Book review – Ira. The Life and Times of a Princess

Years ago, when neither the Duchess of Sussex, nor the Duchess of Cambridge were dominating the royal world, and even their mother-in-law Princess Diana was still to be born, a very young European Princess caught the attention of the media worldwide. Younger royalty watchers might not know the name anymore of Princess Ira von Fürstenberg, who will turn 80 next year, but the elder ones certainly will. For many years she dominated the fashion and society pages in magazines. I remember discovering her in the French magazine Point de Vue in the 1990s. The website of the publisher, HarperCollins, says:

A breathtakingly beautiful photo-narrative biography of the incredible life of Princess Ira von Fürstenberg – half Austro-Hungarian Princess, half Agnelli: model, actress, princess, socialite, heiress, mother, and jewellery designer.

Bursting onto front-page news in 1955 at the age of 15 in a jewel-laden gondola-wedding in the last great assembly of European nobility, Princess Ira von Fürstenberg swung into the spotlight and has never left.

Subject for master photographers Cecil Beaton and Helmut Newton, among others, actress alongside Klaus Kinski and Peter Lawford, and model for Vogue’s Diana Vreeland, Princess Ira has been an actress, model, muse, mother, socialite, jewellery designer, and creator of objets d’art. On and off screen, in and out of the flashbulb, Ira’s life – or, more accurately, lives – reads like a history of the jet set.

More than just a chronicle of a gorgeously fascinating life, this lavish photographic biography is a truly sumptuous snapshot of the glamour and charm of a lost era, a prism through which to see the world of European royalty, Italian cinema in its heyday, couture at most haute, and parties at their wildest.

The book presentation of “Ira. The Life and Times of a Princess” by Nicholas Foulkes was held at Sotheby’s in London on 17 June 2019. Princess Ira herself was of course present and was also very much involved in the creation of the book. It is a rather heavy coffee table book, hardcover, that comes with its own slipcase. Both linen covers are in a grey colour, the slipcase being a much lighter grey than the book. The cover of the book only shows the name “Ira”, printed in gold, and a gorgeous photo of her. On the side the name of the author and the full title of the book show up in gold, as well as the name and logo of the publisher. The back side of the book shows – again in gold – one very short quote: ‘No other aristocrate has yet accommodated himself or herself as well to their own time as Princess Ira von Fürstenberg. She has the total courage of her modernity’. The pages inside are mainly white and are of a very good quality.

For who doesn’t know her, who is Ira? Upon birth at 18 April 1940 in Rome, Italy, the firstborn child of Prince Tassilo zu Fürstenberg (1903-1989) and his first wife Clara Agnelli (1920-2016) received the names Virginia Carolina Theresa Pancrazia Galinda, who for short was called Ira. Her father’s family lived in castles in Germany and Austria and was one of German’s mediatized families. Her mother was a daughter of Edoardo Agnelli – a son of the founder of Fiat Automobiles Giovanni Agnelli – and his wife Donna Virginia Bourbon del Monte, who came from an Italian princely family. In 1946 she had a baby brother, Egon, and in 1950 Sebastian was born.

The book is almost written like a fairytale and starts with two pages of text in gold telling the rather dramatic event that happened on 3 August 1954, and led to the engagement of Ira and Prince Alfonso zu Hohenlohe-Langenburg – who at the time was 30 years old – on the same day. Despite of being only 14 years old and hardly knowing him, Ira accepted his proposal by cable. While her friends at finishing school prepared for their coming out in the society, Ira had something else to prepare for: her wedding. Although as she says herself, at the time it was not done being a woman and still not be married at 30. There were some worries, but clearly not too much, despite of her parents not having a happy marriage by that time.

After a short overview of her family and her life until 1954/55, the first part of the book, 1955-1963, really starts of with the wedding of Alfonso and Ira in September 1955 in Venice, Italy, when Ira was 15 years old. Her age and being a beautiful young princess of course caught the attraction of the media. The spectacle even made the cover of LIFE magazine and was front page news all over the world. After the honeymoon and her introduction into a flamboyant world  it was soon time for another role. Ira at 16 became a mother to Christoph, and had her second son Hubertus two years later. She is totally honest in the book: being a mother was difficult that young, and she admits that she wasn’t a very good mother.

Her marriage soon turned out to be an unhappy one. Alfonso was always away and at 18 his lonely wife had her first affair. At the age of 19, early 1960, Ira’s marriage was over. They divorced in the same year. While Ira fell in love with Francisco Pignatari, whom she married in 1961 in Reno, years of custody battles started and for years Ira seems to have hardly seen her children. Only years later her relationship with Alfonso got better again. In the autumn of 1963 however also Pignatari left her, and her second divorce followed in 1964. Ira would never marry again, although she was very popular with men and had a few serious relationships.

Here the second part of the book starts: 1964-present. Although having been a bikini model for Emilio Pucci, a family friend, at the age of 13, Ira’s life only turned into that direction again when she met Diana Vreeland, the editor of Vogue. Her debute shoot was for Vogue in 1967, and since she was photographed by many top photographers. Vreeland mentions Ira the most modern aristocrat she has ever met. After having met with the director Dino de Laurentiis in 1966 a year later she also became a film star, her first film being Matchless. Until 1982 she would play in about 30 films and tv-series. Among her co-stars were Klaus Kinski and Geraldine Chaplin.

In the late 1970s Ira seems to have become more settled, although she always kept on travelling. She worked for a cosmetics company, was the president of the perfume company of Valentino, did the PR of a gallery. It was not until 1987 that she really appeared back on the front pages, when she supposedly was in a relationship with Prince Rainier of Monaco and many expected them to get married. There is a whole chapter dedicated to this time. After having worked a bit as a journalist in the 1990s, in 1997 she discovered her true profession. She has become an artist and designer, creating exquisite artworks using semi-precious stones inspired by her travels. For decades nothing could hold her attention, but this until now has. She regularly exhibits her work. Rather little is told about Ira’s later years, which I find a bit of a pity.

Ira surrounded by Michael Berger-Sandhofer (Sotheby’s), Luigi Bonomi (agent), Nicholas Foulkes (author) and Charlie Redmayne (HarperCollins) at the book presentation. Copyright: Bizzy Arnott / HarperCollins

Ira’s life reads like a rollercoaster sometimes. She has met the most fascinating people of the times, like Salvador Dali, Frank Sinatra, and many, many others. One gets a bit of an idea what society and jet set life was like, especially in the 1950s and 1960s. She also lived all over the world, from Italy to Mexico, London and Paris. But life hasn’t always been easy for her. She has known happiness as well as tragedy. Her mother was an adultress, her own marriages not very happy ones. Furthermore in the early 20th century she lost both her brother Prince Egon and her son Christoph, and also her first husband died. Despite of that she has always been going strong.

The book is rather an extensive portrait than a biography of this colourful princess to my opinion, and is full of amazing photos. It is a good read and has lots of the photos are black and white, while some others are colour pictures. I honestly could have done with more extensive captions, but it is not something that is that disturbing. Nicholas Foulkes has been able to use the archive of Ira herself and has made use of articles in magazines and newspapers. Furthermore he has interviewed her, as well as her good friend and cousin Count Rudolf von Schönburg-Glauchau and several other friends of the Princess.

As I am specialised in nobility and royalty I only thought that someone should have checked the titles better, as sometimes they were just not there, or just in short. They seem to be of minor importance to the writer. At the time of the wedding a Count Strachowitz is mentioned, a Franciscan priest and kinsman of Ira. I assume it should be Strachwitz. And also Aly Khan seems to be Prince Aly Aga Khan. Count Rudolf von Schönburg-Glauchau mostly just appears as Rudi Schönburg. Despite of this tiny remark, I absolutely loved the book.

The book costs £50.00 (or at Amazon $45 at the moment).

All photos were kindly provided to me by HarperCollins

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