A Mermaid’s Tale: Tatiana von Fürstenberg At Home in Provincetown

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by Steve Desroches

It’s a grey morning in mid-June, but Provincetown Harbor is still impossibly gorgeous. The view from Tatiana von Fürstenberg’s home is framed in such a way it looks like a painting, perhaps one done by one of the many artists who have come to Provincetown. It’s easy to see why the natural beauty and dramatic maritime vistas still conjure the muse in so many who visit and live here. But it’s not just how beautiful the town is that inspires imagination and creativity; it’s the spirit, too. As von Fürstenberg heads toward the kitchen to make morning coffee, she turns her head back for another look at the harbor, smiles, and then continues on.

The ocean is a comfort to von Fürstenberg. She doesn’t just feel at home by it, but in it. Having had a genetic muscular disease her whole life, but one that wasn’t identified until she was an adult, von Fürstenberg feels safe and free when she takes a swim in the harbor. When she was a child there was a portrait in her elementary school of a mermaid on a beach, alone, looking at a seaside village where the townspeople had gathered to celebrate. The mermaid’s expression was one of longing to be a part of the joy she was observing from afar. Having an undiagnosed disability, people often came to conclusions about her that weren’t true. And she found herself apologizing over and over again for something she couldn’t change. It made her question whether she deserved love. And being the daughter of famed fashion designer Diane von Fürstenberg and Prince Egon von Fürstenberg, himself a fashion designer and a descendent of a German aristocratic family, further clouded the picture of her authentic self.

“There were assumptions about me that had nothing to do with me at all,” says von Fürstenberg.

Communicating effectively and with self-love about her disability was incredibly freeing, and was really akin to a coming-out experience, she says. That experience of coming to full self-acceptance is a major theme in her new book My Sunburned Summer, a semi-autobiographical graphic novel set in 1987 in a seaside resort over a season that is a composite of events in von Fürstenberg’s life. The story follows 14-year-old Augusta who is on vacation with her brother and their wild and promiscuous gay father. As her sibling learns the truth about their father the family breaks apart as they each explore shame and identity, eventually reconciling and forming a stronger bond than ever before. “Shame dies when we tell our stories,” says von Fürstenberg.

She is a natural born storyteller who has explored various methods of narrative, including filmmaking and screenwriting, acting, art curation, as well as fronting the band Playdate she formed with friends from her days at Brown University. And now she returns to the written word in a book illustrated by Jessika Wood that is receiving its national launch at a special event at East End Books this Thursday, where limited edition, signed volumes will be available for sale. She’ll also read some of her work.

“I literally went through as if I was editing a film,” says von Fürstenberg of the book. “It was totally cinematic.”

As she sips coffee, sitting on a yellow cushioned bench at the end of the kitchen table it’s clear that von Fürstenberg has a cinematic mind with brushes of poetry as she talks about the previous owner of her home, who made it famous in Provincetown, Norman Mailer. When she first entered the East End house that was home to the literary giant and wife Norris, von Fürstenberg noticed his bedroom had been moved into a converted mudroom as he approached the end of his life, making it easier to care for him. She felt a tinge of empathy and an affection for this very human element of a man that had in life already become mythologized. It made her feel at home. And while she’s now made the home her own, both with a gorgeous design makeover as well as with her own spirit, she kept the bar that overlooks the harbor, which she affectionately calls “Normie’s,” an in-home hangout for neighbors and friends to toast to the larger-than-life character.

Much like Mailer, von Fürstenberg fell for Provincetown upon introduction. She first visited in 2010 when Tanner Hall, a film she co-wrote and directed, was in the Provincetown International Film Festival. She recalls seeing the Provincetown skyline for the first time as she was heading into town with her film’s star Rooney Mara and her creative collaborator Francesca Gregorini. The trio gasped and during their entire stay they felt the magic of Provincetown. And not long later von Fürstenberg came back to the Outer Cape to take a workshop at the Gestalt International Study Center in Wellfleet, and on a lark decided to look at what is now her home. It was then she felt like the mermaid in the painting she’d meditate on as a child, except now she was part of the village’s celebration.

“It’s refreshing to me to be in a place where people can be themselves,” says von Fürstenberg. “That is so liberated. There’s so much freedom. And such a quality of expression. Creativity and nature. To find the level of creativity here and be able to be around nature as well is hard to find. I’m so fortunate and grateful as I don’t want a city life. This is how I want to live.”

The My Sunburned Summer book event with Tatiana von Fürstenberg is on Friday, June 24 at 6 p.m. at East End Books Ptown, 389 Commercial St. Admission is $5. The event will also be broadcast via Zoom. To register for either the live or virtual event visit eastendbooksptown.com. For more information call 508.413.3225.