My Love Affair with Chanel, Part I

Featured image
Betty Catroux, Claude DeLeusse, Tony Trabert, Jackie Rogers, and Shauna Trabert at a party at Sheherazade nightclub in Montparnasse, Paris.
Jackie Rogers in Chanel on Rue Cambon. “Mlle (Coco Chanel) is screaming out the window telling me how to pose … Irving Penn was the photographer.”

Wednesday, October 21, 2020. Today we are running the first of a three-part series from designer Jackie Rogers’ memoir work-in-progress. Jackie has long been established in the fashion world on both sides of the Atlantic, dating back to the early 1960s when she was a 19-year-old from Boston (Brookline). She is well known for her business but also for her time as the lead model for Coco Chanel. In fact, her work in progress is entitled My Love Affair With Chanel. Never mind the questions about that title; Jackie is first and foremost a businesswoman with a lot of experience and natural savvy.

Coco Chanel is a legendary figure of the early 20th century. She is singly responsible for the fashion of women in pants — an historical creation. She is remembered by the “consumer” for the Chanel N°5 perfume. She was also a famous couturier and as well as a controversial figure during the World War II in Paris, because of some of her personal associations.

There have been a number of biographies written about the woman. She is ultimately a fascinating character with enormous charisma, the kind found frequently in prominent politicians — prime ministers, presidents, dictators and tycoons. Jackie’s “Love Affair” with Chanel, from what I’ve read over the years about the designer, takes the portrait to the street level: a real person. Having read so much previously, I was surprised and pleasantly, to get another side, a human side to the legendary woman. — DPC

My love affair with Chanel began in the summer of 1962. Little did I know what I was getting into. Now let me tell you how it all began.

I was living in Rome in an apartment that I had rented on the Via Margutta. It was the most creative part of Rome with its art gallery openings and the artisan workshops. Painters and writers were everywhere. I used to run out early in the mornings to the pizzeria where all the workers were having breakfast. I’d get my pizza-pani and cappuccino and go back to my apartment — and that’s when my day would begin.

Via Margutta, today.

The first thing I would do was to call Franco Rossellini on the “hot line.” Franco, whose claim to fame was that he was the nephew of the great director Roberto Rossellini (who had married Ingrid Bergman), had become my mentor. I had met him in Monte Carlo. He knew everybody and their life story. He moved in all the right circles because he wasn’t a threat to anyone except himself. 

My mentor, Franco Rossellini.

He would immediately tell me what was happening for the day which usually for us started on the Via Veneto where we would meet for aperitifs before lunch — if I had the time before a go-see, either for a movie or modeling job. We all met for lunch at a bistro near Piazza del Popolo where you could eat for 1000 lire (the equivalent of $1.60) if you ate there every day, which is what we tried to do. We used to joke that the meat, because it was so cheap, came from the cats at the Coliseum. Yet the chic restaurants near the Veneto were always having people carried out of the toilets from OD’ing from God knows what. Thank God I wasn’t into drugs.

I was doing Italian low-budget movies and being paid with cambiali, otherwise known as IOU’s. I was also modeling for some of the most well-known Italian designers of that time including: Valentino, Simonetta and Fabiani. Rome in the early ’60s was the center of the film industry, and it felt like the center of the world. It was a very exciting place to be.

Jackie by Francesco Scavullo, c. 1970s.

All the leading men had left Hollywood for Rome — Peter Ustinov, Burt Lancaster, Warren Beatty, Ben Gazzara, Stephen Boyd. George C Scott was there with Ava Gardner having terrible fights everywhere, Taylor and Burton were shooting Cleopatra, Charlton Heston was there shooting Ben-Hur and El Cid; Clint Eastwood was doing films with Sergio Leone; Cinecittà, of course, was the Roman Hollywood. The avant-garde directors were Fellini, Visconti and Antonioni. Each had their own distinct clique. If you were in the Fellini crowd, which I became a part of, you didn’t mix with Visconti or Antonioni. Fellini was the director of the moment, because of the success of his movie La Dolce Vita.

Before I got my apartment on Via Margutta I had been living with Italian actress Laura Betti on the Via del Babuino. Thanks to Laura I got involved in the film business (she thought I had the potential to be a “great” actress). She had been in La Dolce Vita  and had introduced me at a party to Federico two years before. Fellini seemed very impressed with me, especially when I told him I really didn’t like the film all that much, to which he laughed and said, “I’m only an amateur — not a professional.” We immediately became friends.

Laura Betti at home on Via del Babuino. Inset: Laura Betti with Riccardo Garrone in La Dolce Vita, 1960.

Fellini had become interested in me and was thinking of putting me in his next movie, to be called 8 1/2, which was going to be his most important movie according to his casting director Guido Guiderinno. Federico’s way of getting to know his characters was to spend time with them and so he started asking me out to lunch and would pick me up in his sports car practically every morning.

It got to the point where I was looking forward to seeing him every day and soon realized I had a crush him (I felt he was feeling the same towards me). We would go to the Via Veneto to have an aperitif and sit there for hours on end. We really got to know each other, and the more time I spent with him the more he wanted to feature me in a prominent role in his next film. Needless to say, I was thrilled.

Cracking Fellini’s whip on day one on the set of 8 1/2, photographed by Michelangelo Durazzo.

While I was waiting for 8 1/2  to begin shooting, I got a call from Prince Andrea Hercolani, who was sitting in his palatial palazzo, Belpoggio, in Bologna. It even had a moat around it. He had news of a party in Paris we couldn’t miss.

I had met him in Monte Carlo in June 1959 at the Hotel de Paris entrance. There’s a bronze horse whose knee everyone rubs for good luck before they go into the casino across the street to gamble. Andrea was standing right next to it and Franco Rossellini, of course, knew him. The Prince, who was a descendant of the Borghese, was one of the most sought after and handsome men in Europe.

Jackie and Prince Hercolani in St. Mark’s Square in Venice in the summer of ’59.

Andrea was 6’2” with blonde hair, blue eyes and looked like no Italian I had ever seen. He was a pure aristocrat. From the first time I laid eyes on him twisting that cigarette in his long aristocratic hands I knew that he was the Italian prince I had been looking for, without even knowing it. That first summer we were inseparable going from Monte Carlo to Venice and Bologna. And my life began to center around his.

Andrea said over the phone that we had just been invited to a fantastic party in Paris to be given by the Countess Pecci Blunt who co-founded the Spoleto Music Festival in Italy. Andrea said to get on a plane the next day and he would meet me at the Milan airport in his Maserati. It sounded good to me.

Lady Caroline Ponsonby, Count Brandolini, and Jackie Rogers at Maona Nightclub, Monte Carlo.

The trip was from Milan to Paris seemed like it took twenty minutes and when we arrived in Paris in the early afternoon, I immediately went to get my hair done at Alexandre. It was where tout-Paris went in those days and you could always find out what the action was. Who should I run into but Tina Onassis, Aristotle’s former wife who was always on my case about finding a rich husband. She said, “You are never going to get anywhere with that prince because he doesn’t have any real money.” She had lined up Gunter Sachs Von Opel, Brigitte Bardot’s former husband, and wanted me to meet him that night (I thought he was gross and I wasn’t having that). I knew she meant well, but it never even occurred to her that I wasn’t looking for the richest man in town — I was really in love with Andrea.

Sitting next to me was a beautiful model who had just left Chanel. She knew that they were looking for girls to show the Fall collection, and she said that if I was interested she would put in a call for me to Lilu Grumbach, Chanel’s assistant. I jumped at the opportunity. I had no idea that it would be that easy to get an interview with the great Chanel. She made the call and before I knew it, she set up an appointment for me that very afternoon.

Jackie looking at her reflection in Chanel’s apartment, photographed by Hatami.

I pulled myself together and took a taxi down the Faubourg Saint-Honoré. It was 5:00 PM when I arrived for my interview at the Maison Chanel at 31 Rue Cambon. Lilu Grumbach was waiting for me at the door as the Salon was already closed. As she led me over to the stairwell I looked up and saw Coco Chanel’s reflection in the mirrors blanketing the stairway walls. It appeared that she was in disguise, wearing a beige tweed suit and a large hat with a chiffon scarf tied around the brim.

Her bangs covered her eyebrows and she wore large eye glasses and had a pair of scissors dangling from around her neck with a pearl necklace the size of quail eggs and a cigarette dangling from her mouth — which gave her a certain amount of sex appeal even at her age. When she saw me she came down the stairs slowly, one step at a time with her hand grasping on the banister. When she got down to the second step she grabbed my shoulders and exclaimed in French, “Grande épaules, une beauté!” (“What great shoulders, a beautiful girl!”)

I was hired on the spot and we immediately agreed on a salary of $700 per week, a tremendous amount of money at that time for what I thought would be a summer job. Little did I know that my life would never be the same.

Jackie Rogers (middle front row) with fellow Chanel “mannequins,” c. 1960s.

Part Two, coming tomorrow.

Recent Posts