Authors: Gioia Diliberto
AFTER GRADUATING FROM STROUD COURT
in 1965 with the equivalent of a high school degree, Diane and her friend Deanna enrolled in a program in Spanish studies at the University of Madrid. They shared a small, dingy room in a convent-like girls’ pension. The city teemed with rioters protesting the repressions of the Franco regime. Diane and Deanna ducked into churches to avoid the street fighting but occasionally got caught in it. Once, a policeman confiscated Diane’s camera and ripped up her film.
Strikes by students frequently shut down the university. Classes were held so infrequently that Diane ended up spending many afternoons at the movies, where she picked up the Spanish she’d intended to learn in school.
In spite of the excitement of the protests and her close relationship with Deanna, Diane was lonely in Spain. The friends “had no social life whatsoever,” Diane recalled. But her life was about to change.
Over a Christmas ski holiday in Gstaad with her mother, Diane ran into her Venezuelan friend, Isabel, from the Pensionnat Cuche. Isabel brought Diane into a lively circle of rich, young sybarites. This was the fringe of the jet set—the term was coined by Igor Cassini, brother of Jackie Kennedy’s couturier Oleg Cassini (themselves descendants of Russian aristocrats) to refer to that collection of film stars, socialites, and European aristocrats “who all seemed to know one another and to be effortlessly beautiful and rich,” as Diane wrote. The pack followed the social seasons from Antibes to Athens to Mykonos to New York and Paris, ending up at Gstaad for the three months of winter. Most of the jet-setters lived on trust funds; few had jobs. Diane saw in this group the perfect antidote to her dull, bourgeois background.
Gstaad was “a gaudy dream of freedom and fun,” wrote Taki Theodoracopulos, one of the chief chroniclers of this world. The fun included moonlit parties at the Eagle Nightclub on the resort’s highest peak; trips on the chairlift up the mountain after dinner and ski runs down by torchlight before dawn; and romantic trysts, some fleeting, some that lasted for a few weeks at best. Diane had an affair with the Venezuelan owner of a shoe business, a man named Vlady Blatnik (not to be confused with the Spanish shoe designer Manolo Blahnik). He gave her a bright green silk Emilio Pucci shirt with black silk pants and black silk boots, her first designer outfit.
This was what it meant to be someone’s mistress—to receive lavish gifts and be treated to dinners at expensive restaurants and nights in five-star hotels. At first it was exciting, but Diane soon realized the role of mistress was a kind of captivity—demeaning and boring—and she would soon tire of it.
Still, the role allowed her to satisfy some of her curiosity about men. Lily had taught her not to be afraid or ashamed of sex, a lesson Diane
took to heart enthusiastically. From the moment of her first affair, with Sohrab at boarding school, sex had a central importance in her life. Over the years, Diane would sleep with many men—“one thing I don’t regret,” she says—and fall in love with a few of them. At times she would find solace in sex and at times be motivated by it. The power of her style would derive from the heat of sex flowing through it. But—with one nearly devastating exception—Diane would never lose herself entirely in a relationship with a man.
fter a few months in Madrid, Diane moved in with her mother and Hans Muller in Geneva. She enrolled in courses at a local secretarial school and at the University of Geneva, but as usual she remained an indifferent student. Once, when her mother and Hans were traveling in South America, she faked an appendicitis attack to avoid exams and convinced a doctor to remove her appendix. Afterward, Diane checked herself into a clinic to recuperate, and she spent most of her time sunning herself in the garden. By the time her mother returned and found out about her operation, “I looked tan and felt great,” Diane wrote in 1998.
She took a part-time job as a receptionist at Investors Overseas Services, the finance company run by Bernie Cornfeld, the Brooklyn-reared, nebbishy hustler who’d built a mutual fund empire that bedeviled market regulators across the globe. Cornfeld had started in the 1950s selling mutual funds to Americans living abroad. He employed ten thousand salesmen in one hundred countries—many of whom had been lured by his trademark pitch: “Do you sincerely want to be rich?”
In 1965, around the time Diane went to work for Cornfeld, the American Securities and Exchange Commission accused him of violating US securities laws, and Cornfeld agreed to get out of the US market and stop selling to Americans, who, in any case, made up a small percentage of his business.
With Cornfeld, Diane saw what it meant to be astoundingly rich. Short, bald, and nasal-voiced, Cornfeld had an unassuming presence that belied his over-the-top lifestyle of sports cars, horses, yachts, houses, parties, and women. He divided his time among a French castle, a mansion in the Belgravia section of London, and a villa in Geneva that had been built by Napoléon. Everywhere he went—even to gray meetings with gray-suited bankers—he was accompanied by a colorful posse of miniskirted young beauties. “Every pretty girl in Geneva worked for Bernie,” Diane said years later.
IOS would go bankrupt in the seventies and Cornfeld would be accused of defrauding his employees by coercing them to buy stock as the company sank. He would spend almost a year in jail, though eventually he would be exonerated of all charges, dying in London in 1995 at sixty-seven. When Diane worked for him, though, Cornfeld was still riding high.
During this time, Diane began hanging out with an international group of young people who were privileged, attractive, and hard-partying. They went to nightclubs several times a week and on the weekends danced all night. Diane’s style in those days tended toward bohemian looks, which fit the louche persona she cultivated: cowboy hats, fingerless gloves with silver bells, peasant blouses, and bell-bottoms. Nona Gordon, a friend who was studying to be a UN interpreter, remembers Diane as “chubbier than she is now, and she wore this awful white lipstick.”
Diane was also “naughty,” says Gordon. She recalls one night at Griffin, a favorite nightclub of the students, when Diane disappeared into the bathroom with Gordon’s beau. When Diane emerged a while later, Gordon slapped her hard across the face. “Diane told me I was completely
crazy, that she hadn’t done anything with my boyfriend,” Gordon recalls. “But I didn’t quite believe her, and to this day we argue about it.”
On another night, at the eighteenth birthday party of a friend at a private home in Lausanne, Diane met a handsome young man with blond curls, mischievous eyes, and a dimpled smile revealing gapped front teeth. He was Egon von Furstenberg, a bona fide prince. His complete name was Eduard Egon Peter Paul Giovanni Prinz zu Furstenberg, and he’d been born on June 29, 1946. His father, Tassilo von Furstenberg, was a direct descendant of Charlemagne, and the family’s castle sat in the German Swiss border town of Donaueschingen, the source of the Danube River. His mother, Clara Agnelli, was the sister of Gianni Agnelli, the chairman of Fiat, and she was herself an heiress to the Fiat fortune founded by her grandfather. She also had some American blood—her grandmother, the American adventuress Jane Campbell, had married a wealthy Italian aristocrat.
Egon had been baptized by the future Pope John XXIII and raised in immense luxury in a Venetian palace. As an infant he’d had a wet nurse; as a child he’d had his own nanny and tutor. At age ten he was sent to Le Rosey, an exclusive boarding school in Geneva from which King Farouk and the shah of Iran also graduated. “I was out of touch with reality,” Egon admitted to a reporter in 1981.
“Egon was beautiful, one of the most ravishing children I’ve ever seen,” recalls the film producer and photographer Countess Marina Cicogna, a friend of the Agnelli family and a granddaughter of politician and businessman Giuseppe Volpi, one of Italy’s wealthiest men. “He had great natural charm as a child and was curious about people, even people who were much older.”
Egon’s looks—a slim, straight body, handsome face, and head of abundant gold curls—derived from his father. From his mother he inherited a love of fashion. Even as a child he was obsessed with clothes. When he was twelve, he told his mother that his chief birthday desire was “to go to Paris to see the Dior collection.” He got his wish.
Egon and his older sister, Ira, “were very spoiled,” says Cicogna, much more so than their younger brother, Sebastian, who was born in 1950 and grew up to be a successful businessman, the founder of the Italian bank IFIS. “I think their mother, Clara, enjoyed having these very beautiful, well-dressed children.” Clothes remained important to Egon and Ira, who as a young woman rarely wore anything but haute couture, even to ski.
The other Agnellis—a family who are to Europe what the Rockefellers are to America—“didn’t spoil their children like that,” adds Cicogna. They insisted their offspring work hard and get good educations. Clara let Egon and Ira “do what they wanted.”
After all, the children’s father, Tassilo, did what
wanted. “My grandfather just wanted to drink and hunt and hang out with his friends,” says Diane and Egon’s son, Alexandre von Furstenberg.
At fifteen, Ira married a man twice her age—the thirty-one-year-old playboy Alfonso of Hohenlohe-Langenburg. The huge, extravagant 1955 wedding included sixteen days of parties attended by four hundred guests and was covered by the press—the first time journalists were allowed to photograph an Agnelli wedding.
Egon had what the writer Stanley Elkin called “oyster-in-an-r-month” instincts, the unerring sense of the über-privileged about such protocols as when in the season to retire your black dinner jacket and start wearing your white one. What’s more, Egon had a sunny temperament that drew people to him. “He was adorable,” says Nona Gordon. “Guileless. He had a heart of gold and was very generous. But he was the most amoral thing I’ve ever come across. He’d fuck anything—boy, girl, whatever.”
At the time Egon and Diane met, he was living in Lausanne and taking an occasional course at the University of Geneva. His main preoccupation, though, was to hang out with his boarding school friends Marc Landeau and Cedric Lopez-Huici, who would eventually graduate with degrees in economics. “Egon wasn’t studying like we were,” recalls Landeau. “That wasn’t his thing.”
DIANE AND EGON BECAME FRIENDS,
but they did not fall immediately in love. To her, he seemed “childish.” To him, she seemed “like a rich girl from upper Scarsdale,” the Westchester County suburb, he later told a reporter for
. “My family had money, but not MONEY,” as his did, Diane said.
“At the time, I don’t think he knew what Scarsdale was,” says Diane. In any case, “he went after me,” she continued. “One reason was because he thought I was well connected” with Geneva’s coolest students.
One afternoon when Egon and Diane took a ski trip together to Megève, an hour and a half outside Geneva, Egon’s car became stuck in the snow, and he trudged off for help. While he was gone, Diane sneaked a peek at his passport. “I wanted to see whether it was written that he was a prince because I had never really met a prince before,” she recalled in 1998. (Egon’s passport held no mention of his title.) Getting the car unstuck turned out to be easy, but Diane had been charmed by Egon’s “helplessness.” Soon afterward, they became lovers on the roll-out bed in Lily and Hans’s apartment. They were nineteen.
Despite Egon’s money and title, his pedigree and connections, Diane was the
force in the relationship. She knew it when she fell in love with him; it was
she fell in love with him
Still, marrying a prince was hitting the jackpot for a European girl. Diane’s best friend, Mireille Dutry, with whom she’d played princess as a child, had already married one, Christian von Hanover. Mireille was just sixteen, the never-before-married prince, forty-three. “He was twenty-seven years older than me, and he had no money,” she recalls. But her bourgeois parents were enthralled by his title and pushed her into the marriage, “
like Marie-Antoinette,” Mireille says.
Mireille kept her head, but it was hardly a fairy-tale match. Immediately after her 1963 wedding, she moved with her husband to a dank, gloomy wreck of a castle in Austria, where she was cut off from friends her own age. She gave birth to two daughters but sank into despair and became addicted to pills. In 1976 she and Hanover were divorced.
Mireille didn’t meet Egon until after he married Diane, “but I knew his father very well,” she says. “I used to see him at balls in Austria. I remember dancing the waltz with him at a hunting dinner, and he could barely stand up, he was so pissed. He was wearing what we call in Germany a hunting tuxedo, a dark green or black typically Bavarian-looking tux for fox-hunting balls. I remember he reeked of alcohol and mothballs. Probably some housekeeper had just taken the tux out of storage where it had been sitting forever.”
IN DECEMBER, EGON TOOK DIANE
to Villa Bella, his mother’s chalet at Cortina d’Ampezzo, where he’d spent every Christmas holiday since childhood, and where, since adolescence, he’d shown up every season with a new girl. “We were all waiting to see the catch of the year,” recalls Mimmo Ferretti, a close friend of Egon’s brother, Sebastian, and the son of the Tuscan factory owner who would later produce Diane’s dresses.
Ferretti and Egon’s other friends were aghast at Egon’s choice. They were used to seeing him with aristocratic blondes. Diane was dark, Jewish, sultry, and exotic. “She was so different from every other person we ever saw him with,” says Ferretti. “She wore theatrical makeup. It wasn’t normal makeup. Purple eye shadow. Dark nail polish.” More shocking, though, Diane returned the next year. “Egon rarely brought the same girl twice,” says Ferretti.
By this time, Diane and Egon were deeply in love, though neither of them felt ready to settle down. Diane moved to Paris and got a job as assistant to the photographer’s agent Albert Koski, a dashing, black-haired Polish native who wore Mao-style tailored suits by Farouche. Koski represented the most celebrated photographers of the day, including David Bailey, Art Kane, and Bill Silano. “At the time photographers would get paid just once, they’d get so much per job, and that was it. My thing was to get them rights every time their work appeared in different magazines or a poster or book. And they all became very rich,” he says.