"Dear Paulie, Did I ever tell you about the feeling I had a little while ago? Suddenly passing Taos Mountain I felt that I was part of the earth, so that I felt the sun on my surface and the rain. I felt the stars and the growth of the Moon; under me, rivers ran..."
- Millicent Rogers
Millicent Rogers wrote this letter to her son Paul Peralta Ramos prior to her death in 1953. The letter expresses how the majestic natural beauty and compelling cultural heritage enriched her life upon her arrival in 1947 to Taos. Who was this woman?
Imagine yourself in Gallup, New Mexico on a warm desert evening in 1947 at the Intertribal Ceremonial, a gathering of Indian artists, dancers, drummers and singers. In the crowd is a woman – striking, well-tailored and blonde – and she strolls among sale displays including silver and turquoise jewelry, textiles and drums. She stops to visit with one Native vendor, then another, all the time eyeing art forms that are completely new to her. She randomly picks up bracelets, earrings, and belts and closely examines details of stamped patterns, the inlays of coral, mother of pearl, and onyx, and the interesting shapes of dragonflies, crosses, and snakes that have been formed from silver. And then she sees a necklace of beautiful turquoise that makes her take a quick breath; 294 irregularly shaped tabs of blue and green turquoise are strung with a large pendant of the same stone. The necklace is heavy in her hands, perhaps nearly four pounds.
Why would Millicent Rogers acquire these things? You have to know, in part, a bit more about Millicent herself, and her life was not ordinary. Millicent Rogers (1902-1953) grew up in New York within privilege and wealth and she was often referred to in the press as the “Standard Oil Heiress,” since it was her grandfather, H.H. Rogers who was the co-founder with John D. Rockefeller of the Standard Oil Trust. Millicent’s life, before Taos, includes the things one would expect, such as travel, homes, marriage and children. But she was also distinctive for her looks and her fashionable style, which resulted in popularity with photographers, clothing designers and fashion magazines. Apart from photographing well and having a figure for couture design, Millicent had a way of combining fashion elements with an engaging flair, which in turn caught the eye and attention of fashion devotees. So how does this answer why Millicent collected art of the Southwest? That Millicent approached fashion creatively is the key.
Her correspondence with fashion designers like Charles James reveal aspects of her creative style. Drawing designs for bold, modern and sometimes abstract jewelry pieces that she eventually had made (or made herself at her own bench) also display her own artistic ability. No doubt responding to beautifully designed, well constructed, and artful pieces, Millicent Rogers, surely in part, collected jewelry, textiles and baskets because as an artist herself she responded to and appreciated beauty that can be found in the objects of devotion, utility and adornment that are unique to the Southwest.
Rogers came to Taos in 1947 with a heart broken by Clark Gable, and physically weakened by rheumatic fever as a child. But settling in Taos did not mean she would simply slow down.
Millicent was very passionate about both the Hispanic and Native American communities in New Mexico She played a quiet but instrumental in securing Blue Lake for Taos Pueblo. While her tenure in Taos was brief, just a few short years, her impact on the community was tremendous. Today, that legacy remains in the musuem that bears her name.