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The Model Vanishes

Lourdes Gruart walked the runways in Milan and Paris for more than a decade. But as her career waned and she felt her jet-set social life slipping away, she became engulfed in paranoia, romantic obsession, and an enthusiasm for Santería. Then she disappeared.

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Lourdes Gruart was 46 years old, but she liked to tell people that she had just turned 30. She didn't look quite that young, but her face was nearly unlined and her slim, five-foot-nine figure as taut as it had been on the Missoni runway almost twenty years earlier. "If that girl is still alive and she finds out that the papers printed her real age?" says a friend. "Watch out, 'cause there's going to be a lawsuit."

In many ways, Gruart lived the life of the 30-year-old she pretended to be. The walk-up that she'd recently moved into on East 83rd Street was the first apartment she'd lived in without a roommate, and the first she'd ever rented that wasn't a sublet. She had so few possessions that the 500-square-foot space still looked bare, and she had no plans to spruce it up. Gruart preferred to spend her money on other things: dinner at Bond St. and dresses from Bergdorf's, which she called "frocks."

The slang is a holdover from Gruart's days in the modeling world. Never able to scale the heights of supermodeldom, she was nevertheless a successful runway model for nearly a decade, working top designers' shows in cities throughout Europe. Gruart spoke four languages in clipped, elegant tones and looked the part -- always dressed in black, flawlessly proportioned, with a long, light stride. Yet success eluded her in New York, where she would spend the latter days of her career. Here Gruart settled for sporadic paychecks as a fittings model for Upper East Side designers and showing off Neiman Marcus's latest lines to ladies' groups at suburban country clubs.

Lately, however, even that type of work had dried up, and Gruart had decided to take a real job, in the apparel division of Winston Staffing, a midtown head-hunting agency. On a salary of $45,000 a year, she worried about the $1,500 monthly rent on her new apartment, particularly now that she had her younger brother, Mario, 31, staying with her, though he promised he'd just crash on the couch for a few weeks.

To all appearances, Gruart's days were full of head-hunting work, browsing at chic boutiques, and pedaling on a stationary bike at Equinox while flipping through fashion magazines; her nights were spent with friends at hotel bars like The Four Seasons and the St. Regis, where she always began the evening with a glass of champagne. Yet, in the late afternoon on Saturday, October 14, Gruart returned from the gym with the news that she was leaving immediately for a modeling job in Europe, says Mario. Happy to see her so elated, and happy that he didn't have to sleep on the couch for the time being, her brother wished her well. Gruart grabbed a bulging green duffel bag, he says, and headed off.

"Lourdes would say, 'If you can't do something for me, I don't want to know you.'"

It was two weeks before she was reported missing, by a girlfriend more concerned that Gruart hadn't picked up her last check than that she hadn't shown up for work. When detectives arrived at her apartment, they found Mario in a cream-colored easy chair, eating Cheetos and watching TV. He seemed surprised to see them, and insisted that he expected his sister back from Europe any day. Police found his demeanor strange enough to begin an investigation, and soon found that much was amiss. Not only had Gruart's passport expired, but she had also left behind her modeling book, a large black portfolio that no model traveling on assignment would forget. Moreover, Gruart's couch had vanished. Mario said he put it out on the curb a couple days after Gruart left for Europe, and while police traced the pickup that day to a New Jersey landfill, they haven't been able to recover it. Mario says that his sister asked him to get rid of it, that there was a new one on the way. The new couch has never shown up.

Assuming the worst, police dragged the East River in a search for her body, to no avail. They called her mother, who flew up from Florida but could offer little new information. They took apart the kitchen sink in Gruart's apartment, and tested all over for blood with UV spray, which has left large, lilac-colored splotches on her white walls, on her light switches, on the handle of the refrigerator. "It's nice, I guess," deadpans Mario, "that they repainted the apartment."

The case was turned over from the local 19th Precinct to a special task force at Manhattan North Homicide. Hoping to get a confession out of Mario, or at least shed some light on the situation, detectives questioned him for two days before giving up. "I don't know what happened to my sister," says Mario sadly. "Unless you want me to make up some crazy science-fiction stuff. If she came through the door right now, I would be hooting and hollering for what was done to me. Because I shouldn't have had to go through that."

In the month since Gruart vanished, she's merited only a few days of stories in the tabloids and a couple segments on the ten-o'clock news. She is being replaced on her job; her sudden disappearance has not resulted in any candlelight vigils, neighborhood pamphleting campaigns, or offers of rewards. She is one of 1,600 missing people reported each year in the city. "This is like a nightmare," says Gruart's mother, also named Lourdes, in broken English from her home in Florida. "Sometimes I think she's not here and then I think she's still alive. I don't know." She is quiet for a little while, the desperation clear in her labored breaths. "I don't know Mario so well no more."

Modeling was Gruart's life. Self-possessed from a young age, she began in her teens at the Miami International Merchandise Mart, a seasonal fashion show for Florida buyers. The eldest and prettiest of three sisters, by 14 she was already five-feet-seven, with thick brown hair, sparkling brown eyes, and legs that stretched so long, the top half of her body seemed small. The family's first son, Mario, was named after her father. He was born when Gruart was 15, and she doted on him as she did her other siblings, Gloria and Alicia, conjuring up dinners of navy beans and onions and showing them new ways to fix their hair.

Gruart was born in Havana, to a well-off father who had already been to the U.S. for an architecture degree at Ohio State. Her anti-communist parents abandoned the country as Castro gained power, moving to El Paso in 1960. The family moved several times over the next decade, from Texas to North Carolina to Alabama, before settling in a pastel ranch house in Plantation. Though Gruart complained about sharing a room with one of her sisters, the family lived comfortably -- Sunday barbecues after church, a dachshund named Mabel, a neighborhoodwide party on Christmas Eve. Gruart, whose childhood idol was Jackie O., had her happiest moments as a cheerleader and at the prom, where she was in the Homecoming Court.


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