Remembering Jackie Rogers

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Jacqueline “Jackie” Rogers, former model, actress and fashion designer, passed away peacefully after a brief illness early Tuesday morning, January 24th, at Lenox Hill Hospital. She was 92.

Born in 1932 and raised in Brookline, Massachusetts (with an accent to match), Jackie’s exposure to fashion began at a young age through her mother, Elizabeth, who was a hat maker with a store on Boylston Street. Her father, Maurice, was a Prohibition-era rumrunner who did business with Joe Kennedy, among others.

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

Although she saw little of him growing up, he impressed Jackie with his terrific sense of style: sharply cut suits with an attention to detail inspired by Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney in their silver screen heyday.

Growing up, Jackie’s adolescence was spent playing hooky from school and taking refuge in movie theaters like the Lux, where she was transported by the beauty and style of actresses like Rita Hayworth and Greta Garbo. She attended Miami University but did not graduate, and married young, settling with her spouse in an apartment on Beacon Hill arranged by her father. 

But the marriage was short-lived. Realizing that she was not cut out for the role of a housewife and mother, Jackie had the marriage annulled and moved to New York in her mid-20s and began working as a fit model and Girl Friday. It was in Manhattan of the 1950s that Jackie’s ambition ignited. 

She talked her way into working the hat-check post at El Morocco, which was her ticket to meeting – and dating – some of New York’s most powerful men, such as Carmine DeSapio, the last head of the Tammany Hall political machine, Averell Harriman and crime boss Frank Costello. From international businessmen to elegant gangsters, Jackie was drawn to self-made men of means and fierce willpower. It was an attraction that nearly cost her her life a couple of times.

She took off to Europe in the late 1950s, setting off a string of serendipitous encounters that transformed the tough-talking Boston girl into a jet-setting bon vivant. In London, producer Sam Spiegel urged her to join him on his yacht in Cannes. It was on that vessel one morning, Jackie recalled, when she emerged to the top deck and cast her eyes over the villa-studded hills above the French port on the Mediterranean. 

“I decided that I was going to meet the most interesting people in the world,” she said to herself. And she did. In Monaco and the Côte d’Azur she joined the orbit of the likes of Aristotle Onassis, an Italian prince (who became her boyfriend), Grace Kelly, Peter Ustinov, Greta Garbo and Salvador Dali. She was at the center of the high-glamour jet set at its zenith and the experience was life-changing. Never again, she recalled in her eighties, was she ever going to settle for second-best.

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

A weekend in Paris was another life-changer. While getting her hair done at Alexandre, she overheard that Coco Chanel was looking for models for her maison. Jackie went to inquire at the fashion house and was hired, joining Betty Catroux and other mannequins – all of whom clamored for Madame Chanel’s attention.

Chanel began calling Jackie “The Cowboy” for her American habit of walking with her hands stuffed in her pockets. While at Chanel, Jackie was photographed by LIFE photographer Douglas Kirkland in a series that became iconic images of the period.

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

While in Rome – again playing hooky, this time from Chanel – Jackie met director Federico Fellini, who was so taken by her that he gave her a speaking cameo as a pushy journalist in his dreamlike masterpiece, 8 ½. Nearing the end of the film, Jackie confronts the camera and laughingly declares that Marcello Mastroianni’s character, Guido, “has nothing left to say!” She also had small parts in the Biblical epic Barrabas and Io Amo, Tu Ami (I Love, You Love).

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

By the late ’60s, Jackie was tiring of broke, European nobility, as she called them, and headed back to New York, where she opened a mod men’s haberdashery and barbershop on East 67th Street. It became a hive of who’s who in theater and film, attracting customers who became friends, such as Dustin Hoffman, Peter O’Toole and Jack Nicholson.

The business segued finally into Jackie establishing her own fashion design business focusing exclusively on women’s wear. She employed Coco Chanel’s method of working without patterns, instead draping fabric directly on a model to achieve the form of the garment. Her clothing began taking on a signature look that combined body-hugging sensuality with dramatic glamour.

Jackie in front of her store on Madison Avenue and 67th Street; photographed by Jill Krementz on May 12, 1975.

Andy Warhol became a close friend by the early ’70s, and Jackie helped him raise money for his film Heat (1972), which she and Warhol’s entourage took to the Venice Film Festival to great success.

That decade, judging by her collection of photos, portraits and mementos, was Jackie’s headiest. She was in the matrix where fashion, art and nightlife converged. Francesco Scavullo’s portrait of her from those years, in which she reclines her head on one hand, like a briefly lounging, feral cat, captures her spirit the best.

Jackie with Andy Warhol, 1986. Photo: WWD STAFF.

In 1997 I interviewed Jackie at the urging of writer Fran Lebowitz for index magazine, a creation of contemporary artist Peter Halley, where I was a contributing editor. I had never heard of Jackie, but Fran insisted that if I wanted to interview someone who was “intrinsically interesting” I should sit down with her, turn on a tape recorder and just let her talk. 

“She speaks in a streetwise, ’50s lingo that has completely vanished,” Fran said. I asked Andre Leon Talley to contribute a statement about Jackie, and from my fax machine poured forth several handwritten pages of his thoughts. 

“She is a thunderbolt,” he wrote. “While she fascinates, at the same time, like lightning striking suddenly, it can be shocking, off-putting. Underneath all the clapping and clashing, there is a genuine heap of strength, tenacity and talent. Jackie makes wonderful, minimalistic clothes. I think her satin clip dresses stand up to the best and the most acknowledged of that school of design.”

Jackie by Francesco Scavullo, c. 1970s.

Jackie liked my profile of her so much that she called me up when it was published and ask me if I would help her with her memoir, which I didn’t know at that point had been a project of hers since the 1970s. I later learned that she had gone through many ghostwriters (Ben Brantley was reputedly one of them), and I was only the latest. 

Visiting her at her Park Avenue apartment over the span of 20-plus years – a measure of how long and perhaps impossible the task was – I often felt transported into her past through her piles of photographs or a piece of furniture or a Joe Eula portrait of her on the wall.

A blue-mirrored coffee table made me think of what was likely sniffed off it in 1976. She would bring up a photo of composer Paul Jabara, whom she adored, and break into tears. He was an early victim of AIDS, cutting short a brilliant songwriting career (Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” was his).

Working, and working it, until the very end.

They threw parties together with Paul behind the piano, banging out his own songs. Or she would excavate a blazer by menswear pioneer Ken Scott to show me his innovative approach to tailoring and construction. Going to Jackie’s apartment was always an education.

Even though we stopped and started several times over the last twenty years, we managed to finally assemble something approaching a manuscript and a pile of photos that would make Vogue blush.

David Savage at Jackie’s house in the Hamptons, wearing her hat.

One of our last sessions involved traveling out to her Hamptons home with her. I wasn’t completely sure I would survive the drive on the Long Island Expressway with Jackie behind the wheel of her black Jaguar. (I took the train home.) 

Ultimately, completing the project turned out to be an impossibility with Jackie. Constitutionally, in discussing her life, she was too restless to linger too long on anything or anyone who was a part of that past. As glamorous as it was, she kept wanting to talk about the future, which had yet to be written.

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