VIVA LA VICKI
By Nicole Crews
PHOTOGRAPHY PROVIDED BY THE MILLS FAMILY
By Nicole Crews
PHOTOGRAPHY PROVIDED BY THE MILLS FAMILY
IN DEATH AS IN LIFE, Victoria K. Mills was dressed to the nines for her swan song.
The reigning sparkle queen of Lake Forest for nearly 50 years orchestrated her exodus from this world on January 23 with the same grace, kindness, and Southern charm that she bestowed upon all who knew her.
“She always wore Angel Eau de Parfum by Thierry Mugler or Joy,” says Susan Jasper, one of her besties, “but she’d throw a little dime store perfume in there from time to time and people thought it was from the finest perfumier in France.”
Jasper says this is a typical juxtaposition from the woman who could wield a golf ball-sized diamond on her petite frame and pair it with a piece she bought for ten bucks in Chicago’s Koreatown.
“Vicki had her own style, so she became her own designer. She would take off the rack dresses and suits and embellish them with lace, embroidery, feathers, fur, and crystals,” explains Jasper, who met Vicki in 1977 when they both moved to Lake Forest. “She customized everything because she couldn’t find what she wanted in stores. The exception to that was Moschino—whom she adored for his whimsy.”
“Mom never met a crystal she didn’t like,” says Margueritte Jackson, Vicki’s eldest daughter, who recalls how accepting her mother was of her tomboy, sweatshirt ways. “She always said, ‘Just be authentically yourself and be happy!’ so I became a Boy Scout Leader and left the fashion bonding to he and (my sister) Deidre.”
Jasper laughs about the same disparity of dress at their first meeting at a Lake Forest Welcome Wagon society luncheon.
“Here I am in a turtleneck and tweed and this vision of big hair and sparkles trots across the room and says to me, ‘Are you the girl who is in charge of the Disco Club? I think we should do it together!’,” she says. “So, we left and went to Morton’s bar and that is how the Napkin Club started.”
The Napkin Club, as Jasper tells it, began with the planning of a disco party with the details inscribed on, you guessed it, bar napkins. It progressed to weekly Monday night meetings at Vicki’s, where the girls—an ever-expanding group— would meet and plan weekly and monthly events, still literally taking notes on Vicki’s bar napkins.
“We called Vicki ‘The Dog Pound’ because she picked up every stray. Eventually, there were about 30 of us if you include husbands,” she laughs.
Including husbands was a top priority for Vicki. She felt she hit the jackpot when, in 1973, she met and married the love of her life, Jim Mills—founder of Medline Industries. Jim adored Vicki and told her she was beautiful every day. He even hid a gift for her each day, calling himself the “Good Fairy.”
“Mom was the last of the great hostesses,” says Jackson, “She entertained Dad’s businesspeople constantly and she made it all a fairy tale. I think at last count, 8,000 Medline customers spent the night at the house.”
Vicki’s devotion to Jim helped him grow his business into the successful, nationally known medical supply company. Jackson says that when Jim started Medline, “it was going upstairs” but Vicki “turned it into an escalator” with her corporate hostess mastermind. Jim’s son, Charlie, brought it to its elevator status. (Medline, now based in Northfield, reported $21.4 billion in sales in 2022. Charlie has been CEO since 1997.)
This half-century of business entertainment, friendships, parties, pranks, and kindnesses are the stuff of legend.
“Everyone had different themes and seasonal events, but Mom’s extravaganzas were the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve,” says Diedre Grubb, Vicki’s (now California- based) youngest daughter, a faithful partner in crime when it came time to dress up and party. “There’s a photo of Vicki getting nuns to play liar’s poker.”
Jasper loves to tell the story of Jim hiring a guy for a party to arrive in a trench coat with a briefcase with a million dollars in it handcuffed to his wrist as a gift for Vicki.
“It was wild! Jim and Vicki were the Gatsbys of the ‘70s and ‘80s and their generosity and kindness was infectious,” she adds.
Vicki’s friends say she wouldn’t let them be sad or speak bad A young Vicki Mills around them. Any time they were down, they would say “Get on the Vicki train!” Every day of the week was a fabulous and off-the-rails ride for Vicki, her friends and family— and anyone else she picked up along the way. She had dinner and lunch plans in constant rollicking rotation. This made life with Vicki magical, and every moment was celebrated with pomp and circumstance.
Vicki’s story began in Roanoke, Virginia, with her parents Adolph and Ruth Krisch. She was a wild child with a taste for adventure— including sneaking her parents’ car out for joy rides and corrupting her younger cousin, Freddie, by having him put drinks in his mailbox before she hit dances at Virginia Military Institute.
She was summarily sent to boarding school after these stunts, but never finished high school or attended college. Vicki was too busy schooling the world around her in how to live!
Cousins from Roanoke were an important part of her life. Vicki had reunions over the last 30 years at her Lake Forest home. She was the glue-on glitter that held the family together.
The home itself is a Georgian Colonial manse built by architect Henry Ives Cobb, renowned for many of Chicago and Lake Forest’s stately homes.
When it was originally erected in 1895, the Mills mansion, known as Pembroke Lodge, was on a larger piece of ground that included what’s now Deer Path Middle School and several other houses.
When Vicki got her hands on it in the ‘70s, she began her own embellishments to the interior that veer between tasteful, neutral formal rooms and explosions of primary colors that rival the Vegas Strip circa 1980. In fact, the primary suite is modeled after Caesar’s Palace with finishes in black, white, and gold, statuary and columns.
Today, the 15,000-square-foot-plus estate (which is set to go on the market) includes seven bedrooms, eight full bathrooms, three half-baths, four fireplaces, a swimming pool, an English garden with historic statues and pool house, as well as a six-car garage and hidden panels whose secrets may never come to light.
The mansion was a true showplace for Vicki. She had her own gift of collecting objet d’art from the sublime to the self-described ridiculous. From kitsch to couture, diamonds to dirt-cheap baubles, furniture, accessories, art, and accoutrements spanning the bridge from the iconic to the absurd—Vicki’s procurements were not for the timid.
She was close with the late interior designer Richard Himmel, and “she loved everything that he did,” says Jackson. “She loved HomeGoods just as much as she liked the (Merchandise) Mart.”
Vicki’s wardrobe amassed an airplane-hanger-sized room in the Lake Forest home with spillage into every closet in the multiple bedroom home. In fact, her Moschino collection was curated into an exhibit at the Mint Museum of Craft & Design in Charlotte, North Carolina, where her daughter Deidre lived for many years.
Her 100-plus collection of Judith Leiber bejeweled bags led to a long friendship with Judith and her husband Gus. Vicki’s closet was even the inspiration for a fashion column called “Walk-In Closet” that ran in a regional magazine for 10 years.
Vicki was always the belle of the ball, but never failed to make her guests, employees, and everyone around her feel special and appreciated with gifts, tokens of appreciation, and an inherent and genuine warmth.
“Mom gave to people—not just charities. It gave her exceptional pleasure to give people money—even total strangers,” says Grubb. “She put her signature Vicki heart on all of her gifts.”
“Those hearts are all over the city,” says Jasper. “The valets at the Deerpath Inn and the waiters at E.J.’s plastered them all over their stations because she was constantly tipping them 20s and 50s that she kept in her bustier!”
Rick Esp, who tended the Mills’ property and lives for about 23 years says they treated him like one of their children.
“They even threw me a wedding! Jim said, ‘if you want me to attend you are going to have to do it here,” he says. “And that’s just how they were— generous.”
Esp, who was privy to the details of the fetes orchestrated by Vicki, loves to tell the story of how Inglenook Chablis was Vicki’s drink of choice for 30 years (it was on tap at the bar), and when the family went on vacation to France, Jim spent a small fortune importing cheap California Chablis to French wine country.
“She was a woman who could have anything she wanted, and she really loved a Big Mac,” says Esp. “We would take the Rolls through the drive through at McDonalds once a week!”
He says the couple would also be in black tie regularly attending charity events, hosting parties, and seeing friends. “They lived life fully.”
Grubb loves to share the couple’s famous exodus.
“Every night at the end of an event, Jimmy would say to Vicki, ‘Say goodnight, Vicki’ and she would say ‘Goodnight Vicki’ and that would mean it was time to go.”
So, goodnight Vicki—planet Earth will be boring as hell and considerably less sparkly without you.