Triumph or turmoil, Diane von Furstenberg is a friend till the end
by Howard Rosenman
One Sunday morning, in the spring of 1969, Mart Crowley—who penned the play The Boys in the Band—took me to brunch at Egon and Diane von Furstenberg’s spacious apartment on New York’s Upper East Side. The previous evening, Mart and I had been at the Continental Baths, the cutting-edge sexual-entertainment palace (Bette Midler was performing) where you would often run into dashing men about town—both married and, um, “confirmed bachelors”—clad only in little white towels. While we were there, I had a great time with a very handsome Italian-Austrian blond guy. When I walked into the von Furstenberg apartment, who should greet me but this very same man. We looked at each other and burst out laughing.
“Hello, my name is Egon von Furstenberg,” he warmly extended his hand.
“Hi,” I answered, shaking his hand. “Howard Rosenman. It was nice meeting you last night.”
Regardless, Diane and I hit it off from the moment we met. The next day, I sent her a large (and expensive) tree. Diane called to tell me I was the only one who sent a thank-you gift for the brunch. Over the next few years we became very close.
In the late ’70s, whenever I was in New York City, I lived in Diane’s apartment. No one had more fun than Diane. No one enjoyed a joke and no one got the joke more than Diane. No matter where she went, people adored her. Her parties were legendary and always included the moment’s It person.
But her life—and the role her family played in it—was complicated. I came to know the other side of Diane: soulful and a great confidant.
A Friend Always
Thanksgiving, 1985. I’d been through a lot. AIDS had reared its ugly head, and most of my friends were ill, dying or dead. I had given up my wicked ways, was well on the road to recovery and, after a six-year hiatus from filmmaking, had just made my first deal, sober, to produce a movie based on an idea of mine—later called Lost Angels, starring Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys.
But I was broke, and this was one of those short, dark gray Manhattan days. Con Edison had just shut off my electricity. I was living in a building at East 9th Street and Third Avenue. Diane had invited me, as usual, to Thanksgiving at Cloudwalk Farm—acres of trees, streams and woods surrounding an unpretentious century-old main house, near New Milford, Connecticut.
I’d had errands to do that day, and I returned early because I wanted to be home before dark so I could see where all the furniture was and not bump into anything. When I got home, I lay down on the bed as depressed as I’d ever been. The phone rang. It was Diane. “What time are you coming up?”
“I’m not coming. I’m too depressed.”
“Why are you so depressed? You’ve gotten your life together, and you’re about to make a movie. Things look so good for you.”
“But I owe so much, and who knows whether the movie will go or not.”
“How much do you owe?” Diane asked, concerned.
“I’m too ashamed to tell you.”
“No, tell me. How much?”
“One hundred thousand dollars,” I said flatly.
She hung up. After about an hour, I heard the buzzer that indicated someone was at the building’s front door. Then there was a knock. When I opened the door, there was Diane’s driver with a single #10 white envelope. “Ms. von Furstenberg asked me to give this to you and asked that you open it while I wait.”
Perplexed, I opened the envelope. In it was a check for $200,000. On the side, it said in Diane’s handwriting: “Investment in Howard Rosenman Productions.” I was flabbergasted.
“Ms. von Furstenberg asked that I drive you to Cloudwalk. I’ll wait downstairs in the car for you...while you pack.”
Needless to say, it was the best Thanksgiving of my life. Within a couple of years, I had repaid her—with both cash and artwork.
I always remember her answer when I asked why she sent the check: “What is the point of me having money if I cannot enjoy it with my friends?”
A Crisis of Faith
Diane’s late husband, Egon, was Catholic, a German prince descended from Charlemagne himself. His ancestral castle near the German-Swiss border town of Donaueschingen contained the source of the Danube—the font of all Teutonic mythology. By marrying him, Diane received a title: Her Serene Highness the Princess zu Fürstenberg. Their children had titles, too, but she discouraged their use. She relished that her kids were 100 percent American.
I was in Los Angeles on a shoot when Diane called and said, “I have to speak to you. I’m flying out to L.A. Can we have dinner?”
When we sat down to eat, she opened with a familial crisis: “You are so comfortable with your Jewishness. My mother, Lily Nahmias Halfin, is a Sephardic Jew from Salonika, and during World War II, she was in Auschwitz. She has a blue number tattooed on her forearm. My father, Leon Halfin, is an Ashkenazi Jew from Kishinev. I’ve never discussed this with anyone, but I’d like you to teach me about Judaism.”
If we had been close before, from that moment, this princess and I became bonded in a soulful relationship that has lasted these 40 years, connected by mutual pride and love for our roots.
I was in Los Angeles in November of 1980, when Diane called to make sure I was coming to Thanksgiving. She was distraught. Her 10-year-old son, Alexandre, was writing an essay about the role of the Jews during the Second World War.
When I arrived at Cloudwalk, her sensitive son came running up to me. “I’m having trouble understanding something, and my mother thought you could help me.” He opened a book to a picture of his paternal grandfather, Prince Tassilo zu Fürstenberg, with his arm around Adolf Hitler. This was the same man who would not come to his son Egon’s wedding to Diane because he was marrying a Jew. Diane never discussed how she felt about this slight, out of respect and love for Egon, but I’m sure she was deeply affected. If anything, it only made her more resolute to make her relationship with Egon work.
Alexandre looked up at me and said, “My mother’s mother has a number on her arm because she is a Jew, and my grandfather on my father’s side has his arm around Hitler, who caused my grandmother so much pain. I am confused.” My jaw fell slack.
It took a few minutes to formulate a reply: “The fact that the blood of both of these legacies runs through your veins means you will always be reminded of the special responsibility you have to make sure the oppressed are treated fairly and that you, especially, can never forget what happened in Europe between 1933 and 1945. You must always be vigilant and protest and act against evil of any kind.”
Here in front of me was a living example of the existential problem representing the entire 20th century...a walking, living, breathing dialectic come to life. In Diane’s son, I saw the representation in human terms of the extremes of good and evil racing through the veins of the innocent and beautiful young Prince Alexandre von Furstenberg.
It made me think of dialectical dramas I have faced my entire life and the paradox of reconciling the irreconcilable: how to find a middle ground between uncompromising polarities, yet remain true to oneself. I have lived it in being the gay son of Orthodox Jews. Diane, also, has lived with paradoxes as a Jew who married the son of a friend of Hitler.
We are Jewish; the world is, for the most part, not. We both are fun loving, but at our cores, we are very serious people. Diane has gone on to become a respected figure whose influence extends far beyond fashion. She is president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, which tirelessly walks the corridors of Congress to protect and promote American design. She and her now husband, Barry Diller, contribute to causes across the board, including a recent $10 million to the High Line elevated park on New York’s Lower West Side.
A few years later, I was again at Cloudwalk. One of my fellow guests was Clara Agnelli, Egon’s mother, who was married to Count Giovanni Nuvoletti. Clara’s mother was the American heiress Virginia Bourbon del Monte Agnelli, the Princess of San Faustino, and her father, Eduardo Agnelli, was a prominent Italian industrialist and principal family shareholder of Fiat.
I was fascinated to meet this woman who descended from both European nobility and one of the largest commercial dynasties in Europe. Clara was tall, affable, polite to the extreme and elegant in the unaffected way that European nobility hold themselves—noblesse oblige mixed with the je ne sais quoi of people graced with everything they ever wanted. She spoke flawless English, her accent a mix of Italian, upper-class British English, French, German and a dash of North Shore lockjaw.
On Christmas Day, I found myself seated at breakfast with Count and Countess Nuvoletti. The windows were covered in frost, and the white-laced pines were right out of Currier & Ives, the postcard of Americana.
“Good morning. Merry Christmas,” I perkily said in my most Yewlish manner.
After some chitchat, there was a passing reference to the Olympics. The countess offered that she was present at the Berlin Olympiad in 1936—the “Jesse Owens” Olympics, which Hitler’s filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl had made infamous with her cinematic masterpiece Olympia.
I immediately blurted out: “Hitler was there as well.”
“Oh...quite...yes...yes. In fact, we were Adolf’s guests. We sat with him.” Silence.
“What was Hitler like?” I couldn’t help but ask.
“Oh...he was so very, very charming,” she replied, savoring a drag off her cigarette for what seemed like many minutes, “and...so very, very amusing.” The countess let out the smoke. It formed a perfect oval of white as it drifted toward the windows. “You know, not many people are aware Adolf had a highly developed sense of humor, and he loved jokes and gossip of all sorts. Hitler was a highly cultivated man. Very, very cultivated.” She nodded in agreement with herself.
“It is both heavy and absurd,” Diane's look said, “my being a Jew with a mother-in-law who thought Adolf Hitler was charming.”
I looked at Diane as she came in with more food. She replied with a look that spoke volumes, that only I understood: See? See how complicated my family is? It is both heavy and absurd, my being a Jew with a mother-in-law who thought Adolf Hitler was charming. It is, to put it mildly, rather disconcerting.
Hitler, charming?! Hitler, amusing?! Was I really hearing this correctly? Again, my jaw dropped, and I suddenly thought of Hannah Arendt’s essay on the banality of evil. I made an attempt at self-composure, but they must have seen my eyes bulging out, and they must have heard the screeching of all the alarms going off in my brain.
The countess’ transmission of her impressions of Hitler was so quotidian, so matter-of-fact and so without affect that one couldn’t fault her for her remembrance of the experience. But it made a very powerful impression on me, and I never got it out of my mind. The languid way in which she had told the story was in such sharp contrast to the experiences of the suffering both Diane and I had heard throughout our adolescent years from different members of our families. Whoa!
But Diane’s natural sophistication and respect for her mother-in-law made sure the breakfast was full of light chitchat and gossip—the picture book of familial love. Still, she kept looking at me, letting me know she was acutely aware of the complexity of her life and that she would ride out, in control, its paradox. At one point, she whispered in French, holding my arm with one hand, her other arm around Alexandre, with Tatiana in her lap: “La vie n’est pas simple...eh?” When we said goodbye, I went over to the countess and doubly air-kissed the cheeks of the woman who had doubly air-kissed the cheeks of Adolf Hitler, führer of the Third Reich.
In navigating these very complicated waters, Diane has remained a loyal and loving daughter-in-law. But living well, as the cliché goes, is the best revenge. I think her unassailably and incontrovertibly wonderful Jewish and American grandchildren are her response to the Clara Agnellis and the Prince Tassilo zu Fürstenbergs of her life. DVF always has the last laugh.