San Diego Jean Lucas's Rancho Bernardo townhouse is full of boxes. Paintings of elephants and lions lean in a stack against the wall. She is clearing her place of old junk and painting the walls to get rid of the nicotine smell. She seems to be preparing for a move; in fact, she is, although she won't be around to see it happen. Lucas is dying of lung cancer.
A former fashion model and attorney, Lucas takes responsibility for her predicament. While it's not unusual for a 72-year-old woman to have cancer, Lucas's case is more poignant because of the position she held in 1956: She was the model for that year's Parliament cigarettes advertising campaign.
In the 1950s she was Jean Ball. "That's from my first marriage that was annulled. I had that name when I first started modeling, so I kept it. I was a nurse and...well, I think colleges tend to overlook reality sometimes. I got out in the real world and saw what was going on in hospitals, and it was depressing. The conditions in the hospitals were simply something that I couldn't be a part of. It was frightening -- the lack of care for the patients and total inadequacy. I don't know if it's any better today, but it can't be much worse. When some friends in the modeling business approached me, I thought it was some kind of a joke!"
Lucas's East Coast accent, dry delivery, and sharp wit are reminiscent of Dorothy Parker. "I was quite thin. I lost 30 pounds in that first marriage -- the hard way!" she laughs. "Modeling was a lot better. I was making $200 a month as a nurse, where in modeling I could make $50 an hour. That's not much now, but in those days it was an awful lot of money. That first marriage was really my own fault. He threatened to kill me, and I was so naïve and had little family backup. My father had just died, and I thought it was better to be wed than dead! So I married him. I threw the diamond ring in the fireplace, but that didn't seem to impress him at all!"
A modeling career was sheer necessity for Lucas. "I wanted to be on my own and get out of this unhappy marriage. I just couldn't support myself on $200 a month, 48 hours per week. Most models have very small bones. I was lucky, because I looked thinner than I really was; I had broad shoulders and wide hips and a small waist. I could get away with more weight than most girls could." Lucas's last modeling stint was in 1959, as she was entering New York University Law School. Her scrapbook is loaded with "comp" photos and elegant advertisements for New York department stores and cosmetics. She was admitted to the New York Bar in 1962.
"I modeled for the Frances Gill agency in New York. I don't even know if it's still in existence. She was a real nice lady. After I took my law degree, I married again and went to Puerto Rico. I wasn't able to practice there, though I'd hoped to do so. You have to take the exam there in Spanish, and I couldn't speak Spanish. I tried to get a position with the federal court system there, but at that time it was more difficult for women, even though I had no trouble getting into law school."
Born Jean Conley in Upstate New York, she studied nursing at Skidmore College. Married in 1951, Lucas divorced her first husband in 1953. She married her second husband at the height of her modeling career in 1956. "We were married a number of years, though we were eventually separated. He wanted to travel and wanted to live all over the world. That just didn't fit my plans. That separation was perfectly friendly. It's hard to imagine what turned out to be a divorce being friendly, but it was. He died of breast cancer 10 or 15 years ago."
Lucas continued to work in New York as general counsel for an oil company, then quit. "The outside counsel was always sneaking things in behind my back and doing things that were illegal. In my opinion, it was unethical, and I just couldn't handle having responsibility without any authority, so I moved to the Natomas Company in San Francisco -- another oil company. That was 1977. I didn't last long there, because the president was cheating on his stock-appreciation rights. My immediate supervisor was helping him! I put a stop to that, so they immediately fired me.
"I didn't work again. I was so disappointed. I guess I was naïve, but seeing the way lawyers behaved! I moved to San Diego, not knowing what I was going to do. I tried to work here, but I never did. No one was breaking down my door, and I didn't go out looking for work, and I had no reason to believe that anything was different here than in San Francisco. I got sick of the dishonesty then, and I still can't get used to it. Some of the things I see going on around me frighten me. I guess this is a good time to die!"
Modeling for Parliament cigarettes put Lucas's image on billboards, the back covers of magazines, and all over the New York subway system. "It was wonderful for me. I had about one ad a month for a year and a half. They were on Time, Vogue, all the big magazines. I was on television also, but it wasn't a speaking role. It was on what became The Tonight Show. Mr. John, a popular designer, designed a hat made of cigarettes for that. It was funny because I had just relieved myself of my first husband, and he was dating another woman. The woman complained that everywhere she went she would see me!" she laughs. "I was on every shelf and wall!"
Like any honest endorser, Lucas was a smoker. "I smoked all different kinds of cigarettes. I became a smoker when I was in college -- I was 17, maybe 18. I guess I started partly as a revolt against my parents, who were against smoking. The other part was peer pressure. All the girls were smoking in college. During my third year, I was at various hospitals in New York. I guess I was a little homesick, so I just started to smoke. Nobody thought there was anything terribly offensive about it then, and nobody knew about any of the dangers of it. Although, while I was still modeling, a doctor named Ernst Winder was lecturing in New York, and he claimed that cigarette smoke and tar caused cancer. He was experimenting with mice. I dated him for a while, and he used to say, 'You shouldn't smoke,' but he smoked! I just took it as sort of a joke. But my parents were against it. I think they just thought it was sinful. They were fairly religious people -- not ranting and raving or anything. A lot of adults in those days didn't smoke. It was mostly youngsters.
"The thing is, what they're doing now, they're trying to get children -- young girls, especially. Not so much young boys, because they have the sports, which require them to have strong respiratory capacity. They'd rather be the star football player than smoke. But the girls don't see anything wrong with it, and they don't believe they're ever going to die. Girls worry about their looks, and nobody has come forward and said, 'Look what it does to you.' "
As she points to the wrinkles that converge around her mouth, Lucas explains: "Just look what it does to your face. Not only can you die from it, but you'll look like this forever! Drawing on the cigarettes does this to your skin. You can tell the wrinkles of a smoker, because they go criss-cross."
As she describes the way she discovered her cancer, Lucas's disgust with the medical profession seems unchanged since the 1950s. "I smoked two packs a day for 55 years. I quit in February of 2001. I'm a nurse; I knew what was going on, and I knew I had lung cancer. I didn't know how bad it was or how far along I was. I hadn't had an X-ray in 13 years. This new doctor spent 14 minutes with me -- which is about what you can expect. He said, 'Your lungs sound awful.' He did a chest X-ray, and he called me and told me there was something in my upper right lung. He then ordered a CAT scan. I wasn't too hot on that; I didn't know him at all. That was around the end of January. After the scan, he had somebody I didn't know call me one morning. She said, 'The doctor wants you to have a lung biopsy.' Well, I knew what that meant. I asked her why, and she said, 'I don't know.' So I told her no. I said, 'I need to know why. It's beginning to sound like gun time to me.' It's outrageous to have somebody who doesn't even introduce themselves to call you and tell you that you have lung cancer.
"They called the police. They have this thing at the Center for Health Care that says if a person mentions a gun, they have to call the police. So they dragged me out of here in my nightclothes and handcuffs..." Lucas pauses for a deep breath. "They impounded my dog. It took me about ten minutes to convince them I was not crazy or dangerous, but it was too late for my dog." She begins to cry. "They force-fed him -- I think that's what killed him. He was 15 years old. I begged them not to take him, but they were in and out and gone with him. When I got home, it was too late to do anything."
Lucas regains her composure. "They didn't take me to jail. They took me to what I call the 'Loony Bin' " -- she laughs -- "County Mental Health in Point Loma. I was frantic when they dragged me in there. I wanted my dog worse than...you know, it reminded me of women having their children torn out of their arms in [Nazi] Germany."
Lucas's behavior has gotten her into trouble more than once. "When I hung up, I expected to hear from the doctor. I went in the kitchen just shocked that he would have this woman call me. I've never been able to find out who she is, and they won't tell me. They called the police on me another time too. I was trying to locate my old doctor there, and they told me that he no longer practiced there and left no forwarding address. Well, I said, 'That's not possible.' After going this way and that way, she said, 'We can't release his address.' So I told her that I needed to talk to a doctor that I have some rapport with. She said that she thought he might be with a hospice in the area, and I told her, 'Under the circumstances that might be coming in handy.' And, my God, here come the police again! It's just outrageous!"
Regardless of her humor, finding out she had terminal cancer was a shock for Lucas. "My dog died right then too. I was pretty torn up, but, you know, there are worse things that can happen to you." Her voice begins to break. "All my friends here have died."
Her advice to young people thinking about smoking is simple: "Don't. After I was diagnosed with my 'blob,' I found out that my respiratory capacity was only half. I have COPD, which is 'chronic, obstructive pulmonary' something or other. Don't smoke. If you stop, you'll gain a little weight, but it goes away.
"I never tried to quit smoking. I've come out of oxygen tents for cigarettes. I tried to cut back a little once, because I got clotted arteries in my legs, and I've had a terrible time walking. One day I got down to four cigarettes, then I said, 'Forget it. I can't stop.' That was three years ago. I was getting such cramps in my legs from poor circulation. When I finally quit, almost a year ago, it was the easiest thing. I just bought a lot of peanuts. And I ate peanuts! It was totally oral. I think there's serotonin in cigarettes. Same thing that Prozac has, and people get hooked on that for sure."
I wondered how Lucas felt about today's fashion models. "I guess it helps a lot if you look like you're on drugs! The dark circles under your eyes and all that.
"Models were not big cheeses in my day. I did all my own makeup. I'd go to the hairdresser at my own expense. Still, for a day's shoot, which would be maybe up to 20 shots, they'd pay me $250. That was more than I made in a month nursing."