This past Tuesday JH and I went up to Kent, Connecticut for the day to visit Peter Rogers who has his country house on the market since he’s decided to acquire a second home in New Orleans (he has an apartment just off Sutton Place). Peter is a boy from Hattiesburg, Mississippi and evidently they’ve all got New Orleans in their blood. As Peter once explained to me, “that is the city we went to when we were growing up, the way people around here go to New York.”
I’ve been visiting Peter at his property since before he built it. Several years ago we posted a Diary entry about visiting the site when they were laying the foundation. Having blasted through the rocky top, he’d decided he was going to call the place (17 acres) “On the Rocks.”
When he told me about his planned acquisition, I wanted to get a record of the place because it’s one of the few houses I’ve ever known where I’ve actually thought “I could live here very comfortably.” So could a lot of people, as you can see.
Peter Rogers, for those of you who don’t know, is a legendary advertising genius who had a very successful career and agency branding and selling luxury goods to the world, much of which still remembers some of his slogans, even if they never heard of him. One of his most famous campaigns, now arguably the longest running ad campaign in history is the Blackgama fur “What Becomes A Legend Most.” Peter left that one behind many many years ago but it continues without him. Another famous slogan that every thirty-something and up remembers from childhood was “If you don’t look good, we don’t look good” Vidal Sassoon. I’d venture to say that those nine words made him rich.
His career made his life rich. Growing up in Hattiesburg, he had an afterschool job working in the local department store. And because he was creative, he was given the job of working on the window displays. The man who owned the business recognized talent in the kid and eventually decided to give Peter some advice. That advice was: go to New York where you can flourish with this talent. The rest, as they say, is history.
Peter sold his business in the early 90s and from the looks of it, he never regretted the departure. The message instead, seems to be: living well is the best revenge.
The house on the mountaintop articulates that for me. It’s a long private road up the hill, zig-zagging through meadows until the hilltop pavilion is revealed at the top of a large sloping lawn bordered by an enormous retaining wall made up of the rocks he blasted away to make the site.
Although there are houses nearby, this place nevertheless has a sense of privacy which looks out on serenely sleepy green mountain ranges for as far as the eye can see both east and west. It’s an aerie, a real one. An ideal one to this writer.
I remember hearing about the plan since he designed the place himself. He wanted a pavilion with a feeling of space, adequate sleeping space for family and/or guests, high ceilings in the public rooms with tall windows to let in all the light, slate floors, a double fireplace (living room and dining room) and a small adjacent studio where he could (and now does) paint.
This is not his first country house. He’s one of those people who loves the process of creating spaces. For years he had a place on Fire Island, as well as a penthouse on Park Avenue. When he sold Fire Island he bought and restored a big house in Locust Valley. Locust Valley was a little sleepy for a very active single man who likes the sophisticated New York life. Friends in Litchfield County got his ear.
He told the broker he was looking for woods and a view. This had been farmland. It was overgrown and bare of trees which had been regularly harvested for years. When he saw the view, he knew this was it.
He loved the double view and envisioned a house you could see through. He knew the floors would be stone and the walls would be stucco inside and out. The central rooms are each 20 by 20 with 16 foot ceilings and14 foot windows. The two adjoining sections: den, bedroom, kitchen, and the master bedroom, guest bedroom and utility rooms, are also 20 by 20 with 12 foot ceilings. There is another guest room with bath on the lower level its own view of the eastern hills and dales.
Peter is one of those people who enjoys the process of shopping for the items to decorate and furnish the house. Although some of his most interesting decorating to me is the memorabilia — especially the photographs from the “What Becomes A Legend Most” ads. A lot of very famous, even legendary women about each of whom Peter has a story. Some of them became lifelong friends like Joan Crawford (whom he always refers to as Crawford) and Claudette Colbert (Claudette) and Ethel Merman. These are now assigned to the Smithsonian collection.
In his bedroom is a framed Blackgama Ad with Lillian Hellman relaxing with a cigarette. There is an inscription “To Claudette – I owe it all to you.”
I asked Peter what that was all about. It was another one of those stories. Ginger Rogers had agreed to do an ad but on the day she was scheduled, she didn’t show up. Peter had already booked Way Bandy the makeup master and Bill King the photographer. He called Rogers’ cousin Phyllis Cerf Wagner who didn’t know where she was. Then he called Claudette and told her of his dilemma. He wondered if he could find a substitute…immediately.
Claudette told him she was about to go to lunch with Lillian Hellman? Would she do? Peter loved the idea. “Do you think she’ll do it? This afternoon?” “I’ll ask,” said Claudette.
Less than an hour later the phone rang. It was Claudette. “There’s a legend here, and she’d like to speak with you.” Hellman got on the phone. “When?” she asked. “How about after lunch,” he answered. “I’ll be there.”
The picture rejuvenated the campaign. Lillian Hellman was a “serious” writer/intellectual although Peter soon realized that she was very vain and loved being a “Legend.” Meanwhile it got a lot of notice. Bill Buckley, one of Hellman’s arch-detractors/opposing opinionators, put the photographer on the cover of his magazine and called Hellman out on it. She loved it.
The agency and the client got a lot of letters on it. People loved it. One fan wrote in: “How wonderful you did Bert Lahr.”