Home » Ira von Fürstenberg, Jet-Setting Princess and Actress, Dies at 83

Ira von Fürstenberg, Jet-Setting Princess and Actress, Dies at 83

by Marko Florentino
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Ira von Fürstenberg, who came as close as one can get to having it all as an Italian-born princess descended from Charlemagne, an heiress to the Fiat fortune, a Vogue model, a big-screen ingénue and a globe-trotting bon vivant, died on Feb. 19 at her home in Rome. She was 83.

Her son, Hubertus von Hohenlohe, said she died after breaking ribs and perforating her lungs in a domestic accident.

Blending the gilded privilege of the old-world European aristocracy with the élan of the midcentury film and fashion peerage, Ms. von Fürstenberg seemingly defined the term “jet setter,” bouncing between homes in Rome, London, Paris and Madrid and on Lake Geneva.

“My only real home is on airplanes,” she said. “I spend so much time going from country to country that my children suspect that I’m really a flight attendant.”

She shared a surname with the renowned fashion designer Diane von Fürstenberg, who married the princess’s fashion designer brother, Egon, in 1969. “When I first met Egon, she was the famous sister,” Diane told Women’s Wear Daily last month. “She had gotten married in Venice and was a movie star.”

The princess flaunted both noble lineage and seemingly inexhaustible wealth from her mother, Clara, who was a granddaughter of Giovanni Agnelli, who founded Fiat, and a sister of Gianni Agnelli, the dashing Fiat chief.

Her home in Paris was even fitted with solid gold bath taps, because, as she once put it, “everybody has to see something beautiful in the morning in order to have a good day.”

Even so, Ms. von Fürstenberg was anything but content to settle into a life of pampered indolence.

In her many careers, she posed for fashion shoots with luminary photographers like Irving Penn and Helmut Newton; walked the runway wearing a Mondrian dress by Yves Saint Laurent; appeared in films with the actors Peter Lawford and Donald Pleasence; served as an executive for Valentino; and later became an artist herself, exhibiting in museums decorative objects fashioned from bronze, rock crystal and semiprecious stones.

Fame came early to Ms. von Fürstenberg. At 15, she made headlines on both sides of the Atlantic when she married the Spanish-born prince and playboy Alfonso Hohenlohe-Langenburg, affectionately known as the King of Clubs for his work founding the Marbella Club, a haven for stars and socialites, on Spain’s Costa del Sol.

Because of her young age she needed a special dispensation from Pope Pius XII to marry the prince, who was 31, yet there was little, if any, sniff of scandal. In fact, she appeared on the cover of Life on Oct. 17, 1955, for what the magazine deemed “the wedding of the year.”

“All the elements of a medieval romance were present for the wedding — the tapestried palaces, the tiaraed ladies, the gifts of costly silver and priceless jewels,” the magazine reported.

Accompanying photos showed the princess in a lace bridal gown, laughing joyously alongside the neatly mustached groom as they led a flotilla of more than 100 decorated gondolas through the canals of Venice. The celebration lasted more than two weeks, luring 400 European aristocrats.

Their union yielded glittering parties around the world and mingling among the fashion and art elite, including Salvador Dalí — who asked the newly wedded princess to pose nude, a request that she and her husband quickly rejected. They had two sons, Christoph, who died in Thailand in 2006, and Hubertus, a former Olympic skier for Mexico.

But the good times would not last. In 1960, the couple drew considerably less fawning press when the princess, with her marriage foundering, took up with Francisco Pignatari, known as Baby, a Brazilian industrialist and notorious playboy.

An article in Life that year, headlined “A Princess’s Pretty Pickle,” reported that Ms. von Fürstenberg was “living modestly in a 17-room hotel suite in Mexico City,” where her husband controlled the Volkswagen franchise for the country.

The prince would not go quietly. At 4 a.m. one day, the article continued, police officers banged on the princess’s door to search the suite. (She suspected that the raid had been orchestrated by her husband to sully her name and help him in his custody fight.) To the rescue came Mr. Pignatari, more than 20 years her senior, who was staying a floor above her. He was briefly jailed on charges of adultery, but the charges were quickly dropped for lack of evidence.

As she and Prince Hohenlohe-Langenburg spiraled toward divorce, he at one point absconded with their boys, dressing them in wigs to disguise them as girls. The princess countered with a handsome reward to find them.

However chivalrous Mr. Pignatari’s intentions during the hotel raid, their love did not last, either. The couple married in Reno, Nev., in 1961 and divorced three years later.

“She had got caught up in a man’s world as half a child,” her son Hubertus, who survives her, later said.

Virginia Carolina Theresa Pancrazia Galinda von und zu Fürstenberg was born on April 17, 1940, in Rome. Her father, Prince Tassilo Fürstenberg, traced his lineage to the German House of Fürstenberg; her mother was descended from scions of Italian industry.

During World War II, the family ducked hostilities by moving to Lausanne, Switzerland, before later settling in Venice. Educated at boarding schools in Switzerland and England, the princess was making public appearances by 13, serving as a swimwear model for a family friend, the Italian designer Emilio Pucci. Two years later, the photographer Cecil Beaton captured a portrait of her with flowers in her hair.

After the turmoil of her marriages, Ms. von Fürstenberg met the film producer Dino De Laurentiis on a flight in 1966. Mr. De Laurentiis was intrigued by her potential as an actress and soon had her under contract.

The next year, she co-starred in “Dead Run,” an espionage thriller starring Mr. Lawford, and in the Italian spy spoof “Matchless,” starring Patrick O’Neal and Mr. Pleasence.

Not all critics were charmed by her performance. Howard Thompson wrote in The New York Times, “A real, sure-enough member of royalty from the society columns, Princess Ira Fürstenberg, plays a bland, casually clad femme fatale.”

Undeterred, she went on to make more than two dozen screen appearances into the early 1980s, although she later said that she wished she had been seen as more than a tawny-eyed temptress. “Directors only look at my navel, and producers only look at my name,” she once said.

Her best opportunity at a breakout role, in “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” Franco Zeffirelli’s 1972 epic about St. Francis of Assisi, was snipped from the film’s final cut.

Still, she said in a 2019 interview with Sotheby’s, she had no regrets about her years in film.

“I may not have been that successful,” she said, “but I had a great time with my wonderful partners, and stories of that time are so many that I cannot remember.”

Near the end of her life, Ms. von Fürstenberg looked back with similar fondness toward her time in fashion, mingling with friends like the fashion editor Diana Vreeland and the designer Karl Lagerfeld, who often stayed with her in her Swiss villa.

With her closets full of designer clothes, she never stopped presenting herself in a manner befitting a princess.

As she recalled in a 2019 interview with Vogue: “My father used to say, ‘One must cover oneself.’”

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