Tuesday, January 26, 2010


By Polly Guerin

Millicent Rogers Glamorous icon and Taos Flower
Dear Millicent: It was only when I visited Santa Fe, New Mexico and made an excursion to Taos that I discovered the Millicent Rogers Museum, housed in an imposing historic and expanded Taos dwelling with its remarkable collection of Southwest art. I was particularly impressed with the contemporary pieces of Native American jewelry as well as the stunning pieces you created from your love of this desert oasis. My curiosity was peaked. Who was Millicent Rogers? Your life’s story is remarkable in itself as it was short lived but impacted with adventure, affairs, family and your great love for the Southwest.
The magnificent, multi-dimensional woman who was Mary Millicent Abigail Rogers (1902-1953), the granddaughter of the Standard Oil tycoon Henry Huddleston Rogers, became a mother, a socialite, a philanthropist, a designer and a champion of the arts and crafts of the Southwest. She was brought up in lavish Jazz Age South Fork, Southampton, Long Island, but she was’t supposed survive to witness the glittering Art Deco era of the 1930s. So fragile was her health because of a childhood bout with rheumatic fever she was expected to die before the age of 10 or so the doctors had predicted. Not this stalwart young woman. Despite the illness’ life-threatening effect, she had a remarkable but short life. She plunged into every aspect of her existence like a bold eagle and swooped into the headlines when she married three times. She was told to never give birth she had three sons. She not only illustrated dinosaur stories for her boys but when one of her son’s broke his leg as a child, she decorated his cast with a comical tale of a Koala bear. Other illness followed, but that did not stop her stampede through life. She had several debilitating heart attacks and a battle with double pneumonia but soldiered on with the zeal of conqueror and her considerable intellect forged her passion for living life to its fullest.
Instead of hitting the headlines like other heiress’ of the Jazz Age era, Millicent’s view on life was that of an innovator, a creator and a champion of the Southwest. Despite her ‘gaunt’ visage, she was an acclaimed beauty with a sylphlike shape and had a unique creative vision and intellect. Although bedridden for long periods of time, Millicent read voluminously and became a classical scholar teaching herself to read Latin and ancient Greek. In this way and through her fashion style she reinvented herself and her lifestyle throughout her short life. A friend Charles James, designer of the extravagant couture concoctions, his fashions were well suited to adorn her statuesque figure. Inspired she even sketched costumes for her multicultural wardrobe. Most significantly she ornamented her 5-foot-9 frame with many of her own Southwest-inspired jewelry designs. A prolific collector she acquired antiques and furniture from Beidermeier to the Ashcan School of art that filled her homes in Austria, New York, Jamaica, New Mexico, California and Virginia. DISCOVERING TAOS
Although Millicent lived in many places after she discovered, Taos, New Mexico and moved there in 1947, where she ensconced herself in an old adobe hacienda. During this time of prolific creation, discovery and collecting she amassed an astounding collection of some six thousand pieces of jewelry, which include some prehistoric Southwest works. With her considerable intellect and appreciation for Native American Culture she had traveled and collected artifacts by attending numerous fairs and pueblos in the Southwest. As she became increasing incapacitated due to her illnesses when her Taos house was renovated, a workshop with facilities for casting was placed off her bedroom. Influenced and inspired by Navajo and Pueblo jewelry, Millicent who had trained herself to be productive though bedridden, learned their metalworking techniques. As her health failed, she spent more time in this bedroom designing and creating her personal style of Southwest jewelry, which is displayed today in the eponymous Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos, New Mexico.
Despite the fact that her father was afraid of fortune hunters, Millicent was kept on a fairly tight leash, but she managed at the same to have her way. The drama of her fashion penchant was apparent early on when she made her debut in a Mandarin robe and a head dress from Chinatown. At 20, she married Count Ludwig von Salm- Hoogtraten, moved to Austria, where she took up skiing and dirndls. After divorcing the Count she moved back to the United States and after two more husbands, divorced and gave it all up and settled down for the simple life in Taos. It’s amazing to note that despite a lifetime plagued by illness, many celebrated men were attracted to Millicent not only for her intellect but bounders captured her heart and her cash. A flirtation with the future Duke of Windsor, Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond were among her diversions as well as an early adventure with an heir to the Italian throne, who reportedly wanted to marry her. Evfer the amoureuse, of all her lovers Millicent seems to have had a poignant memory of a romance with Clark Gable and wrote letters to the movie star attesting to her lost love.
Millicent Rogers died quite young, a mere 51 years old, but the life of this society swan and her upbringing at Black Point, Southampton, where she learned to shoot with her father Harry Rogers II, brought out an independent streak that served her well during her life so short but vibrantly enacted. She crammed her days with learning, creating, collecting and championing the arts and crafts of the American Southwest and creating and producing her own brand of Southwest-inspired jewelry. Despite her many illnesses Millicent’s remarkable spirit, determination, creativity and her unwavering hold on taking life to its fullest capacity is an inspiration.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Dear Ms. Johnson: I applaud your life of amazing achievement. As wife of the late John H. Johnson, publisher and chairman of Johnson Publishing Company, Inc. you partnered in 1945 by naming the company’s flagship magazine geared to black readers, by calling it "Ebony,"after the fine-grain dark wood. It remains the world’s most popular Black-oriented magazine in which you also wrote a special fashion feature. However, imprinted in my memory is the fact that you produced and directed the iconic Ebony Fashion Fair, a traveling fashion show that set the pace for black fashion for half a century. I bow with admiration to your powerful persona and also to you as a leading lady, as a businesswoman and as a philanthropist, and a visionary who also created the Fashion Fair cosmetics a leading product line for women of color.
As a member of the fashion press I had the opportunity to observe firsthand the Ebony Fashion Fair, which was usually held on Sunday afternoons, and how lovely a scene did the audience portray. Dressed in their Sunday best, hats and gloves the ladies arrived fully expecting to view an extravaganza the likes of which had never been presented to the black community before. The exciting fashion show made over 175 cities during its annual tour of the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean. From the start the tours aim was to bring attention to aspiring young black designers, including Leonora Levon, Quinton de’ Alexander and L’Amour, and to present the best of the haute couture to the black community. Over the years the fair focused on charity and raised more than $55 million for both local and national charitable organizations, civil rights groups, hospitals, community centers and scholarships. Your vision and your largesse make you Royal Celebrity in the annals of fashion history.
It is a known fact that the Ebony Fashion Fair traveling runway shows are credited with launching the careers of many African-American models and most importantly, changing perceptions of minorities in fashion. Statuesque African-American models like Pat Cleveland, Tyra Banks and Naomi Campbell, Iman and Beverly Johnson have graced those runways. When Mrs. Johnson was in Paris attending the couture shows to purchase fashions for the Fashion Fair shows, she even convinced Valentino to use black models in his shows in the 60s. Using the power of her prestige and deep pockets she threatened that if he could not find black models, she’d get some for him. Then she added, “And if you can’t use them we’re not going to buy from you anymore.” Obviously that was before he was famous. According to Johnson Publishing Co., the Ebony Fashion Fair has produced more than 4,000 shows and continues today to fulfill its role model for black women worldwide.
One day when I was covering the couture fashion shows in Paris as a journalist for WWD, I was on my way to the Yves St. Laurent show and bumped into Audrey Smaltz, who was working on the shows and assisting Mrs. Johnson. Audrey recalled how Mrs. Johnson traveled to the fashion capitals of the world including Paris, Milan, Rome, London, New York and Los Angeles to personally select and purchase more than 200 garments by internationally acclaimed designers and couture houses to be featured in the shows and for which she spent over $1 million annually. Resistance by the couture to sell to Mrs. Johnson soon vanished when they realized her considerable influence and buying power. Mrs. Johnson began producing the shows in 1963 and it rapidly become the most talked-about fashion event across the United States.
Something else seriously concerned Mrs. Johnson. She noticed that the Ebony Fashion Fair models were struggling unsuccessfully to find cosmetics in shades that matched their deeper skin tones. It gave her the idea of starting, in 1973, Fashion Fair Cosmetics, a prestige line that African-American women could buy, for the first time, in major retail department stores. The first lady of cosmetics for black women revolutionized the cosmetic industry and due to the growing popularity of Fashion Fair Cosmetics influenced firms like Revlon to produce a line called Polished Ambers for black skins, Avon followed and so did Max Factor. Fashion Fair cosmetics for women of color is sold in nearly 1,000 stores across the United States, Africa, the Caribbean, France, England, Canada, Switzerland and other foreign countries.
Eunice Walker was born in Salem, Alabama on April 4, 1916. As a youngster growing up in Selma Eunice was always fascinated by style and clothing. Not only did she make clothing for her dolls but it was her physician father, Dr. Nathaniel D. Walker who took the greatest pride in the shirts that she made even working the button holes by hand. It’s no wonder therefore that Eunice earned her high school degree in sewing and tailoring at the high school at Selma University. She graduated from Talladega College in Talladega, Alabama in 1938 with a degree in sociology and earned a master’s degree in social work from Loyola University in Chicago in 1941. She met John H. Johnson at a dance in Chicago in 1940, and they married after she graduated from Loyola. Throughout her lifetime Eunice Johnson has received numerous awards and among the Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters conferred on her by institutions of higher learning Talladega College is prominent among them, renaming its Division of Social Services and Education in her name and inducting Johnson into the university’s prestigious hall of fame.
It is no surprise that a planned event was scheduled to honor Eunice Johnson. As reported in Women’s Wear Daily, the trade fashion bible of the industry, the “FAIR WELL” event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Temple of Dendur was a luncheon planned for months in advance to honor Eunice W. Johnson. The event, however, took on an added poignancy when the famed philanthropist, co-founder of Ebony magazine and the Ebony Fashion Fair passed away on Jan 3, 2010 at the age of 93. The event became a celebration of a life’s achievement and a tribute to the Mrs. Johnson. Pat Cleveland recalled, “I met Mrs. Johnson when I was 14. She put me in her fashion fair.” Accolades poured in and most notably was a letter from President Obama, in which he paid tribute to Johnson’s legacy. “As a philanthropist and entrepreneur, Eunice wrote a chapter in history.” And so we must say goodbye and Fair Thee Well for you deserve the praise of the angels and paid homage by the world that has lost one of its most amazing women.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


by Polly Guerin
Dear Ms. Sendler: I address you so formally out of great respect and profound admiration for an amazing woman who saved 2,500 Jewish children during World War II by smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto and providing them with false documents and sheltering them in individual and group children’s homes outside the Ghetto. One wonders how such a woman, the Mother of All Mothers, had the courage to perform this delicate and difficult work right under the surveillance of the Germans. Alas that is a story that deserves further exploration and with your permission I will tell how she evolved and became a national heroine.
Early on Irena, nee Krzyzanowska, (2.15.1910-5.12.2008), commonly referred to as Irena Sendlerowa, from early childhood sympathized with Jews. A Polish catholic she had reason to align herself with the Jewish community. Familiarity and acquaintance with Jews were a household occurrence. It was the practice of her physician father to regularly treat Jewish patients, but unfortunately he died from typhus, which he had contracted from one them. That however, did not diminish Irena’s rally cause. Later on it was evident that this spirited young woman would show strengths of character that was etched in her upbringing. Once in her lifetime she said, “You cannot separate people based on race or religion.” As a student she opposed the ghetto-bench system that existed in prewar Polish universities and as a result she was suspended from Warsaw University for three years.
It was very risky to aid Jews. A Nazi German poster of the era in German and Polish (Warsaw, 1942) threatened death to any Pole who aided Jews. It was a dire time. An unbelievable period of horror in the annals of wartime history. Not only the rescuer, but all household members’ risked death if they were found to be hiding Jews, but that did not deter Irena. As early as 1939 while working for urban Social Welfare departments during the German occupation of Poland, Irena began aiding Jews. Assisted by some two dozen helpers, she and her team created over 3,000 false documents to help Jewish families aided and abetted by the Zegota, the Polish resistance organization which nominated her by her cover name “Jolanta” to head its children’s section.
This brave young woman, a beauty by classic standards, was about to fulfill her calling that paved the way to rescue countless children. Fortunately, the Nazis feared the spread of typhus, which they suspected came from the Ghetto and this threat opened the way for Irena to openly enter the Ghetto, as an employee of the Social Welfare Department. As a result she had a special permit to frequently go to the Ghetto to check for signs of typhus. To show her solidarity with the Jewish people, however, during these visits she wore a Star of David so as not to call attention to herself. You can imagine how difficult it must have been to smuggle children out of the ghetto or for the Jewish parents to part with their children. Because of her cover as a social worker she organized the smuggling of Jewish children out of the Ghetto carrying them in boxes, suitcases and on trolleys. She smuggled out babies and small children in ambulances and trams, sometimes disguising them as packages.
The children were provided with false documents and sheltered in individual and group children’s homes outside the Ghetto. Some children were placed with Polish families, the Warsaw orphanage of the Sisters of the Family of Mary, or Roman Catholic convents such as the Little Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary Conceived Immaculate at Turkowice and Chotomow, and in some cases left in the care of priests in parish rectories. Irena had a clever plan and managed to conceive a unique method of documenting the children’s identities and concealing the information from the Nazis. She hid lists of the children’s names in jars, which she buried in the ground, in order to keep track of their original and new identities. In an effort to comfort the children she assured them that, when the war was over, they would be returned to their Jewish relatives. It was an honorable dream and for some of the child survivors though they most likely were not reunited with their families (most perished in the Treblinka concentration camp) this information would be invaluable to re-establishing their Jewish identity.
The Nazis were on to Irena’s trail of deception and in 1943, she was arrested by the Gestapo, severely tortured and sentenced to death. It’s a wonder that she survived such brutal treatment as during the interrogation both her arms and legs had been broken. Zegota, the Polish underground, did not desert their comrade. They saved her by bribing German guards and on the way to her execution they left her in the woods, unconscious and near death. After her rescue and for the remainder of the war, she lived in hiding but was listed on public bulletin boards as among those who had been executed. Perhaps it was her youthfulness and healthy countenance that helped her to heal during this time, but Irena’s reserve was strong and her seclusion did not stop her work for the Jewish children. After the war she dug up the jars containing the children’s identities and attempted to find the children and return them to their parents. Sadly this rarely happened. However, in 2005 when Irena was 95 years old she was visited by some of the children she had saved. Her mantra was clear and simple, “You cannot separate people based on their race or religion. You can only separate people by good and evil. The good will always triumph.”
Although Irena was modest about her role during the war the world was beginning to recognize her finest achievement. In 2003 Pope John II sent a personal letter praising her wartime effort and on October 10th, 2003 she received the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest civilian decoration, and the Jan Karski Award “For Courage and Heart,” given the American Center of Polish Culture in Washington, D. C. The fact that she was not awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 did not daunt the righteous woman. In a letter addressing the Polish Parliament she said, “Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory.” In May 2009, Irena Sendler was posthumously granted the Audrey Hepburn Humanitarian Award, named in honor of the late actress and UNICEF ambassador.
It is poignant to know that children were the inspiration for Irena’s story gaining worldwide recognition. In 1999 young students in Kansas were so take up with Irena Sendler’s story that they wrote a play called, Life in a Jar, (after her hiding place for documents). Since 2009 there has been over 285 performances of this play which brought the media attention that made Irena Sendler a world-famous icon. He story based on this play was also portrayed in a Hallmark hall of Fame production in 2009. The cast visited Sendler in Warsaw a week before her death. Her final words to them were, “You have changed Poland, you have changed the United States, you have changed the world (by bringing my story to light). Poland has seen great changes in Holocaust education, in the perception of the time and have provided a grand hero for their country and the world. I love you very, very much.” A documentary film by American filmmaker Mary Skinner, “Irena Sendler, In the name of Their Mothers” is planned for worldwide release in 2010. http://www.irenasendlerfilm.com .
And now it is time to say goodbye to dear Irena Sendler whose life is etched in the collective memory of children of the Warsaw Ghetto who were saved by her intervention through love and humanitarianism. You have set an exemplary example of extraordinary courage and noble spirit that inspires and makes us look in awe upon your finest achievement as the amazing woman who rescued over 2,500 children.