SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — There are certain phrases one doesn’t expect to hear from the mouth of a high-profile European heiress. “Massages make me nervous” is one of them, and yet there it is, uttered by Katharina Otto-Bernstein, whose family founded the German mail order giant Otto Group. The 38-year-old mother of two also disdains makeup artists “fiddling” with her face and going to the hair salon (no offense to her stylist, Henry).
While most women of a similar ilk say these kinds of things out of false modesty, one can’t help but believe Otto-Bernstein.
“She couldn’t have less patience for anything that has to do with woman stuff,” says her friend Vanessa von Bismarck. “She’s a tomboy.”
Indeed, the buxom blonde looks perfectly at ease sitting on the veranda of the Southampton home she decorated herself, wearing a turquoise cotton T-shirt, no makeup, her wet hair pulled back. She appears much more herself than she did the night before, all gussied up for the Parrish Art Museum’s annual summer party.
Otto-Bernstein cochaired the evening and has been a longtime supporter of the museum, and she is well ensconced in the art scene — her husband, Nathan, is a gallerist, and her sister runs the private Goetz Collection gallery in Munich. Otto-Bernstein is also a filmmaker and this Sunday will screen “Absolute Wilson,” a documentary on Robert Wilson, in Southampton.
She spent nearly seven years trailing the avant-garde artist, who maintains an impossible schedule, jetting from Seville to Milan to Copenhagen to Thailand for his various projects. “There are a lot of shots of him from the back,” she laughs.
The project covers Wilson’s life, including his childhood in Waco, Tex., his work as a “movement” therapist, his attempted suicide and, finally, his present success directing surreal performances all across Europe. “He told me about his muses, who were the deaf-mute child Raymond Andrews and the brain-damaged child Christopher Knowles. What more fascinating muses can you have that aren’t the lover or the mother?” Otto-Bernstein asks. “But I really had no clue what he did in the Sixties, and I also had no idea how walled-off he would be.”
Wilson, 64, was born with a disorder that impaired his speech and development. He also suffered a strained relationship with his father, then the mayor of Waco. “His father was very sporty; he wasn’t sporty at all. His father was a hunter; he loved animals, couldn’t ever pull the trigger. He was sort of everything his father didn’t want in a son,” Otto-Bernstein says. “When you see his work, there’s always the dominant father and the distant child.”
It was a study in contrast to Otto-Bernstein’s own family, a close-knit group of five children. “We’re very intact as a family,” she says. “My father is probably one of the most down-to-earth people I know.” The 97-year-old Werner Otto still treks daily to the office, though her brother Michael has taken over as chief executive officer. It’s clear that workaholism runs in the family. Otto-Bernstein has held a job since she graduated from Columbia University’s film school, including writing a column for German Vogue about life in New York. “I’m a project-driven person,” she says. “I wouldn’t know what to do otherwise with myself.”
Which is to say that she wouldn’t be lunching. “She’s not madly social,” says Debbie Bancroft, godmother to Otto-Bernstein’s young son, Jonathan. “She’s been working on this thing for years, and you can tell. We haven’t seen much of her. She spends her time with real things.”