Farewell to an Heiress
The procession of mourners wound along the rutted unpaved road toward a weedy little graveyard next to Indian land. Behind it tolled the bells of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in town; ahead of it rose Taos Mountain, the Sacred Mountain, all white with its peak hidden in the clouds. Brightly colored plastic flowers, indigenous to Spanish gravesites, bloomed from decorated crosses and gravestones in the high-desert resting place for local Spanish families and anglos. Millicent Rogers, in a manner as improbable yet fitting as so much of her unsettled life, was going home.
Taos, New Mexico, had long captivated artists, bohemians, scamps, and freethinking souls from elsewhere, who settled into its hive of quirky adobe houses at the feet of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Millicent Rogers had finally been one of them. She had been one of the most beautiful and richest women in America, perhaps the world. The toast of barons, industrialists, and royalty for almost five decades, she was known and admired in the fashion ateliers of Paris, London, and New York. Her face and fashions had appeared in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar all her life. She had loved a constellation of spectacular men. Now that the grand arc of her life had come to an end she was laid, as she requested, with her head facing Taos Mountain, next to the pueblo village and Indian people whom she had fallen nearly desperately in love with during the last six years of her life.
One mourner, the critic and writer William Goyen, wrote of the day,
The ceremony was a dreadful small-town ceremony in the graveyard produced by the local funeral home.… A sort of Muzak chimed a mawkish hymn. We all gathered round while the priest said his words, and a brilliant game rooster suddenly leapt to a fence just to one side of the grave and crowed. When the brief ceremony was over, Benito, the young Indian who had been in love with Millicent—wild, with flowing black hair to his shoulders, and flowers in his hair, and bedecked with bracelets, necklaces, beads, and drunk—and who had been held back, sullen and grief-stricken until now, rushed from the background and broke through the crowd toward the grave, crying out. But he was caught and held back by other Indians.1
Goyen’s cosmopolitan eye noted that the funeral was attended by “the rich and celebrated from various parts of the world.” One English aristocrat, Dorothy Brett, got her car ahead of the hearse and out of grief or her own haphazard driving habit, zigzagged the whole procession along the road.
Millicent’s three sons had come: the eldest, wearing a cutaway suit, was the product of her ill-fated elopement with an Austrian nobleman when she was twenty-one, the other two were sons from her second marriage to an Argentine aristocrat that had also ended in divorce. Millicent’s mother, Mary Rogers, a dowager from the East Coast, had arrived after a three-day train trip in her own railroad car, a legacy from a life underwritten by an oil and railroad fortune that had also richly funded her daughter’s stylish life. The funeral was postponed for several days to allow for her arrival. Mary had quietly asserted that under these circumstances the rail companies could accommodate her request to make the trip without a train change, and they had.
There was a certain incongruity for the writer Goyen, and perhaps to others on the scene, that these people of pedigree and wealth were gathered together to say their good-byes to a high-flying daughter, mother, friend, and lover as she was lowered into such a humble gravesite. Yet she had toward the end of her life taken refuge, sought peace and beauty, in elemental things. Her quest had led her to Taos. Though true happiness seemed always to elude her, Millicent claimed to her youngest son in a letter months before her death, an event she felt approaching at age fifty, that she was finally at peace. It would offer some comfort to her survivors.
Her life, like her funeral, had been distinctive, even unpredictable. During her time in Taos, she had deliberately befriended the Indians from the pueblo and they came to her funeral in numbers unprecedented to mourn the death of an outsider. Draped in the colorful blankets that they wore against the cold in winter and for celebrations, they appeared to bid her safe journey to the afterlife and farewell, in a rainbow of reds, blues, and yellows, their shiny black hair drawn back into buns and plaits, their heads bowed. They stood respectfully in a riot of color against the wide, Western winter sky.
Millicent was dressed as finely in her mahogany coffin as she had been in life. She wore an Apache-style dress made for her by her designer friend and fashion legend Elsa Schiaparelli. A great silver concho belt was twined at her waist. The large, mostly turquoise, rings that she favored were on her hands and a fine Indian chief blanket was wrapped around her. There was a brief Catholic ceremony. In a late life conversion, Millicent had become a Catholic the week before her death. After Benito’s display of grief, most of the mourners looked away or hurried to their cars to leave.
For almost no one who left the Sierra Vista Cemetery on that day, had Millicent Rogers truly been put to rest. Her life and image would be reflected for decades to come through her vast belongings, words, old photographs, and history. She would be reinvented again and again by the fashion world, which she influenced in almost equal parts in life and after death. She cast a long shadow even from the grave on her family, and her three sons would variously strive to uphold, repudiate, and re-create her legend. With each subsequent year, her true self would seem to fade and grow faint, like a photograph exposed to the harsh New Mexican sun, while her heirs continued to retouch it. It would become more and more difficult to separate the truths of her life from the myth, especially because in life Millicent had been a restless soul, one who seldom stayed for long in one place. She was mistress of the grand gesture and exercised a practiced inscrutability, which no doubt accounted for much of her allure.
Her life arched over half a century of American history and across two continents. Born in the Edwardian era, she died just as the first signs of the upheaval of the sixties were visible on Taos’s funky horizon. The beginning of her remarkable trajectory, like the origin of so many American sagas of the twentieth century, lay in the crystallization of wealth that produced great fortunes in the late 1800s. Her life and its trappings would have inspired an Edith Wharton heroine. With good looks, plenty of money, and a personal elegance that seemed to transcend both, she sampled life widely, but never fully invested. She was both a debutante and a flapper of the twenties, and she had no sooner come of age than she eloped with a titled European as the most daring daughters of great wealth did after the first World War. There were two more husbands and many more high-profile lovers as she lived the ex-patriot high life of Europe before World War II, and joined into the heady whirl of wartime Washington during the war. When the conflict ended, still recognized as a fashion trendsetter, she joined the new front of American glamour in Hollywood. There was a fling with the movie star Clark Gable, and then her constant quest for beauty in fashion, art, men—all the world around her—led her to Taos, where she found, finally, unexpected fulfillment. It was more than most women dream of, accomplished in five decades. Then at fifty she was dead.
Copyright © 2011 by Cherie Burns