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Millicent Rogers, one of the great fashion icons of the 20th century, was a Standard Oil heiress, but she was no poor little rich girl. Although history provides many examples of how damaging inheriting a fortune can be to a woman — Barbara Hutton and Christina Onassis come immediately to mind — she wasn’t overmastered by hers. She was dealt three good hands — money, intelligence and beauty — and one bad one, a heart damaged by a childhood bout of rheumatic fever, which made her health delicate and shortened her life. She played all of them well.
Rogers is the subject of Cherie Burns’ new biography, “Searching for Beauty: The Life of Millicent Rogers” (St. Martin’s Press). Burns has written two other, very different, books, “The Great Hurricane: 1938” and “Stepmotherhood: How to Survive Without Feeling Frustrated, Left Out, or Wicked.” But she became fascinated with Rogers when she and her husband moved to Taos, New Mexico, where Rogers spent the last years of her life.
Burns makes the point that Rogers was a master of reinvention. And she did, in fact, re-create herself a number of times, through three marriages and by living on both sides of the Atlantic. She spent time in Austria, putting together that nation’s traditional dirndls with Schiaparelli and Mainbocher pieces in such stylish ways that Wallis Simpson copied the look for her trousseau.
In 1943, Rogers became a client of Charles James, who initially made her a lace and ribbon-trimmed nightgown and was soon supplying her with his remarkable, sculptural evening dresses. During the Second World War, she owned Claremont Manor, a gracious 18th-century mansion in Virginia’s Tidewater country, only 170 miles from Washington, D.C., where she worked for the Medical and Surgical Relief Committee, an organization that sent medical supplies to England, and dated prominent men, including James Forrestal, the undersecretary of the Navy, and writer Roald Dahl.
Then she went to Hollywood, where she was dressed by Adrian. Finally, and most famously, she moved to Taos, and became a devotee and champion of traditional Native American crafts, including the silver jewelry she bought in abundance, creating an entirely new look by wearing necklaces in multiples with peasant blouses and broomstick skirts. Five feet, seven inches tall and slender, with a piquant face framed by high, arched brows, she wore clothes beautifully.
“I don’t think she was as much of a hostage to being loved after her first and second marriages, unlike other heiresses who were always wondering if their husbands’ affections and their marriages are real,” says Burns. “She had real interests that went beyond this husband or that man. Her first husband [Austrian count Ludwig Salm von Hoogsraten] — was he a fortune hunter or did he love her? I think in his memoir and the things that he said, one doesn’t necessarily contradict the other.” She also says, “Men were objects she collected.”
And Rogers started quite young. She was a very popular debutante and married for the first time, against her parents’ wishes, when she was only 21. Her father kept her on a short financial rein and she and her count, by some accounts, ended up having to put on dancing exhibitions to earn their keep. They had a son, Peter. But after the failure of that marriage, she learned to avoid antagonizing her father. Her second husband, Arturo Peralta-Ramos, was a member of a prosperous Argentine family who had been a playboy in Buenos Aires and in Europe. They divided their time between New York, France and Italy, and had two sons, Arturo II and Paul. Her father had liked Peralta-Ramos, so she waited until after his death, in 1934, to file for divorce from him. Unfortunately, her father had had a terrible fight with Millicent’s brother, Henry, who had been very rude to him and his third wife, Pauline, and as a result decided to disinherit him. This involved breaking a family trust, which made his estate subject to massive taxes, greatly reducing it.
Early the next year, Millicent married the American bon vivant Ronald Balcom, who was very handsome and a fine sportsman. They lived in the Arlberg mountains of Austria. It was a beautiful idyll, and one that was only shattered by the rise of Adolf Hitler. She returned to the U.S. in 1940, as did her sons and her 16 dachshunds, which belonged to a breed she was passionate about. Each son (the oldest two were 13 and 16) was made to carry — and closely guard — a teddy bear; in the bellies of these bears were tens of thousands of dollars worth of jewelry, which she had thus concealed from the Customs officials.
At Claremont Manor, she wanted to re-create the domestic pleasures she had enjoyed in Austria. To that end, she worked with Billy Baldwin and Van Day Truex on the house, hanging clusters of French modern paintings, along with 18th-century French drawings, Biedermeier furniture and using needlepoint cushions and rugs she had made herself. She wore elaborate upholstered dresses by Mainbocher. Her marriage to Balcom ended, and this became her first residence as a single woman.
When she moved to Hollywood in 1946, Rogers stayed at Valentino’s former house, Falcon’s Lair. She developed a reputation as a wit with such sallies as her response to a windbag who asked her at a party, “Am I boring you, Millicent?” “Not yet.” She became involved with Clark Gable, but, when she saw him with another woman, she wrote him a Dear John note, then wrote him a letter which she audaciously sent to Hedda Hopper to publish in her column in the L.A. Times. It read, in part: “I followed you last night as you took your young friend home. I am glad you kissed and that I saw you do it, because now I know that you have someone close to you....I hope that I have made you laugh a little now and then; that even my long skinniness has at times given you pleasure; that when you held me, I gave you all that a man can want.”
Later, Rogers enjoyed the relaxed New Mexican lifestyle. “She was not a snob, and would spend as much time with and have as much interest in a bracelet maker as in the head of a Hollywood studio,” says Burns. “I think she had fun when she came to New Mexico; someone would pull her toe to roust her from a nap. She had never had that kind of easy freedom. She had a knack for adapting.” Her first Thanksgiving featured servers with white gloves, which was not well-received, but it wasn’t long before she had “much more casual affairs with bonfires up on the mesas.”
In 1948, Rogers had given 45 of her Charles James gowns to the Brooklyn Museum for its “The Decade of Design” show, which saluted him. So it seemed only natural that her amazing trove of Native American jewelry, pottery, rugs and Hispanic devotional art should have their own museum after she died in 1953 at only 51.
Not everyone agreed, however. “According to her heirs,” Burns writes, “an estate lawyer asked [referring to the jewelry], ‘What are we going to do with all this junk?’” But today the Millicent Rogers Museum is a favorite spot for visitors to Taos, and, Burns adds, “[it] is widely considered to be a gem of the Southwest.”