As one of the supermodels of the Swinging Sixties, she was described as “the most beautiful woman in the world” by the photographer Richard Avedon. But it was only by stepping down from the catwalk and exploring the world as an actor and artist that Vera von Lehndorff-Steinort’s journey to contentment was completed.
Photography by Just Loomis | Styling by Dee Moran | Words by Daniel Marzona translated by Mitch Cohen.
It’s now almost 20 years since I got to know Vera von Lehndorff-Steinort, not as the formerly famous iconic model Veruschka, but as an artist whose works immediately seemed significant and that we soon after exhibited at New York’s PS1, the gallery now affiliated with MoMA. We talked about her childhood and the events that, in a certain way, left her mother and three sisters, Nona, Gabriele and Catharina, without a home at an early age. Her father, Heinrich Graf, was a member of the resistance against Hitler and played an important part in the desperate Operation Valkyrie.
After this failed assassination attempt on Hitler, he tried to escape his tormentors twice but was seized and executed on September 4, 1944. The family was then arrested under the theory of “kin liability”. Her mother, Gottliebe, and other relatives were briefly imprisoned and Catharina was born in jail. Uprooted, they moved from place to place. In fact, Vera describes the last recollection of her father as follows: “I remember being five years old – he brought us to the station and I saw his face pressed to the window of the slowly departing train – his eyes fixed on us, as if he knew he would never see us again.”
“In the studio, Dali completely lathered me up with shaving cream„
The loss of her father was traumatic, crucially shaping Vera’s personality and influencing her development. Childhood memories of her father evoke her earliest feelings of tenderness – how he carried the little girl around the lake or through the park in his arms. In the postwar years, any remarks about the circumstances of his death were taboo. Vera was 14 before her mother spoke to her about it. Gottliebe took care of the practical side of life as best she could, but her pain in the years after her husband’s death was simply too great for her to find the strength to provide her children with a feeling of security.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that Germany was not immediately de-Nazified after the Second World War. As late as the 1950s, many considered Vera and her siblings the children of a criminal and a traitor to the nation. A schoolteacher scolded her in front of the whole class for being “the daughter of a murderer”. When she complained to her mother, Gottliebe merely replied that their father was no murderer but a hero. The frequent relocations of this fatherless remnant of a family contributed greatly to Vera’s feelings of homelessness and, in the end, probably led to a rather nomadic lifestyle.
When I suggest that maybe her propensity to reject a single compulsory identity and to keep reinventing herself over all these years could be based on these early childhood experiences, she laughs and rejects the idea. If there is a constant in her life, then it must be the search for ways to express her inner experience without taking a detour through language.
Her restless childhood ended with her enrolment at the College of Design in Hamburg at the end of the 1950s. “It was fantastic! For an entire semester I made one drawing of a stone,” she raves. That must have been rather boring, I suggest. “No, not at all. I learned to see and to observe – discovering, day by day, the smallest details I had never noticed before. It was a trip into the microcosm of a stone.”
“I was a pretty cog in the machinery of the fashion business and didn’t even notice it at the time.”
For two happy years, she was able to study painting and then, suddenly, she was supposed to restrict herself to textile design. The prospect of a lifetime of tablecloths, curtains and patterned wallpaper didn’t seem so fantastic. So she did what any young girl with a developing wanderlust would do: she ran away to Florence. The light and joie de vivre in Italy made for an intoxicating contrast to the sense of depression permeating postwar Germany. In Florence, Ugo Mulas, an art photographer, unlocked the door for her to a world that had nothing to do with reality – “Photographing clothing that no one wears,” she explains. “I was a pretty cog in the machinery of the fashion business and didn’t even notice it at the time.”
“A body does not have to be only a clothes rack, it can also be an instrument of metamorphosis or a painter’s canvas„
With this new sphere opening up to her, in 1961 Vera packed her bags again and traveled to New York for the first time. “Eat only hard-boiled eggs and never take a taxi – walk always!” was the first thing she was told when she signed up with the modeling agency Ford. “A long-armed stick figure, I was too fat for them,” she recalls. But the city and its atmosphere captivated her immediately. Although her first stay there came with little success and she had to return to Europe, the newbie model liked this fresh adventure.
Things in America were more liberal, without Germany’s gloominess and its “philosophical flatulence”, as Vera puts it. After just one year away, she flew back to New York and it was then that Veruschka was born, walking the streets of the city like a cat in slow motion. Somehow she managed to entice Diana Vreeland, editor-in-chief of American Vogue, to work with her. Her first cover photos for the magazine were shot by the legendary Irving Penn and Bert Stern.
This article is an extract taken from Issue 1 of THE FALL which is available to purchase in the UK and Europe now and will be on sale in the US on October 26th.
Hair and make-up Saskia Krause at Basics Berlin, using Oribe and Und Gretel | Photographer’s assistant Nicole Segel | Stylist’s assistants Erica Parks and Jam Evaristo-Asuncion | Location Volksbühne theatre, Berlin.