By Jann Haynes Gilmore, PhD, AWA Board Member
Late in life, Millicent Rogers was called the Patroness of Northern New Mexico and the progenitor of “Southwestern Style,” after she moved to New Mexico in 1948. She was the granddaughter of Henry Huttleston Rogers, who became a financial baron in the American Gilded Age. In 1857, with his partner, Charles Pratt, he made a fortune in the burgeoning petroleum industry in western Pennsylvania. 1 John D. Rockefeller eventually purchased the partners’ businesses and formed the Standard Oil Company and both Pratt and Rogers played major roles in the flourishing company. 2 When Henry Rogers died his son, Harry, inherited an estimated $350 million dollars according to the New York Times. Harry had married Mary Benjamin and the couple’s first child was Mary Millicent Abigail Rogers who grew up in American royalty amid family residences in wealthy Tuxedo Park, outside New York, and a 1,800 acre estate in Southampton, Long Island.
A great beauty of precocious temperament, Millicent’s idyllic childhood was interrupted in 1910 when she contracted rheumatic fever. Her time alone in bed resulted in a great imagination and self-education. Despite her illness that plagued her throughout her lifetime, she reached a height of 5’7” and became one of the most iconic women in American society during the first half of the twentieth century.
In 1914, Harry Rogers joined the Army and was stationed in Washington, DC where the family purchased a residence in the fashionable neighborhood of Georgetown, a haven for ambassadors and politicians. Millicent came of age in the 1920s, an era often called the Jazz or Flapper Age. When Millicent Rogers became a debutante she was much sought after as a suitable wife for “her own kind,” as society’s media took note of her in Town & Country and the New York Times. After her debut, Millicent was introduced in Europe on a Grand Tour of Paris, London, and the Far East where she met royal families becoming friends with Italy’s Duke d’ Acosta, Russian prince, Serge Obolensky, and the Prince of Wales.
When Millicent showed interest in a possible suitor, the media quickly announced that she was engaged to be married. In a frustrated mood, she had met Count Ludwig Salm von Hoogstraten of Austrian nobility; a divorced, twice-her-age, penniless man. Against her parents wishes, she married him in 1924 in New York’s City Hall and the Countess and Count sailed to Europe. Millicent’s parents persisted over a three-year period to end the marriage and finally paid the Count $250,000 for the divorce. Millicent returned to her former luxe life in America with a son, Peter.3
A more mature Millicent hardly slowed down and within a year she remarried. At twenty-five years old, Millicent had purchased a farm in Bennington, VT where her mother began to spend time away from Millicent’s father. Millicent also set up a Central Park apartment at 1035 Fifth Avenue then married Argentine Arturo Peralta-Ramos whom she had met in Europe. This marriage produced two sons, Arturo Peralta-Ramos II and later, Paul. For the next several years Millicent became the consummate society woman in New York decorating her houses as she also began promoting her personal assets: beauty, taste, and fashion style. Millicent divorced Arturo Peralta-Ramos and as was her practice, quickly married her third husband, a socialite stockbroker, Ronald Balcom. The couple spent considerable time in Austria where she built a chalet and where she was often photographed in Tyrolean outfits. Millicent tried to ignore the threats of World War II but Nazi flags began to be hoisted near her St. Anton chalet. In departing Austria for America, Millicent gave her three sons teddy bears and it was discovered upon arrival that their toys were stuffed with Millicent’s jewels.4
Millicent spent the war years in Washington, DC. along with many others of her wealth in order to be near and participate in wartime matters. Her mother divorced Milicent’s father and bought a house in Washington, DC bringing with her the family Degas, Gauguin, Monet, Manet, Vuillard, and Pissarro paintings. Millicent soon became bored with her third husband and divorced Balcom in 1941. Millicent had had several strokes during these marriages. Afterwards, Millicent Huttleston Rogers, now using her maiden name, reinvented herself again by purchasing Claremont Manor as a Tidewater retreat in colonial Surry County, Virginia.
Living the vaulted luxe life, Millicent acquired many friends, especially in the fashion world including Diana Vreeland, Elsie Schiaparelli, Coco Chanel, Van Day Truex and Charles James and continued to garner attention in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar magazines. During the war she worked with the Medical and Surgical Relief Committee. Spending her war winters at Claremont Manor, she attracted powerful men such as Navy Undersecretary James Forrestal with whom she had a liaison in addition to British naval officer Commander Ian Fleming who was also in Washington. Fleming built a house in Jamaica in 1946 where he and Millicent carried on an affair in Montego Bay. Millicent eventually bought her own residence in Montego Bay and named it Wharf House. There she enlarged her social set with Hollywood celebrities including Noel Coward, Cecil Beaton and Roald Dahl with whom she also had an affair.
After the war, Millicent continued to be named to America and World Best Dressed Lists mixing and matching Austrian refined and unrefined clothing elements as she shaped a different, cleaner feminine image in the 1940s. Millicent wore espadrilles and large-very large jewelry.5 She had met Adrian Gilbert, who dressed many Hollywood celebrities and was married to actress Janet Gaynor as she continued to add more Hollywood friends to her circle such as Claudette Colbert and Gary Cooper who introduced her to Clark Gable, greatest star at the time. Millicent fell deeply in love with Gable.
Gable became a frequent visitor to Claremont Manor but when he returned to his movie career in California, Millicent pivoted again and followed him to Hollywood, shipping her seven dachshunds and twenty plus trunks of clothing to Los Angeles. While renting Rudoph Valentino’s Benedict Canyon villa, her health once again plummeted and she spent many alone hours designing and crafting jewelry, another avenue that was adding to her fame. Hollywood’s greatest leading man’s own career profited from being romantically tied to Millicent who designed jewelry for Gable as Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons frequently showcased the couple in their gossip columns. After departing Los Angeles to be with her son who had been in an accident, Gable’s infidelity began to surface. Millicent brazenly allowed a copy of the letter she wrote to Gable breaking off the romance to Hedda Hopper who published it in the Los Angeles Times.6
With her first rejection, Rogers intended to return to the East Coast, but before leaving Hollywood, Millicent’s friends Gilbert and Gaynor invited her on a trip to New Mexico to help her recover from the Gable breakup. With all her peregrinations behind her, Milicent joyously found “her place” in Taos, located in New Mexico’s high desert. Her friends took Millicent to the Thunderbird Shop in Santa Fe and introduced her to Mirana Masocco [Levy] who shared with her beautiful Native American jewelry made in the pueblos of the Southwest. The two formed a lasting friendship. The travelers continued on to Taos where Mabel Dodge Luhan ruled the town’s society and had attracted her own following to the remote village including Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, Carl Jung, Thornton Wilder, Thomas Wolfe, Jean Toomer, and Frieda and D.H. Lawrence, Willa Cather, among others.
Entranced by its multi-cultural arts, simpler life, and rugged beauty, Taos changed Millicent’s life again. The party rented rooms and enjoyed the San Geronimo festa taking place in Taos’s storied central plaza. They also were hosted at Luhan’s rambling adobe which attracted every famous person traveling through Taos. Gradually the looming Sangre de Cristo mountains, part of the southern Rockies, took hold of Millicent’s aesthetic core. Her quest for beauty ended as she became a part of the vast landscape of New Mexico’s high desert with its raw adobe houses, nearby Indian Pueblo, and texturally rich sensibilities.
Rogers soon purchased an 80-acre property with a dilapidated house where sheepherders worshiped located beside a waterway leading to the Rio Grande River. The property looked across grazing lands toward Taos Mountain, considered sacred by the Indian Pueblo. Heiress Helene Wurlitzer also lived in town as did artist Lady Dorothy Brett who first came to visit the D.H. Lawrences and settled permanently in Taos. Brett and Frieda Lawrence became Millicent’s closest Taos friends. Mabel had found “her place” earlier in 1917 when she moved from New York City to Taos and eventually married Tony, a Taos Pueblo Indian, to the surprise of everyone she knew! It is also unsurprising that Mabel soon developed enmity towards Milicent who represented competition with her beauty, wealth, independence, well-heeled connections, and creativity. Millicent’s comportment was a quiet one and she did not brag or gossip like Mabel. Millicent endeared herself to the community and they and the Pueblo Indians and Hispanics reciprocated. Rogers soon adopted the squaw skirt as her signature look, employing East Coast designers to create her “broomstick” skirts. She also added velvet squaw jackets decorated with silver details, and wore moccasins and native jewelry. She had also become a blonde.
She had named her property Turtle Walk and her sons soon fell in love with Taos, too. Tony Luhan engaged his nephews to renovate her house eventually consisting of eight rooms. Hispanic laborers made the adobe bricks and laid them. Dorothy Brett painted the vigas in the living room that would soon be enhanced by works of Renoir, van Gogh, and Rubens, along with Native American and Hispanic art, hanging on Indian red and yellow walls. Rogers shipped her gilded bed and transferred her domestic staff from Claremont Manor to Taos. She entered into the design of her house with great attention, moving one door several times to please her eye. She also moved her entire bedroom just meager inches in order to fully embrace the view of sacred Taos Mountain from her bed.7
Millicent was soon collecting architectural details like windows and doors, and eventually santos, Saints carved by Spanish artisans as she continued collecting Native jewelry. She purchased Brett’s artwork of the nearby Pueblo dances. She traveled with Brett and other friends to Gallup, the center for Native trading posts, on to Arizona to Canyon de Chelly and the Indian centers of Walpi where they observed the infamous snake dance of the Hopi, the Zuni dances, and eventually to Apache country in order to add to her collections. She began to advocate against Native American poverty through her Washington political ties and anonymously underwrote the operating costs of the local Pueblo health clinic. Still appearing in fashion magazines back East, Millicent was photographed wearing her Southwest costumes that further popularized Southwestern style such as Concho belts.8
While embracing her new life in Taos, Millicent’s heart weakened and her energy once more waned. She sold Claremont Manor in Virginia. Dorothy Brett described her friend: “She was always quiet, she was like moonlight drifting into a room, and spreading a glow of charm and beauty, and sadness among us.9 The Taos winter of 1952 sped up Millicent’s further decline. Her bedroom with its view became her studio where old and present friends and family sat and visited. Rogers wrote presciently of her pending death to her son, Paul, that she wanted to be buried in Taos “under the wide sky.” 10 Rogers had to be transported to the care of her doctor in Santa Fe, and would stay in her own room at La Fonda Hotel. She died in an Albuquerque hospital at age fifty. Following her wishes, she was buried in Sierra Vista Cemetery at the entrance to the Taos Pueblo.
Her estate was left to her three sons. Her vast collections of silver and jewelry, and Hispanic art became the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos, through a foundation set up by her sons and her mother, Mary Benjamin Rogers. The museum attained a permanent address in 1956 in a 1940s adobe residence north of Taos center. It, too, has a sweeping view of Taos Mountain. The Millicent Rogers Museum first opened with its collections of both her and her mother but has evolved into much more over seventy-five years. In the 1980s, the present building was renovated by New Mexico’s renowned architect, Nathaniel A. Owings. The pottery, paintings, photography, arts and crafts, textiles, and religious arts makeup the current collection, all under the mantel and focus on multicultural representation. Mary Rogers bequeathed much of the Pueblo Indian art from the Taos Pueblo and Zuni and Hopi Natives, Millicent’s estate contributed over 1,200 pieces of Native American and Hispanic jewelry and much more, and the museum became the first organization in New Mexico to feature Hispanic arts including religious santos and retablos, furniture and textiles.
Millicent Rogers’ legacy has lived on because of her influence in the world of fashion, exhibitions of her design aesthetic in museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and her trend-setting presence in Vogue and other fashion circles. But her rich social life, travels, romances, iconic image, and final discovery of her own place, Rogers is nearly forgotten. Roger’s role in the cultural stream of mid-20th century America is too often overlooked while she lies “listening to the silence” of northern New Mexico.
1. Henry Huttleston Rogers (1840-1909), close friend/ patron of Mark Twain, http://en.m.wikipedia.org. And, Charles Pratt (1830-1891), founder of Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY, in 1887, http://en.m.wikipedia.org.
2. Arthur J. Bachrach, Nita Murphy, and Judith Nasse, A Life in Full: Millicent Rogers, ABQ Press, 2012, p. 17.
3. Ibid, p.31.
4. Cherie Burns, Searching for Beauty: The Life of Millicent Rogers, St. Martin’s Press, 2011, pg. 160-163.
5. Ibid, p. 212.