Helena Van Kress was an American model, USO Entertainer, and the wife of real estate mogul Martin Van Kress.
Born Helena Papadopoulos, she moved from Greece with her family when she was six. She grew up in New York City and it wasn’t long before the little girl with the beautiful smile caught the eye of Gimbel Brothers and she became a staple in their catalogues for the next few years.
She met her husband, Martin, in high school. They dated briefly before Helena left school to pursue her career. They kept in touch even while she was overseas touring with the USO and the two were married in July of 1945. It was ten years before they had their first child, a daughter named Darlene. They had their only son, Andrew, two years later. Ten years later they were surprised with the birth of their third child, Daphne, named after Helena’s maternal grandmother.
Helena was diagnosed with breast cancer in December of 1982 and died a couple of months later in her Breakout City home. At her funeral, several former soldiers and entertainers that had shared the stage with her during her USO tours paid tribute to her in a moving musical number that celebrated her life even as it somberly contemplated her death.
Helena modeled for Gimbels from the time she was seven through the age of fifteen. Under advice from a mentor she started going by the name Helena Graves. It was at that time that she was featured in a number of World War II ads and posters. She then lied about her age in order to join the USO tour headlined by Bob Hope. She was a great favorite with the troops because of her infectious smile and sweet voice. It was noted by many that one of the most charming things about Helena was the fact that she never truly realized how beautiful she was. Despite the horrors of war she still maintained her air of innocence, something that endeared her to everyone she came in contact with.
At the end of World War II she moved back to New York where she found full-time modeling work. She married Martin, who’d she known briefly in high school. Her modeling work continued under the name of Helena Graves and the magazines she worked for kept her marital status under wraps since the image of her as the carefree single girl was something they had worked to cultivate. She had steady work for the next ten years until her first pregnancy. Unable to sustain the single girl image any longer the magazines cut her loose.
A few years later she lent her image yet again to some political ad campaigns. Rumor has it that one of the Kennedys pursued her heavily at this time despite the fact that her husband was working to get JFK into office. The down-to-earth beauty was always adamant that she was a model only.
Her final modeling job was a poignant one. After she was diagnosed with breast cancer she appeared in a magazine ad encouraging women to get yearly examinations. The issue with the ad was released just four days before her death. Yet, even at the end with her health gone and the end upon her, she still managed to summon up her trademark smile that had warmed hearts all over the world.