When I first saw the iconic photo of Millicent Rogers hanging in the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos, I didn’t realize what a life she had led before she came to Taos, New Mexico in 1947. The more I looked into her story, the more I began to see that her story was emblematic of the first half of the 20th Century in American society. Her grandfather was a partner of Rockefeller’s in the founding of Standard Oil, and her rich lifestyle was the product of his success.
Raised in the Gilded Age of New York society, Rogers came of age as a debutante and flapper. She eloped with an impoverished European nobleman like a heroine in an Edith Wharton novel. She lived with three husbands in high-living pre-war Europe. As did many society women, she set fashion trends, but her influence was even greater when she became the muse of Charles James, probably the first great American designer on par with French couturiers.
During WWII Rogers returned to the US to pitch into the war effort. Now divorced, she had love affairs with Roald Dahl, Ian Fleming and James Forrestal. At war’s end she followed American glamour–and Clark Gable–to Hollywood. Her last reincarnation was in Taos, New Mexico where she fell in love with the Pueblo Indians and re-imagined southwestern style for her followers in the New York fashion world.
Rogers invariably lived life on her own terms. In Taos, she kept company with Benito, a young man from the Pueblo who worked as her chauffeur. Yet it may have been Tony Luhan, Mabel Dodge Luhan’s husband from Taos Pueblo, whom she loved most truly late in her life. She considered him to be the model man and grieved that she had come to New Mexico“too late” to have been a match for him.
Rogers reset her aesthetic appreciation in New Mexico. Once a woman who collected all manner of fine clothing and jewelry, she thrilled now over starry skies and Indian dances in Taos and on the neighboring Indian reservations. The relaxed and easy lifestyle in Taos– dinners round the kitchen table with her friends Frieda Lawrence and Dorothy Brett– also charmed her. She was brilliant at re-creating herself in any new environment
A victim of rheumatic fever as a child, Rogers always had a bad heart. Her days were numbered, she understood, so she lived fully. I believe that she found much of what she was looking for in New Mexico. Millicent Rogers died from a hemorrhage following a heart attack two months before her 51st birthday. She had written to her son Paul before her death, “…If anything should happen to me now, ever, just remember all this. I want to be buried in Taos with the wide sky. Life has been marvelous, all the experiences good and bad, and I have enjoyed even illness because out of it so many things were discovered. “
More photos of Millicent Rogers:
Cherie Burns is author of Searching for Beauty—The Life of Millicent Rogers, (St. Martin’s Press, 2011). Her previous books are The Great Hurricane: 1938 (Grove/Atlantic) and Stepmotherhood—How to Survive Without Feeling Frustrated, Left Out or Wicked (Times Books). Learn more about Searching for Beauty at www.cherieburns.com.
Photo Captions and credits from Searching for Beauty—The Life of Millicent Rogers:
Rogers family photo: Henry Huttleston Rogers, Millicent’s paternal grandfather, was the proud patriarch who created the family’s great fortune. In 1906 he posed with his eight grandchildren in front of the grand estate he built in his hometown of Fairhaven, Massachusetts. Millicent, four, to her grandfather’s left, held his hand. (From the Collection of the Millicent Library)
Millicent Rogers and Arturo Peralta-Ramos: Arturo Peralta-Ramos, a dashing Argentine aristocrat, became Millicent’s second husband in 1927. She invariably traveled with her beloved dachshunds, often numbering eight or more, when she moved between New York and Paris. (©Bettmann/Corbis)
The Hollywood crew: After the war Millicent’s friends Rocky and Gary Cooper from Southampton introduced her to Clark Gable. Here they posed at the Coopers’ home with, from left, Lucien Ballard, Merle Oberon’s cinematographer husband; Rocky Cooper, the actress Merle Oberon, Millicent and Clark. In the front row, film star Van Johnson kneels next to the Coopers’ daughter, Maria. It is assumed Gary Cooper snapped the photo. (The Estate of Gary Cooper)
Millicent and sons: Millicent’s sons Peter Salm (left) and Paul and Arturo Peralta-Ramos flanked Millicent on the balcony of Shulla House in St. Anton when they were home from Swiss and Austrian boarding schools. During their years together in Austria before the outbreak of World War II, this was the closest they came to being a conventional family. (The Peralta-Ramos Family archives)
Posing for Harper’s Bazaar: Millicent struck an iconic pose for Harper’s Bazaar in 1947 in this winged dress of black silk velvet which has, puzzlingly, been attributed to both designers Adrian and James. (©Bettmann/Corbis)
Editor’s note: Millicent Rogers is being honored by Taos, NM in 2012. She’s been designated a Remarkable Woman of Taos. You can visit the Millicent Rogers Museum there and view her collections of Native American and Spanish Colonial Art.
We thank St. Martin’s Press for allowing us to use photos from the book.
For further reading: