

Babette remains bemused by the furor she created. "I guess I looked all right in a bathing suit," she says.