Cherie Burns Goes Diving For Starfish

Cherie Burns and I met for tea one snowy day earlier this month.

Cherie was leaving for NYC the following morning and had a million things on her agenda, but kindly took time out to talk to me about her new book, Diving For Starfish.

As we talked, her husband, Dick Duncan (former Editor in Chief at Time Magazine), came in and was joined by a mutual friend, the artist Jack Smith. Taos is a small town and although Cherie expressed surprise at seeing them there, it didn’t seem in the least bit out of the ordinary to me. The Manzanita Market, which is where we were, is everyone’s favourite new lunch spot in town.

Cherie and her husband had been coming to Taos to ski for many years before moving here in 2004.

“We left New York after Dick retired and moved to Nantucket,” Cherie laughed, “until we realized Taos was where we really wanted to be.”

The very lovely Cherie is as friendly and approachable as she is accomplished – she grew up in Colorado, was an English Major at the University Of Colorado in Boulder before moving to San Francisco in 1975 where she began her career as a journalist. Her work has been featured in The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, People, Us, Glamour, New York Magazine, Sports Illustrated and many other publications.

She is the author of The Great Hurricane: 1938, published by Grove/Atlantic (2005) and Stepmotherhood—How to Survive Without Feeling Frustrated, Left Out or Wicked (Times Books) which has been reprinted by Harper Collins and Three Rivers and has sold over 40,000 copies in the U.S., England and Germany. It has remained in print for 25 years.

Soon after moving to Taos, Cherie found herself spending more and more time at the Millicent Rogers Museum, taking out-of-town visitors, or at events hosted there, and was always moved by the Louise Dahl – Wolfe portrait of Rogers in the Museum’s entry.

“I wanted to know more about her,” she explained, “and once I began looking into her, I realized how emblematic she was of practically every decade of half of the last Century, and no one had told her story.”

Cherie’s book about Millicent, Searching For Beauty – The Life of Millicent Rogers, is the first biography to be written about the Standard Oil heiress and fashion icon, and was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2011.

Millicent Rogers was born with the proverbial silver spoon in her mouth; she grew up in beautiful homes, toured Europe with her family, wore clothing from the Paris Couture and was wooed by handsome and very eligible men. In Searching for Beauty, Cherie Burns chronicles Rogers’s life from her sickly childhood ( she had rheumatic fever) to her debut (as a debutante) and her elopement with a penniless Baron with whom she danced the Tango in European nightclubs to earn money. She soon divorced him after bearing him a son (Peter Salm) and was welcomed back into the bosom of her family by her father who had practically disowned her when she eloped.

She remarried an Argentinian millionaire, Arturo Peralta-Ramos Sr., and had two more sons (Arturo and Paul), another marriage and many more romances, including dalliances with James Bond author, Ian Fleming and the Hollywood actor, Clark Gable.

She adored fashion; her preferred designers included Mainbocher and Schiaparelli but she is best remembered for her unique, collaborative association with the American designer Charles James. She was his muse, appearing in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar wearing his stunning architectural creations, but In the late forties she retreated from the public arena when she moved to Taos.

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Searching For Beauty is a must-read for anyone wishing to know more about Millicent Rogers (one of Taos’ Remarkable Women), most especially her time here. The book was authorized by her son Arturo Peralta-Ramos who passed away a year ago at Turtle Walk,  his mother’s home in Taos. He (and other members of Rogers’ family) were forthcoming with information and helpful in other ways, but Cherie said at a certain point she had to create clear boundaries as a writer.

“After all, it was not his book,” she said laughing,” and he just wanted to control the process.”

I laughed with her because having known Arturo, I could well imagine what it was like to write a book about his mother, with him looking over her shoulder, wanting to control the family legacy. He like his mother, was fiercely independent and strong-willed.

“She absolutely lived by her own lights,” Cherie said when I asked how she felt about Rogers after writing this biography. “She struggled to break away from the milieu she was raised in and sought control of her own life.”

At the book party for Searching For Beauty which was held at Vedura (the jeweler) in NYC, Cherie saw and became intrigued by, the Starfish brooch Millicent wore in the famous portrait taken by John Rawlings reprinted here.

“It was stunningly articulated,” Cherie recalled, ” it appeared so life-like, it was extraordinary and my curiosity was piqued.”

René Boivin’s Starfish brooch of cabochon rubies set amongst pave’ baguettes and faceted amethysts, embodies the aesthetic for which Maison René Boivin is known.

Founded in Paris during the 1890s by René Boivin, the House of Boivin was renowned for their imaginative and extraordinarily made jewels. Their modern, sculptural designs and use of coloured stones set them apart from many other jewelers and remain highly sought after by collectors.

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Some of their most iconic designs were produced between the 30s and 40s under the leadership of René Boivin’s widow, Jeanne Boivin, sister of famous couturier, Paul Poiret. Having had the experience of working alongside her husband, Jeanne together with 3 other designers, Suzanne Belperron, Juliette Moutarde and Germaine Boivin, created some of the firm’s most collectable pieces of jewelery.

Three originals were made and there have been several copied since, but Cherie’s new book, Diving For Starfish (also to be published by St.Martin’s Press in 2017), follows the journey of these original three Starfish brooches from one owner to the next, into the present time.

“One belonged to Claudette Colbert,” Cherie told me, “and Jennifer Tilly has one.”

“They are all in America now.” She said.

Cherie said that writing this book was a very different experience for her, a writer known for her profile pieces, her stories about people.

“This story is told through objects,” she explained. “It has been an interesting adventure, with all sorts of twists and turns and mysteries along the way.”

For designer Juliette Moutard, nature was the ultimate inspiration and she loved the creatures of the sea, most especially the starfish, and this design embodies the natural aesthetic for which Maison René Boivin is known.

Millicent Rogers had a significant influence on both fashion and jewelry design during her lifetime, and her penchant for bold jewelry (including the pieces she designed here in Taos), must have made this a much-loved piece in her personal collection.

Taos and her association with the people she knew and met here, including Mabel Dodge and her husband Tony Luhan, the young Tony Reyna, the artists who came and went, O’Keeffe in Abiquiu, and the land itself, transformed her way of seeing, stripped her of her self-consciousness and her strict discipline.

She relaxed and as she surrounded herself with the Spanish Colonial furniture, Native American textiles, pottery, jewelry, fetishes, baskets, santos, tin and iron work, and art, all of which she passionately collected, her daily uniform became a Navajo blouse, a long broomstick skirt, a shawl and often moccasins or even bare feet.

Sometimes she even wore jeans, as in this great shot of her with her youngest son, Paul Peralta- Ramos, taken at Turtle Walk with her beloved dachshunds. The Starfish brooch was nowhere to be seen and indeed she soon sold it.

Her Mercurial nature had already moved on.

“I think art was her natural expression and Taos really reset her aesthetic – she fell in love with the big sky and the rugged country.” Cherie said as our conversation came to an end and she put on her coat. It was time for her to head back out into the snow to complete her errands, before leaving for the City.

It makes perfect sense that for this writer, Cherie Burns, one story follows the other, with this brooch that has graced the pages of Vogue more than once, adorning Millicent Rogers in one of her most iconic portraits.

For more information about Cherie Burns and her work, please visit her site linked below this post.

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Photograph of Cherie Burns in Taos by Lenny Foster

Portrait of Millicent Rogers at home in New York by John Rawlings

Millicent and Paul in Taos thanks to the late Arturo Peralta-Ramos

Photograph of Boivin Starfish Brooch Getty Images

 

 

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