Sincerest thanks to Marie for sending in this moving article.
After five decades of high drama, Diane Von Furstenberg tells all-almost-in a new memoir
The voice purring through the phone line belongs to Diane Von Furstenberg, and it's a sound of pure feminity-accented by Europe and money and, on this day, perhaps a little morphine. She is calling from her hospital bed in New Jersey, where she was taken after smashing up a BMW convertible belonging to her constant companion, Barry Diller. Of course, this being the grand DVF, she wasn't driving just anywhere, she was on her way to Diller's private jet, which was set to whisk her to Alaska for the weekend.
While talking to an employee on the phone, she took the highway turn-off too sharply, skidded into a truck and ended up with 18 stitches to her head, four or five broken ribs and what she calls "a tiny, little hole in my lung, which is mending." Doctors put her on oxygen, know to impart a healthy glow. "Tell everyone I'm fine," she says cheerfully. "I just have a few broken bones-and beautiful skin."
Von Furstenberg's skin has been on her mind of late. She has always looked older than her age and claims she never minded. At 51, however, despite the fact that those extraordinary cheekbones are still holding everything up, she made a round of appointments with plastic surgeons to talk about a facelift. But she didn't relish the idea of voluntarily going under the knife. "And the healing, I mean, you swell for about a year," she says. "Well, who has a year? Who knows what happens in a year?"
In her case, plenty. In the past year, Von Furstenberg has overseen the reintroduction of the legendary wrap dress she invented in 1973 and has readied her memoir for publication this month. Diane: A Signature Life (Simon & Schuster) is chock full of the ingredients that make for bestsellers, although usually of the fictional variety: a mother who survived Auschwitz; an early love affair with a female school friend; a wedding to a prince (albeit while three months pregnant); an ambition that built a business empire, watched it crumble and set out to build it again. And, finally, a bout with cancer. Then there's the sprinkling of men-from strays she picked up at Studio 54 to her dalliances with Ryan O'Neal and Richard Gere and her string of serious relationships, the longest of them with Diller.
On a warm evening shortly before her accident, a barefoot and tanned Von Furstenberg stretches out on a sofa in her West Village headquarters to talk about her memoir, which makes her both excited and insecure. From the 1970s dress ads featuring her own face to the current TV-shopping spots in which she hawks her Silk Assets line to the masses-and in the countless press stories in between-the public Von Furstenberg and the private one have always been a little hard to distinguish. Still, the book has made her feel somewhat vulnerable.
"We're all very strange with our feelings in my family," she says. "I am extremely private. I never tell anybody anything." Diane, though, tells all-or almost. She shows restraint in dishing scores of rich and fabulous friends, but even her daughter, Tatiana, says she found the memoir revealing. "There's tons of stuff in there I had no idea about," she says, explaining she didn't know the extent of her grandmother's nervous breakdown several years ago or of her mother's professional struggle. "It's really personal-I think she dug really deep."
The book begins, oddly enough, with a dedication to Von Furstenberg's ex-husband, Egon, "who gave me the children and the name." She doesn't pretend that the name-and the title of princess that came with it-didn't give her a certain mystique here in America. But her ambitions were more than social. Von Furstenberg was determined to become a business powerhouse, financially independent from her husband. In 1970, when her company consisted of nothing more than a suitcase full of dresses, the new princess managed to snag an appointment with the eminent Diana Vreeland at Vogue. "Most fairy tales end with the girl marrying the prince," she says. "Mine started there."
Diane and Egon met as teenagers in a Geneva nightclub in the mid-Sixties. Born in Belgium, Diane had been sent to boarding school by her upper-middle-class Jewish family, and she'd already been introduced to the junior jet set. But she was particularly fascinated by Egon, whose centuries-old title was fortified by his mother's much newer Agnelli fortune. One day she sneaked a look at his passport. "I wanted to see whether it was written that he was a prince," she remembers, "because I had never really met a prince before."
Later, the 22-year-old Von Furstenberg telegrammed Egon in code indicating she was pregnant and planning to have an abortion. Egon immediately telegrammed back instructing her to plan a wedding instead. His mother, Clara Agnelli, was in favor of the union, but Egon's German relatives were horrified he was marrying a Jew. His father, Tassilo, agreed to attend the ceremony but not the reception; he spent those hours in the company of a girl Egon sent to his hotel room. (In later years, after stores had sold more than $1 billion of DVF merchandise, Diane says, his family came to accept her as 'the smart Jew.")
The newly weds settled in New York, where Alexandre was born in 1970, Tatiana a year later. "I was so young when I had my children, I didn't even have time to wish for them," she says. "They were already here. I didn't want them to infringe on my freedom."
The children lived with their nanny in a separate apartment for a time while Von Furstenberg focused on her fledgling business by day and went out with Egon at night. The young, beautiful, aristocratic couple was straight A-list in New York society. A 1973 New Yorker magazine cover story examined their lifestyle in excruciating detail: Egon nonchalantly confessed to infidelities and menage a trois with another woman, and Diane remarked that after marriage, sex is about as exciting as "when your left hand touches your right."
"I certainly was leading a very frivolous life," she says now. "When I read that, I realized I didn't want to be part of that couple." Egon moved out shortly thereafter, and Von Furstenberg credits their split with making her a more attentive mother. Today she says she is very close to her children as well as to Alex's wife, Alexandra, the youngest daughter of duty-free billionaire Robert Miller and now creative director at her mother-in-law's company.
Von Furstenberg also remains remarkably close to Egon. They both describe their relationship as that of brother and sister. For his part, Egon says, "She's my favorite person in the world, my best friend, and she's been the best mother to my children." He still gives her a gift every year on their anniversary, and they spend Christmas together like a family. "I worked hard at saving that relationship," she says. "I could have made it go sour."
The same could be said for the other men in her life, virtually all of whom get the glamour treatment in her memoir. It's important to Von Furstenberg that when love affairs die, friendships don't. Asked why, she stops to think. "Maybe it's perverse," she says. "Maybe it's because I'm a narcissist, and I don't like to be forgotten."
There was Paulo, the bearded Brazilian she met on the beach in Bali, followed by Alain, the Italian novelist who lured her to Paris and convinced her to trade in her spiked heels for flats. Diller has outlasted them all. The relationship turned platonic long ago, by 23 years after they met, the two still talk on the phone five or six times a day. Although she is coy about her other romantic interests, she makes one thing clear: "He's really my husband. I share my life with him."
Likewise, Diller thinks of her as his wife. "These appellations are legal and official," he says. "It doesn't matter because it's how we conduct our lives." Diller, now chairman and ceo of USA Networks, still "has more leverage than anyone," Von Furstenberg says. It's also difficult for men who try. "They feel small next to him," she says.
The romances serve as a colorful backdrop to what is otherwise a business memoir. Diane chronicles Von Furstenberg's meteoric rise in her 20s, as she peddled the ubiquitous wrap dress and built a monumental licensing business well before that notion was standard. The book also details the decline of the DVF empire in the Eighties and her determination in the Nineties to rebuild it.
In another blurring of the public and the private, it was a business lunch with Ralph Lauren that she credits with saving her life. Lauren revealed that he'd been diagnosed with a benign brain tumor the year before. Realizing that she had similar symptoms, Von Furstenberg hightailed it to a doctor, who found cancer at the base of her tongue and in her soft palate. Von Furstenberg underwent radiation, insisting on going to her daily treatments alone. "There's not a day that you don't think about it," she says, "but then again, I always thought I did pay a lot of respect to life, so I didn't think I needed to be reminded."
Von Furstenberg says the experience has made her life richer. By way of explanation, she offers a story about her mother, Lily. On the long train ride to a concentration camp, Lily grew attached to an older woman. At the camp, guards forced them into two separate lines: Lily was with the young, healthy prisoners, while the older woman was sent directly to the gas chamber. Lily, although traumatized, survived. "Something that's bad you've got to turn into a positive," Von Furstenberg says. "Any humiliation, any frustration, any disappointment, any negative thing that has happened. You don't indulge in unhappiness. You find a little light and build around the light."