Dodie Rosekrans's Couture Life
This supreme style arbiter proved that fabulous fashion is eternal.
It's hard to get noticed at the restaurant Le Voltaire in Paris. But for the late San Francisco doyenne Dodie Rosekrans, it was as simple as child's play and just as fun. One instance among many: an evening in the late 1990s when she swept in on the arm of her devoted husband, John, wearing an explosion of feathers that nearly swallowed up her tiny five-foot frame. It was a couture creation aptly dubbed the Firebird by its designer, Jean Paul Gaultier.
"People were climbing on banquettes to get a better look," says friend and decorator Hutton Wilkinson. "Of course, I have no idea how she ate, since the feathers stuck out eight inches past her fingers."
But practicality was beside the point. Every day was theater for Rosekrans, who passed away in November at the age of 91. Designers like Gaultier and Christian Lacroix mourned the death of a client who was as likely to be found in their couture as Comme des Garçons. For John Galliano, whose first couture sale was to Rosekrans, the loss cut deep.
"Honestly, without her patronage and encouragement, I would not be where I am today," he says. "Dodie was a true original. ... She opened doors for me to a kingdom beyond my wildest dreams, and just like a fairy godmother she not only invited me in, she gave me the keys."
Rosekrans's homes in San Francisco, Paris, and Venice, Picassos hung near Chinese screens and 18th-century Mughal embroideries. The closets teemed with Cristóbal Balenciaga, Norman Norell, and Yves Saint Laurent. Meanwhile, she worked her Rolodex to raise millions for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and received France's Légion d'Honneur for her cultural contributions, one of which was the gift of a Tom Sachs Chanel-logoed sculpture to Paris's Centre Pompidou. "She marched to her own drummer," says Wilkinson.
Rosekrans was born Georgette Naify. (Dodie was a nickname.) Her father, Michael, founded a chain of movie theaters. After the untimely death of her first husband, Edward Topham Jr., in 1957, she married John Rosekrans, the catch of San Francisco. Friends noted that she was his foil, a sparkling sprite next to the tall ex-rugby player, and that he loved every minute of her wondrous whimsy until he passed away in 2001. Thus, he showered her with gifts. "One day, John walked in and said, 'I'll take all the rubies,'" recalls Wilkinson, then working with legendary jeweler and decorator Tony Duquette.
"John encouraged her to take risks. He hated the mundane," says Jill D'Alessandro, textiles curator at the Fine Arts Museums. Boring she was not, and neither were her parties. She invited 350 to fete the opening of her Venetian palazzo, and to celebrate a granddaughter's debut in 1996, she recast San Francisco's Legion of Honor museum as mythical Arabia.
"My mother was simply born with a restless, inquisitive eye that knew what it liked or disliked the minute she saw it," says her son Ned Topham. "Much has been said about her originality and style. But she always seemed surprised when someone would ask her about it." What Rosekrans will be remembered for most is her sense of adventure. There was little she refused to do, except wear vintage, even from her own sensational archive. "If an old lady shows up in old clothes," she once said, "she just looks old."
Described by design expert Diane Dorrans Saeks as “the most beautiful house in San Francisco,” 2840 Broadway closed escrow on August 4, 2011, after national speculation about potential buyers for the property.
Discretion prevents us from naming the price or the buyer , but as the wife is a nationally known tastemaker (featured in Vogue), one can expect this already treasured but aged property to again be taken to the highest level of design.
Diane Saeks wrote extensively about the home when it was owned by Mr. and Mrs. John Rosekrans Jr., including it in a beautifully photographed chapter of her book “San Francisco: A Certain Style,” a book you simply have to get for your library if you haven’t yet done so.
The home was built in 1916 by Willis Jefferson Polk for the family of Andrew Welch, Jr., an heir to one of California’s most substantial fortunes, with its origins in shipping. He and wife Julia Welch were often featured in the Chronicle’s society column, and socialized with leading families of San Francisco such as the de Youngs, and the Tobins. Mrs. Welch enjoyed entertaining, and even had a dinner party for 30 in which all the guests were masked. As Diane notes, the couple used “wit and imagination” in their hiring of Polk, and indeed seemed to have had a great sense of style.
Following Mrs. Welch’s passing, the home was willed to the Archdiocese, and was kept as the Archbishop’s mansion for 40 years, until it was purchased by the Rosekrans family in 1979 for $1.6 million.
Following Dodie Rosekrans’ passing last year, the home now welcomes yet another family of impeccable taste and connoisseurship, who will undoubtedly assure that it celebrates its 100th anniversary as gloriously as its first, a landmark of San Francisco design at its finest.