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2023-08-23 00:00:00 Avenue Magazine How Jackie Rogers and Her Sharp Tongue Terrified High Society

How Jackie Rogers and Her Sharp Tongue Terrified High Society

Pins and needles
DESIGNING WOMAN Rogers showcasing her spring collection in 2015 in New York
Photo by Johnny Nunez/Getty Images

It’s the mark of a legendary woman when the obituaries get your age wrong.

When Jackie Rogers passed away earlier this year, the New York Times wrote that she was 90 years old. A New York Social Diary essay written by David Savage, who had known Rogers personally for many years and coauthored much of her unpublished memoir, put her at 92. And back in 2010, Rogers had told Departures that she was “sixtysomethingish,” when, at the time, she would have been closer to 80. Lying about one’s age is a trick of the trade when it comes to building a larger-than-life persona — rumor has it, she picked up the habit while spending time with Coco Chanel, another famous age exaggerator — and by every measure, Rogers’ persona was larger than the largest lives.

At different times, Rogers had been a housewife, a model, arm candy during the heyday of Europe’s jet set, a big-band singer, and an aspiring actress, before eventually settling in New York City as a fashion designer. Who knew that a middle-class girl from Brookline, Massachusetts, would end up living such an over-the-top international, glamorous life?

Born in the early 1930s (we think) to a Prohibition-era rumrunner father and a hatmaker mother, Rogers married at a young age. She should have known that the confines of mid-century domestic life were not for her. This, after all, was a girl who would skip school to catch movies at the cinema. “My first significant memory is of looking at the mirror in my mother’s bedroom,” Rogers wrote in her unpublished memoir. “I was dressed up in her satin underwear, high heels flopping all around, and thinking, ‘One day I am getting out of here and moving to NYC. I am going to have a big apartment on Park Avenue, become a famous actress, and entertain the rich and famous.”

After annulling the brief and “ill-fated marriage” (as she put it), Rogers began that lifelong process of self-mythologizing and reinvention by doing what so many do: she moved to New York.

She rented a room at the Mayflower Hotel on Central Park West with her sister, Pat, modeling by day and studying acting at the Stella Adler Studio by night. A hostess job at El Morocco introduced her to some of the period’s most outsized and notorious men, including organized crime boss Frank Costello. At the end of that decade, after a few fast and loose years dating and beguiling powerful men of means, Rogers moved to Europe to begin yet another era of her life.

Overnight, the girl from Brookline became part of European society. She befriended the film producer Sam Spiegel and summered on his yacht on the Côte d’Azur. She rubbed elbows with Aristotle Onassis, Grace Kelly, Greta Garbo, and visited Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí in their studios. While having her hair done one weekend in Paris, she heard Coco Chanel was looking for models, and was hired at the same time as Betty Catroux.

Chanel allegedly called Rogers “The Cowboy,” perhaps because she was so coarse and American-seeming to the European elite, but also because her broad shoulders lent themselves to draping fabric (the designer famously preferred draping to sketching). Becoming a muse to one of the most famous fashion designers of all time was essentially an accident; just like her happenstance meeting of Federico Fellini, who she was introduced to through her then-roommate, the Italian actress Laura Betti. Rogers charmed him so successfully that he cast her in an uncredited bit part in his 1963 classic .

Rogers modeling in the 1950s
Photo by Fred Morgan/NY Daily News/Getty Images

Eventually, Rogers tired of wintering in the Alps and summering on the Mediterranean and returned to New York City to establish a menswear business on Madison Avenue in the mid-1960s, using her society connections to start dressing celebrities such as Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman. Her decision to work in menswear was influenced by none other than Chanel herself. “I worked for Chanel in Paris and she said, ‘Don’t go near those women, they’ll drive you insane,’” Rogers once explained. “She wasn’t too far wrong.”

And yet, over the next ten years, Rogers began to dabble in womenswear. It was during this time that she became increasingly known for her fiery temperament, her cutting wit, and sharp tongue — a certain Bostonian directness that never left her. Her booming voice (a “streetwise, ’50’s lingo that has completely vanished,” as Fran Lebowitz once described it) was intimidating and infamous, something that attracted men yet terrified women. She was a designer, yet she was all about the business of selling clothes. “We don’t work from genius, we’re tradespeople,” Rogers once declared, recalling some advice Chanel had given her about the fashion industry. “We don’t hang clothes in galleries to be seen; we sell them.”

That drive to always get her way in business would become her legacy. One urban legend alleges that Rogers delivered a bridal gown to a high-powered businesswoman in the wrong color: peach, not coral. Instead of incurring the wrath of Rogers, the client said nothing, and quietly redid the colors and table settings for her entire wedding.

Things really started to change for Rogers when Lee Radziwill became a regular client in the ’70s, preferring Rogers’ minimalist, classic designs to so much of the gaudiness happening at that time. Radziwill eventually brought her sister, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, to the store, and Rogers began creating pieces for her children as well, including John-John’s high school graduation suit. From then on, her business enjoyed a loyal clientele of society ladies. She eventually opened stores in Manhattan, Southampton, and Palm Beach.

Her hot takes were the stuff of legend, and she was never afraid to tell it like it is. In a 2010 TV interview, Rogers plainly stated that Jackie O was anything but a fashion legend: “She was a terrific girl, but she really didn’t care about clothes very much. Everybody’s made her into this icon, I guess, about fashion, and I don’t really think she was that interested in it. I would tell her how to dress and what to wear. She was more interested in what I had to say.”

Rogers kept her businesses going for over 50 years, closing her last store in Palm Beach in 2021. She passed away in a New York City hospice in January of this year. With her death, it’s hard not to feel that a certain era has ended — an era of modeling for Chanel and acting for Fellini, of rubbing elbows with mafiosos, of dreaming out loud and screaming even louder, and, perhaps, of shaving more than a few years off your age.

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