On a recent Sunday night, fashion designer Jackie Rogers was having dinner at Swifty’s on the Upper East Side. A number of the women there had bought clothes from her, maybe at her store across the street. Her customers include Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Condoleezza Rice, Courtney Love and numerous socialites.
“I don’t think anyone’s had quite a life like I’ve had,” she said. “I was very lucky, because I wasn’t one of these people calculating, saying, ‘What am I going to do?’ I just went out there and did it. Because I had no agenda I was accepted in all the societies of the world, in Europe. Of course, I was very good-looking. Had a lot to do with it.”
She looked stunning in her pink satin safari jacket over a black turtleneck, black shiny pants, and high heels. Her accent may not have fit in at Swifty’s—she pronounces “partying” “pottyin’!”—but her moxie sure did.
“There’s Peter Duchin,” she said. “Hi, darling!”
“Good to see you,” said the society bandleader.
“How’s your wife?”
“Oh, she’s fine. She’s in the country, she’s coming in tomorrow.”
Mr. Duchin looked anxious to eat.
“He’s a sweetheart,” she said “Everyone in here is over 80. Listen, my customers, they want sexy young clothes. I don’t design old clothes.”
She told the waiter she’d have the steak.
Three coiffed ladies, looking to be on the cusp of 90, were making their way past our table, very slowly. “Hi, how are you?” Ms. Rogers said to one who didn’t quite respond.
“Look at this group here, the geriatric group,” Ms. Rogers whispered. “Jesus!”
A man trying to catch up with the ladies lost control of his motorized wheelchair and, like a bumper car, swerved into our table.
The grinning geezer was oblivious. He said nothing, turned left and took off.
“Oh, careful, God!” she hollered at him. “Easy does it, it’s called. Jesus, that was a close one. My God. Ha-ha!”
Jackie Rogers grew up in Brookline, Mass., during the Depression. “It was horrible,” she said. “I came from this insane dysfunctional background. ”
Her mother was a hat designer and madly in love with Jackie’s father, Maurice, a handsome gambler and bootlegger who brought the family to the racetrack every Saturday. Jackie was mute until age 4. She was treated with “complete indifference” by her parents.
“My mother always told me terrible things,” she said. “She was insanely jealous of my sister and me. I think she was crazy. My mother was second-generation, my father was third-generation—Jews out of Russia. I have a feeling that my grandmother was from the pogrom, when the Cossacks came to kill people. My mother used to say, ‘They’re gonna get us!’ And I’d say, ‘Who’s gonna get us?!’
As a teen, Ms. Rogers lived in the movie houses in Boston.
“I hated where I came from, my family, everything, horrible, so I used to escape in the movies,” she said. “That’s what saved my life. Fred Astaire, seeing him dance, and I thought, ‘I’m getting out of here.’”
At 16 she ran off to New York and stayed at the Plaza Hotel for $5 a night. She discovered she was a looker. “People used to stop and stare at me, I was so beautiful,” she recalled. “I wondered what was wrong with me.”
Her mother told her, “No one will ever marry you.” But at 19, she married her childhood sweetheart, the richest kid in town. “It was a terrible experience,” she said. “He used to cry when the Red Sox lost! He was lame, honey.”
She fled to New York again, lived in the Mayflower Hotel, signed up for a typing course, then decided on modeling. Salvador Dali began to stalk her. “There used to be a restaurant called Hamburger Heaven where I ate lunch in the 50’s, and he’d sit there and stare at me, and then he would follow me. He never said a word. Drove me crazy!”
A radio producer named Carlton Alsop took her to El Morocco. “I’d wear a green kilt and knee-socks, and I’d sit with Carlton at the best table and he introduced me to everybody,” she said. “Oh, the world was in there! Errol Flynn. Everybody in Hollywood went there. Beautiful people! Humphrey Bogart. If you got a table there you were in.”
She auditioned for Cole Porter. “He came onstage and told me how beautiful and talented I was, but he didn’t hire me,” she said. “What was that going to do for me, right?”
She toured with Russ Morgan and his band, performing at Army bases. “I hated it,” she said.