Designer Von Furstenbergs book peels off labels to examine past

At an Anti-Defamation League luncheon in 1980, Diane Von Furstenberg stood up to receive the Woman of Achievement award.

"Many of you know me because you wear my dresses," said the woman who sold more than 5 million of her signature wrap dresses. "What very few people know is that 18 months before I was born, my mother was in Auschwitz."

Her mother weighed 49 pounds when she was released from Germany's Neustadt-Glewe camp in 1945. With her reparation check from the German government, she bought a sable coat.

Like many children of survivors and like her mother, who had buried her memories and removed her tattoos, Von Furstenberg rarely talked about the Holocaust.

But her mother's nervous breakdown in 1980 — the result of post-Holocaust trauma — and the ADL awards ceremony soon after forced Von Furstenberg to confront the demons. At the ADL luncheon, she broke down and couldn't finish her remarks.

"I became emotional and I don't like to be emotional," Von Furstenberg said in an interview last week in San Francisco to promote her new book, "Diane: A Signature Life."

She later went on to become a fund-raiser for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Becoming identified as the daughter of a survivor "wasn't a new identity. It was a layer of me I was exposing. It hasn't made me more religious."

Still, she grew up with the legacy that "life was a miracle. I am the daughter of a survivor, not a victim.

"I have no memory for pain. What I do realize is I don't accept pain. And when I am in pain, I rearrange it. I look for the little bit of light and live around it."

As a woman in fashion and beauty worlds, the 51-year-old Von Furstenberg has made it her business to look good and live well — achieving fame, and occasionally, notoriety. Last year, after a long hiatus, she returned to retail fashion, with the reissue of her famous wrap.

During last week's visit, she wore an olive leopard-print wrap dress from her new collection, with tall black boots and a necklace of semiprecious stones.

Her book hides neither the angels nor the skeletons. The daughter of a Russian-born father who spent the war in Switzerland and a Greek-born mother, she was born Diane Halfin into an upper-middle class, highly assimilated Jewish household in Brussels, Belgium.

Moving on to boarding schools and universities in Madrid and Geneva, she became part of the '60s Jet Set while still in her teens. In Geneva, she met the prince, officially named Eduard Egon von und zu Furstenberg, who "gave me the children and the name," she writes in her dedication.

Egon also gave her entree to New York's Beautiful People and to European aristocracy, commercial and otherwise. His Italian mother was Clara Agnelli of the Fiat empire. His father, Tassilo, was an Austro-Hungarian prince with a German title.

Diane was 22 and three months pregnant at the time of the wedding. She considered having an abortion, but Egon, who was forging his own career at Chase Manhattan, wouldn't hear of it.

After the wedding, she joined Egon in New York, toting along samples from a collection of knits she'd been developing in Italy.

Within a couple of years, the Von Furstenbergs had two children, Alexandre and Tatiana, and a hedonistic lifestyle that landed them on the cover of Town and Country in 1971 as "the couple who conquered New York."

Five years later, separated from Egon and a fashion tycoon with her name on dresses, eyewear, cosmetics and luggage, Von Furstenberg scored a Newsweek cover.

"I always wanted to be independent, to be free," said Von Furstenberg, who chose to support herself even when she didn't have to. "No matter what happens, the person I rely on the most is me. That has given me a lot of freedom. My mother said that's what the Jewish religion is — you take responsibility for yourself."

Nonetheless, she recognizes that her title and connections made it "easier for a young European to walk into [Vogue editor] Diana Vreeland's office" and display her collection.

In the course of some 26 years, Von Furstenberg has made and lost several businesses and fortunes, moving from fashion into publishing and then back again.

Yet she doesn't really view herself as a fashion person — "I hate the idea that I'm a celebrity designer."

Over the decades, she has also amassed a number of lovers, including Richard Gere and Ryan O'Neal.

She has never remarried.

"Marriage is not a goal for me and never has been," she said. "I like the idea of every day being a choice, yet I won't say never."

Von Furstenberg has lived with several men, including Barry Diller, the former Fox and QVC head who helped Von Furstenberg's fashion career via the home shopping network.

She first became romantically involved with Diller in the '70s, sharing her homes in New York and Connecticut with him before moving on to other relationships. They've remained best friends. Press clippings have referred to the relationship as platonic, a description Von Furstenberg would neither confirm nor deny.

"Barry is like my husband, and yet he isn't," she said. "And the fact that he isn't is important to me…We were very much in love and then it changed, but it's difficult to explain. You cannot explain relationships."

It's also difficult to explain successes and setbacks. Von Furstenberg has had her share of both. At midlife, having survived cancer five years ago, she continues to view life as a gift.

"To me, the great privilege of life is that I can be part of so many worlds, because I'm an eclectic person. I don't like labels, even though that's a stupid thing for me to say. My life is full of contradictions and I love contradictions. Somehow, they are hooked together."

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].