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.
She got to know Frank Sinatra after he separated from Ava Gardner in 1953. “Frank and I became very good friends when he was on his ass, when he was down and out,” she said. “I used to pick him up from the—what was the name of that place, there was a nightclub in the Paramount Hotel. The French casino! That was the only joint that would hire him. We were just friends. He was very gentle and he was absolutely, as they say in Italian, distrutto. He was destroyed. It was a terrible time for him. And we used to go and listen to Nat King Cole sing. We never discussed Ava. I think he had really done himself in emotionally, physically, with this woman, and he told me he was very naïve about everything.”
Her first trip to Europe was in 1959, when she found herself on movie producer Sam Spiegel’s yacht along with Rex Harrison. Aristotle Onassis chatted her up in Monaco.
“Onassis and I became very good friends,” she said. “He was never my boyfriend. Thank God! He confided in me his prowess with women. I suspect he was a great lover. I mean, Jackie Onassis wasn’t there for laughs. I think she really cared about him. I mean, she cared about the money.”
Naturally she dated Gianni Agnelli. “Onassis introduced me to him and he said, ‘Don’t get involved with him, he’s a drug addict,’” she said. “I didn’t know what he meant by that. I was dancing with him, and one of his legs was stiff, he’d hurt it in an automobile accident, but he was so handsome and charming, you died. Forget it. He was like a maid, he gossiped so much. It was nice cause he had a plane: ‘Would it amuse you if I sent you the plane?’ I said, ‘Send it!’”
Did she ever considered remarrying?
“Marriage? Oh, no, no, no,” she said. “Just the idea—oh! Just the idea of answering to somebody. Trapped is the word.”
In 1962, she was in Paris, modeling for Coco Chanel. “That’s why my clothes are as good as they are, because of Mademoiselle,” she said.
She rented a house near Monaco one summer. Greta Garbo was staying nearby, and while they were both swimming naked in the pool, the actress came on to her. “I just split, I said forget it,” Ms. Rogers recalled.
She dated Peter O’Toole.
“I used to wear white flannel pants and a blue Chanel coat and high heels, and we were quite a couple,” she said. “I was madly in love with him and he was drinking like a fish, he drank terribly in those days. He’d start drinking and disappear, and then he’d wind up at my apartment, and I wouldn’t let him in.”
Ms. Rogers isn’t impressed by the men she meets in New York these days.
“Nobody has identity,” she said. “These men that are terribly rich, they make a certain amount of money, and then they get their name in the Metropolitan Museum and you want to vomit.”
She laughed, put her hand on my thigh by accident, then apologized and laughed.
“You know, European men versus American men, you can’t compare them,” she said.
After Chanel, Ms. Rogers moved back to New York and eventually started designing for people like Babe Paley, Pat Buckley, Lee Radziwill, Jackie Onassis. “Lee has great taste, more so than her sister,” she said. “I never thought Jackie knew what she was looking at. Lee taught Jackie what to wear.”
These days she watches TV evangelist Joel Osteen every Sunday. “I turned him on the TV about two or three years ago and I said, “Who’s that handsome dude, he’s beautiful?’”
She ordered ice cream with fudge sauce.
“Things happen to me,” she said. “Like some people say, ‘I never find a parking space.’ I always find a parking space. I walk down the street and find money. The other night I was walking on Madison Avenue, and I looked down, there’s $300 on the street, rolled up. I looked around to see who lost it. There was nobody there but me. Things happen to me like that. Good things always happen.”