Millicent Rogers was in her 40s and thrice-divorced when she met Hollywood heartthrob Clark Gable sometime after World War II. From her vantage point, he looked like he might be The One. Until he decided she certainly wasn’t.
“She chased him. They were dating, but she stalked him in restaurants,” said Cherie Burns, author of Searching for Beauty: The Life of Millicent Rogers (St. Martin’s Press, 2011).
It wasn’t as if the King of Hollywood didn’t give a damn about the worldly socialite, but Rogers eventually saw that he cared more about comely young starlets than he did about her affections. They broke up after she found him escorting the actress Virginia Gray to bed.
“She realized she’d lost him,” said Burns. “She wrote him a Dear John letter and sent a copy to the leading gossip columnist in Hollywood. It was published in the paper. She had some chops.”
The actress Janet Gaynor and her husband, noted fashion designer known as Adrian, took the devastated Rogers to Santa Fe to brighten her spirits in 1947. They traveled up to Taos to meet Mabel Dodge Luhan, the famous intellectual and arts benefactor. While there, Rogers made a rash decision: She bought a dilapidated hacienda and left her old society life behind, at least geographically. From 1947 until her death on New Year’s Day in 1953, a month shy of her 51st birthday, Rogers was a diehard Taoseño. In 1956, her family established a museum there in her name.
Icon, American Style is currently on exhibit at the Millicent Rogers Museum. The exhibit focuses on Rogers’ role as a fashion muse, trendsetter, tabloid It Girl, and jewelry designer.
In the late 1940s, Rogers launched Southwest sartorial style for legions of elite Anglo women on the East Coast, who imitated her pairings of couture with Native American jewelry. Rogers was known for continually reinventing her look. Her signature was mixing the rustic with the urbane, whether that meant wearing a Tyrolean hat with a bespoke suit by Elsa Schiaparelli or commissioning an exquisitely tailored velvet broomstick skirt from Charles James. Rogers was also a prolific jewelry designer who carried her wax and tools with her in a little bag, much as other women might carry their knitting. She died when she was still rather young — but thanks to her family’s fortune, Rogers was able to lead a liberated existence, both romantically and creatively.
She wasn’t expected to live
Mary Millicent Abigail Rogers was born on Feb. 1, 1902, the granddaughter of Standard Oil tycoon Henry Huttleston Rogers. “She was a little princess of New York,” said Burns.
Rogers grew up in the tony enclaves of Tuxedo Park and Southampton against a backdrop of lavish parties. She came out to society as a debutante when she was 17. Her parents used her charm and good looks as an avenue to high society, Burns said. “They had money, but they weren’t old New York money. They were nouveau riche.”
It was something of a miracle that this social striving took place at all, because Rogers had contracted rheumatic fever when she was 7 or 8, and doctors thought she’d be dead by age 10. But she lived — albeit with lifelong health problems that often left her bedridden. Burns said that as a child, Rogers was known for her girlish sweetness. “Her illness, which removed her from society for a while, may have created a slight shyness. She compensated with clothes. They became a sort of signature.”
Rogers loved to wear evening gowns and elaborate costumes — a photograph in Icon, American Style shows her dressed as a fortune-teller. The museum’s executive director, Caroline Jean Fernald, said Rogers’ fashion sense caught the attention of designers after her dating life made her a paparazzi magnet. She was strikingly beautiful — a blonde with an aquiline nose and a powerfully intelligent gaze. In photos, she radiates an almost intimidating air of seriousness.
Prior to moving to Taos, Rogers donated a significant portion of her clothing collection to the Brooklyn Museum; it is now housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Icon, American Style features a few of her velvet broomstick skirts and dresses, as well as a Charles James dress form made with Rogers’ measurements. Also included in the exhibit are about a dozen pieces of jewelry that Rogers designed, including gold rings and pendants, a large silver necklace, and a gold brooch fashioned from railroad spikes.
Fernald said that when fashion magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar began featuring Rogers in their pages, the ensembles she wore were from her personal collection, and she accessorized with her own jewelry designs. While stars today are dressed by stylists with borrowed haute couture, nothing Rogers wore was on loan from designers or provided by the magazines. “I love that she was like, ‘Oh, no, no — I got this.’ I can picture her working with these fashion photographers and telling them what to do, what angles to shoot from and how to change the lighting.”
Among Rogers’ criteria for designer clothes was that they had to protect her thin figure from injury should she trip and fall, which happened sometimes when she wasn’t feeling well. When she adopted local Taos fashion, Charles James made several broomstick skirts and matching velvet blouses. Ordinarily, such blouses have a generous, comfortable fit, but James designed his with ribbing and padding on the inside.
Like something out of central casting
Rogers had a remarkably eclectic taste in men — and men were smitten by her. For some, her wealth contributed to the attraction. When Rogers was 21, she eloped with a broke Austrian count, Ludwig von Salm-Hoogstraeten, who was 17 years her senior. They were married for just a few years and were already legally separated by the time their son, Peter, was born in 1924. Rogers married Arturo Peralta-Ramos in 1927. They had two sons, Arturo Henry Peralta-Ramos Jr. and Paul Jaime Peralta-Ramos, the latter of whom established the Millicent Rogers Museum. Rogers and Peralta-Ramos divorced in 1935, and in 1936 she married an American stockbroker, Ronald Balcom. She’d been living in Europe since before her second divorce, and with Balcom, she lived in Austria until World War II broke out. Then they, too, divorced, and she returned to the states and settled for a time in Washington, D.C.
There, Rogers took lovers, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory author Roald Dahl (decades before he wrote that famous book in 1964) and Ian Fleming, who went on to write the James Bond novels. She also had affairs with princes and men in the orbit of royalty. But by the time Gary Cooper’s wife, Veronica, introduced her to Gable, Rogers was under the erroneous impression she’d never fall in love again.
“With Clark Gable, it was something out of central casting,” said Burns. “She was beautiful and had led this exciting life. And there he was: America’s leading man.”
Things didn’t work out as she’d hoped. So, like multitudes of disaffected Anglo women before (and after) her, Rogers took her broken heart to the wilds of New Mexico.
A heart swallowed by the desert
By the time Rogers moved to Taos, she was tired of society’s expectations of her, including expectations about the company she should keep. In letters, she wrote that she no longer trusted white men or the Christian religion. She fell in love with Native American art and delved further into her creative side as a jewelry designer. She kept detailed sketchbooks that show how she worked through design ideas. There is evidence that Rogers developed her own metal alloys to achieve certain colors and that she was casting with sand molds, a technique that Fernald said she must have learned from a Native American jeweler.
Rogers formed friendships with other artistic women in Taos, including painter Dorothy Brett and writer Frieda Lawrence. She also associated with Mabel Dodge Luhan, although Burns said that Rogers and Luhan were often at odds because Luhan thought Rogers was too flirtatious with her husband, Tony, who was from Taos Pueblo. This behavior was well known in town, Burns said, as was Rogers’ affair with a much younger man from the Pueblo. Burns emphasized that Rogers’ attraction to Taos definitely included an erotic interest in Native American men, just as it did for Luhan.
“These women of education and means and artistic sensibility that came here, they were very taken with Native American culture and the notion of the ‘noble savage,’” she said. “But Millicent was not a snob. Everyone I talked to who had known her said she would talk to anyone who crossed her path.”
In 2019, Rogers’ Native American-inspired fashion sense, as well as her jewelry designs, could be construed as cultural appropriation, Fernald said, explaining that although she was certainly a product of her time, Rogers was known to be very respectful of the pueblos she visited. She always spent a considerable amount of money and never haggled over prices. She amassed a large collection of Native American art and jewelry, which is exhibited at the Millicent Rogers Museum. She made jewelry mostly for herself and sometimes as gifts for friends — although Burns said that, at the end of Rogers’ life, she had started hoping people might buy her jewelry. Because her father broke the terms of a trust that protected the family’s income, her personal wealth had dwindled to little more than $100,000.
According to the New York Times, Rogers died after surgery for an aneurysm. “The autopsy revealed a heart a freakish four times the normal size,” reporter Mitchell Owens wrote in a 2001 profile. “She was laid to rest wrapped in a rare Navajo blanket and wearing two neoprimitive rings, while hundreds of Pueblo Indians silently watched as her coffin was swallowed by the desert.” ◀
▼ Icon, American Style
▼ Millicent Rogers Museum, 1504 Millicent Rogers Road, El Prado, 575-758-2462, millicentrogers.org
▼ Admission $10 adults; $5-$8 for seniors, students, military, New Mexico residents; $2 for ages 6-16, children under 6 free
▼ Through April 2020