Betsy von Furstenberg, Baroness and Versatile Actress, Dies at 83
By Sam Roberts New York Times 4/29/2015
Betsy von Furstenberg, a glamorous German-born baroness who made her debut in the movies and on the Broadway stage in the early 1950s as a teenager and later reinvented herself as a television actress, writer and philanthropist, died on April 21 at her home in Manhattan. She was 83.
The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, said her son, Glyn Vincent.
Born in a castle in Westphalia, Ms. von Furstenberg left Germany with her parents for New York before World War II. She was tutored by the choreographer Anton Dolin when she was 4 and performed with American Ballet Theater when she was 7.
While attending the Hewitt School in Manhattan, she began modeling at 14 and embarked with her mother on a globe-girdling career that led to a role in an Italian film called “Women Without Names,” about post-World War II internees. That projected her onto the cover of Look magazine, photographed by Stanley Kubrick, for an article titled “Working Debutante.”
In 1951, she made her Broadway debut in Philip Barry’s “Second Threshold,” which earned her a spot on the cover of Life magazine (accompanied by a photograph inside of her stage-door mother) as “the most promising young actress of the year.” Brooks Atkinson wrote in The New York Times, more guardedly, that her part, like those of the rest of the supporting cast, was “agreeably played.”
She went on to star or co-star in “Oh, Men! Oh, Women!,” “The Chalk Garden,” “Nature’s Way,” “Mary, Mary” and, in 1970, Neil Simon’s “The Gingerbread Lady,” for which Walter Kerr of The Times lauded her “brusque, dry, exquisitely enameled performance as a fading beauty.”
Ms. von Furstenberg also appeared on television, on “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Have Gun Will Travel” and “Playhouse 90,” among other series; on variety shows like Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town” and “The Johnny Carson Show”; and on the soap opera “As the World Turns.”
“She often played mischievous, flirty or rebellious young women,” her son said, “and was noted in the society columns for her naughty behavior offstage as well.”
Elizabeth Caroline Maria Agatha Felicitas Therese Freiin von Furstenberg-Hedringen was born in Arnsberg, Germany, near Cologne, on Aug. 16, 1931. Her father, Franz-Egon, was a count. Her mother, the former Elizabeth Foster-Johnson, an American from Memphis whom the count met on a vacation, was devoted to her daughter’s career.
Besides her son, Ms. von Furstenberg is survived by a daughter, Gay Caroline Gerry; two grandchildren; and a half brother, Count Egon von Furstenberg.
She continued to perform onstage into the 1980s and was active in supporting the Theater for the New City and Young Concert Artists.
She also began writing, contributing articles and columns to various publications and, in 1988, publishing a novel, “Mirror, Mirror,” about an heiress who befriends her servant’s daughter and pursues love and ambition among Europe’s glitterati.
In an essay on the front of the Arts & Leisure section of The Times in September 1972, Ms. von Furstenberg wrote that all the world was theater, even for actors offstage.
“For myself, even when I’m working and have an audience to look forward to every night, I still find I perform better at home when there’s an eye preferably approving to mark my progress as a cook, mother, flower arranger, etc.,” she explained.
“One of the most frustrating drawbacks of being an actor-parent,” she wrote, “is to have your children accuse you of acting when you’re being perfectly sincere.”
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