Navigate to Community section

The 22 Most Jaw-Dropping Tidbits in Diane Von Furstenberg ’s New Memoir

The fashion designer’s name-dropping autobiography ‘The Woman I Wanted to Be’ is fascinating, inspiring, and troubling

Marjorie Ingall
November 07, 2014
(Thomas Whiteside)
(Thomas Whiteside)

The Woman I Wanted To Be, the new autobiography by Jewish fashion designer Diane Von Furstenberg, is a frustrating read. It skips back and forth confusingly in time, its accounting of partygoers and acquaintances and celebrity facialists gets wearying, and it feels emotionally withholding—elusive, oddly perky, skimming lightly over conflict and sorrow. But Von Furstenberg has led a fascinating life. So here, extracted, filtered, and condensed for your reading pleasure, are the book’s most interesting moments.

1: Von Furstenberg’s mother, Lily Nahmias, survived 13 months in the Auschwitz and Ravensbruck concentration camps. When she was liberated, she weighed just 59 pounds. “I didn’t know, as a very little girl in Brussels, why my mother had two lines of blue tattooed numbers on her left arm,” Von Furstenberg (or her amanuensis, Linda Bird Francke) writes. “I remember thinking they were some sort of decoration and wished I had them, too, so my arms wouldn’t look so plain.”

2: In 1944, Lily was 20 and engaged to Von Furstenberg’s father, Leon Halfin, when the SS arrested her for working in the Belgian Resistance. She was living in a safe house, riding around Brussels on her bike delivering documents and fake papers. On her way from Flanders prison to Auschwitz, she addressed a note to her own parents on a scrap of paper and tossed it from the truck. Von Furstenberg found it in a cache of family photos after her mother’s death. It read:

Dear Mommy and Daddy,

I am writing to tell you that your little Lily is leaving. Where, she does not know, but God is everywhere isn’t he? So she will never be alone or unhappy.

I want you both to be courageous and not forget that you have to be in good health for my wedding. I am counting more than ever on having a beautiful ceremony.

I want you to know that I am leaving with a smile, I promise. I love you very very much and will soon kiss you more than ever.

Your little daughter,

“This explains who I am,” Von Furstenberg tells herself in the book (at her house on Harbour Island in the Bahamas, where she’s just discovered the note). “I am the daughter of a woman who went to the concentration camps with a smile.” (Indeed, this explains quite a bit about the bewildering tone of the memoir.)

3: Von Furstenberg writes that Lily spent four days in a cattle car, in which she befriended an older woman. When they arrived at Auschwitz, Lily tried to follow the old woman into the left-hand line but was yanked out and sent to the right by Josef Mengele himself. She was given prisoner number 5199.

4: Von Furstenberg’s father was a successful Jewish businessman from Kishinev, a distributor of semiconductors for G.E. (Her mother’s family, Sephardim originally from Salonika, spoke Ladino at home.) Leon fled to Switzerland in 1942. If there were any issues with him escaping the Holocaust and her going to the camps, the book does not share them. The two were reunited in 1945, when he came back to Brussels.

5: Von Furstenberg was accidentally conceived six months after the marriage, after Lily’s doctor had said the couple shouldn’t have a baby because of Lily’s fragile health. Leon and Lily tried to “get rid of the pregnancy by taking long rides on his motorcycle over the cobblestoned streets,” but it didn’t work. “Finally one morning my father brought home some pills to induce a miscarriage. My mother threw those pills out the window.” (How did her father feel? How did Von Furstenberg feel upon learning this story? Who knows?)

6: The book describes Lily as upbeat and loving, but the depictions of her behavior seem downright abusive. “I remember how she amused herself by telling me that I was an abandoned child she had found in the garbage,” Von Furstenberg writes. “I would cry until she took me in her arms, consoling me. She wanted me to be strong and not be afraid.” Lily resolved to cure her young daughter’s fear of the dark by shutting her in a dark closet. Von Furstenberg casually notes, “I have long suspected that if I hadn’t been born, my mother might have killed herself.”

7: Diane sometimes came home from school to find her mother weeping in the dark. But when asked about the camps, Lily spoke only of “the friendships, the laughter, the will to go back home and the dreams of spaghetti.”

8: At 22, Diane was engaged to Egon Von Furstenberg, a German prince descended from Charlemagne. Did the daughter of a survivor have any ambivalence—or for that matter, any sense of irony—about marrying German nobility? Unclear. Like her mother, Von Furstenberg accidentally became pregnant. She “wanted to be an independent woman,” and she didn’t want anyone to think she’d entrapped Egon, so she secretly went to Geneva for an abortion. Her mother ordered her to discuss the matter with her fiancé, who was in Hong Kong at the time. She sent a telegram. He telegrammed back that he still wanted to wed.

9: At the reception, her father embarrassed her by singing loudly in Russian and breaking glasses. Her new father-in-law wasn’t there. He’d boycotted the event because “Jewish blood in the family was unheard of, and there was opposition.” (Note the lack of pronouns.) Not in the book: Von Furstenberg’s friend, writer Howard Rosenman, wrote a piece about Egon and Diane’s 10-year-old son finding a photo of his grandfather posing with Hitler: “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.’ ” (So Von Furstenberg never discussed family history with her kids? How can this be?) Egon’s mother told Rosenman that Hitler was “so very, very charming” and “so very, very amusing.”

10: Von Furstenberg is mum on the widely discussed sexuality of her two husbands. Egon told New York magazine that he was openly bisexual, but Von Furstenberg says she and Egon were naively “acting cool” with a “pretend decadent life” for the press; she blames the magazine for destroying her marriage. Barry Diller, Von Furstenberg’s current husband, is also widely believed to be gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

11: Von Furstenberg went into the beauty business in 1975 because then-boyfriend Ryan O’Neal was a jerk to her about possessing so much makeup.

12: On Jan. 28, 1976, Von Furstenberg was on a flight to Cleveland for a personal appearance, seated next to a businessman who asked condescendingly, “What’s a pretty girl like you doing reading the Wall Street Journal?” She heroically refrained from showing him her picture on the front page.

13: By 1978, the clothing business was in trouble. Von Furstenberg writes that her lawyer, accountant, and advisers hadn’t listened to her about the need to diversify beyond wrap dresses. As the business tanked, her original investor, Angelo Ferretti, had Roy Cohn send her a threatening letter. Von Furstenberg called Cohn and screamed, “With all the things I know about Ferretti, I don’t think you want to go after me!” He didn’t. We never find out what she had on Ferretti.

14: In the early ’80s, her boyfriend Alain Elkann, an Italian Jewish intellectual and journalist, made her wear flats. And tweed. The relationship was doomed.

15: Her daughter Tatiana (her fragrance’s namesake) was in perpetual pain from a genetic disorder; when Tatiana was a teenager a doctor finally made a diagnosis and demanded, “Why didn’t your mother know this before?” Von Furstenberg writes that Tatiana had never complained. “I discovered that, just as I hadn’t wanted to upset my mother, she didn’t want to worry me when she was growing up.” Von Furstenberg adds, “I wish she had told me. But maybe she did and I just did not hear it.” Von Furstenberg shares the story of a note Tatiana had written her when she was very little, one she’d saved because she thought it was “so sweet.” It said, “Mommy, you really know nothing about me.” Von Furstenberg says she feels terrible now, knowing that “neither she nor I understood that it was a cry for help.” Oy.

16: Her companies have been through several iterations of success and failure. Mostly this is the fault of others, though she does note that she has a history of failing to read financial statements or make business plans.

17: In 2006, Von Furstenberg was elected president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, a trade organization. It was a time in which several fashion models died of anorexia. “I had no personal experience with eating disorders for myself or my daughter or anyone close to me,” Von Furstenberg notes, wide-eyed. “So I was puzzled at first when I was told that the fashion industry was complicit in the rise of eating disorders.” (I am puzzled that someone who’d been in fashion for over 30 years was blindsided.) Under Von Furstenberg, the CDFA instituted guidelines for its members (models had to be at least 16 and healthy) that one might argue are unenforced and unenforceable. “Health is beauty. Beauty is health,” Von Furstenberg concludes with solipsistic satisfaction.

18: She has worked numerous times with noted horrible scumbag Terry Richardson. She mentions that she has known him since he was a toddler. She does not mention the dozens of sexual abuse allegations.

19: In 2009, Michelle Obama wore Von Furstenberg’s first print (a black-and-white chain link), reissued in a slightly larger scale, on the official White House Christmas card.

20: At a Sun Valley Conference in 2013, Google’s Sergey Brin called to Von Furstenberg “from where he was hiding behind a tree.” He didn’t want to be seen because he was wearing Google Glass, which was still a secret. She debuted the product at her next fashion show, over the objections of her design and PR teams.

21: 2014 marks the 40th anniversary of Von Furstenberg’s iconic wrap dress. (I have owned three. Alas, at size 18, I am now too fat to wear them. Von Furstenberg doesn’t do plus-size. She used to—after her first two iterations of her brand tanked and she started to design for QVC and The Home Shopping Network, owned by husband Barry Diller—but no more. Larger sizes are downmarket.) In 40 years, Von Furstenberg has made 15,000 prints! She’s celebrating not only with her memoir, but also with Journey of a Dress, a $75 coffee table book from Rizzoli, and House of Von Furstenberg, a reality show on E! about 10 young women competing to be the “global Von Furstenberg brand ambassador.”

22: She has a Jack Russell puppy named Evita.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.