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NEW YORK — So much for retirement, or resting on any laurels.
After a lifetime spent as a highly successful businessman, philanthropist and dedicated wildlife conservationist, Art Ortenberg has morphed into something of a dogged, no-stones-unturned reporter and book author — in his 80s, no less. To hear him tell it, he just couldn’t resist telling his wife’s life story.
This story first appeared in the March 11, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
In his moving new tribute, “Liz Claiborne: The Legend, The Woman” (Taylor Trade Publishing), Ortenberg, who was married to the designer from 1957 until she died from peritoneal carcinoma in 2007, details a life so rich, so peripatetic — and with so many incredible homes in so many incredible places — it’s hard not to think of the couple as the Brangelina of their day. Here they are zipping off to Machu Picchu circa 1989; there they are on safari in Botswana. In one breath, they’re overseeing the construction of a stunning cliffside abode in St. Barth’s, and in the next, they’re hopping on their Gulf Stream en route to one of two vast Montana ranches.
Writing in a decidedly nonlinear fashion, Ortenberg weaves the fun stuff — the traveling, the gorgeous houses, the endless black-tie events honoring their achievements in fashion and conservation — into a somber account of Claiborne’s illness, a rare form of cancer that attacks the lining of the abdomen. With each round of chemo or radiation, readers are looped into the specifics, right down to Claiborne’s post-treatment antigen counts. In short, it’s an emotional roller coaster.
In the first incarnation of the book, which he’d mapped out on his own before showing it to any publishing types, Ortenberg said there was even more cancer-speak. “I thought, ‘Gee, I need an editor,’” he recalled. “And I mailed it to someone who said, ‘The world is not interested in a Ph.D. thesis on gastric problems. I’m interested in you. I’m interested in her. And I’m impressed with what you guys did after you left the company.’ So I started all over again.”
After conducting reams of in-person interviews, Ortenberg’s opus features a massive cast of characters including former staffers, friends, doctors and principal players in the Liz Claiborne Art Ortenberg Foundation, a philanthropic initiative Ortenberg continues to oversee. And he’s doing his bit to get the word out about the book, including blogging on The Huffington Post and grudgingly dipping his toes into social media. “Because my publishers have introduced me to an abomination known as viral marketing,” he said, “I’ve had to get on Facebook.”
Not that Ortenberg isn’t grateful for the opportunity to show the world a 360-degree view of Claiborne, especially if they’re able to draw from her rock-solid will to live. “The determination that Liz showed, the dignity, the lack of fear of death — all of that is so important, because it makes every day of life more genuine,” he said. “What Liz did, and what Liz was, isn’t beyond any of us.”