Ivy Nicholson was a working-class girl from New York City who lit up the 1950s as one of Europe’s top fashion models, married a French count, posed topless for Salvador Dali and became one of the first “superstars” in Andy Warhol’s Factory. It was a flashbulb life built on bravado and sheer magnetism.
But it was not a solid life, and when the 1960s ended and the big checks stopped coming, she was left on her own. She spent her last decades in or near poverty, sometimes homeless, telling anyone who would listen that she was on her way back up.
Ms. Nicholson died on Oct. 25 at an assisted living facility in Bellflower, Calif., outside Los Angeles. She was 88. Her son Sean Bolger confirmed her death, saying that she had recently been weakened by seizures.
To her last days, Ms. Nicholson kept her hair dyed blonde and a well-traveled book of her magazine clippings at her side, said Taryn Gould, who has been filming a documentary about Ms. Nicholson for the last decade.
“She had an unimaginably glamorous life and an extremely difficult life,” Ms. Gould said. “But she was always able to believe that there was something good coming.”
In her 20s Ms. Nicholson appeared on the covers of Vogue, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Bazaar and other magazines. She built a reputation: fearlessly inventing characters and looks for her shoots, but often arriving hours late to the studio and refusing to pose until someone brought foie gras or met some other demand.
When Howard Hawks flew her to Egypt in 1954 for a role in his epic movie “Land of the Pharaohs,” she objected to the studio’s multiyear contract. So, as she later told the story, she bit one of the actors to get out of the deal. Her replacement was Joan Collins.
“That was Ivy,” said Conrad Ventur, a photographer who became a friend in Ms. Nicholson’s last decade. “She couldn’t just say, ‘This isn’t working for me.’
“It was an example of how extreme she could be. She went from modeling in France to almost becoming a big movie star to blowing it right away.”
Ivy Martha Nicholson was born on Feb. 22, 1933, in Manhattan and grew up in the Cypress Hills neighborhood of Brooklyn and in Harlem, the youngest of three children of Harry and Nora (Bolger) Nicholson. Her mother worked as a nanny. Her father worked variously as an engineer and a cabdriver and expected Ivy to become a secretary.
She had other plans.
After winning the title of Miss Color Rinse in a beauty contest, she dropped out of high school at 16 and moved to a friend’s floor in Midtown Manhattan, hoping to break into the modeling world, she told Catherine Matta, her collaborator on an unfinished memoir.
But modeling jobs eluded her, so she answered an ad seeking nightclub dancers in Florida, though she was underage. She told Ms. Matta that a patron at the club befriended her and helped her get to Paris, where she fibbed her way onto the cover of Elle by claiming that she was about to be on the cover of American Vogue.
“One white lie,” she says in a teaser for the documentary, “made me a 10-year career.”
In 1958, at Café de Flore in Paris, she met the Count Regis de Poleon, from a noble family in southwest France. They married, had a son, Darius, and divorced shortly after. Ms. Nicholson would tote the boy to modeling shoots.
She went on to get small parts in Italian movies and by her account became obsessed with the actor Anthony Perkins. When he did not return her affections, she later said, she slit her wrists. The suicide attempt cost her a role in Federico Fellini’s “8½,” according to her unfinished memoir.
It was while she was in Europe that she was sketched by Dali.
Ms. Nicholson moved away from modeling in the early 1960s, working more as a photographer and painting portraits, lines of work that were far less lucrative. She had another child, Sean Bolger, with a photographer named Larry Shaw.
With little money, she moved to New York, living in a run-down hotel in Greenwich Village. Around this time she met Andy Warhol, either at a party or at his loft, the Silver Factory, according to varying accounts.
“Andy was taken by her,” said Gerard Malanga, a poet and photographer who was part of the Warhol circle. “She became his first superstar.”
Warhol cast her in movie after movie, and she read his interest as true love, telling interviewers that he wanted to marry her. She even placed an engagement announcement in a newspaper, to the delight of everyone but Warhol, said Pat Hackett, who edited Mr. Warhol’s diaries.
Mr. Malanga said she seemed not to understand the put-on nature of some of the Factory doings. “She took it more serious than it was,” he said. “There was a certain childishness about Ivy. She was in a wonderland.”
Though still obsessed with Warhol, in 1963 she met and married John Palmer, a co-director of Warhol’s “Empire,” the eight-hour silent movie of the Empire State Building. Their short marriage produced twins, Pénélope and Gunther.
Ms. Nicholson returned to Paris briefly at the end of the 1960s. She had little income and no savings, but because she was famous “she could always find someone to give her money to live,” her son Darius de Poleon said.
Her daughter, Pénélope Palmer, landed some film roles, and her son Gunther modeled and played music, but family life was unstable.
Back in the United States, Ms. Nicholson tried to get jobs, even at McDonald’s, she told Ms. Matta, but her only work experience was modeling, and the family depended on social assistance.
Stretches of homelessness in California followed for her and the twins, including nights in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco or in her old Chrysler. A reporter for The Associated Press found her in 1987 camped outside a photo studio, “looking pale and ragged,” trying to revive her modeling career. She found more stability on Staten Island in New York, where friends like Mr. Ventur helped her buy groceries. But she eventually returned to California.
She made a film about herself, “The Dead Life,” with her daughter, Pénélope, in 2005 and, a few years later, a CD, “Songs for Andy,” with her son Darius.
This resilience, more than her glamorous high life, defined her, Mr. Bolger said. “She always had hopes and dreams,” he said. “She always wanted to extend her 15 minutes of fame. And she did.”
Along with her children, she is survived by four grandchildren.
Those close to her said she was never dissatisfied with her life, despite its hardships.
Her granddaughter Edween Malaval, a model for the designer Agnes B, remembered a phone call when Ms. Nicholson was spending nights in a church in Long Beach, Calif., with nowhere else to go. “All she talked about was how beautiful it was,” Ms. Malaval said.