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Nena Von Schlebrugge: Uma Thurman's Mom And '60s Icon, Then And Now

Icons | January 8, 2021

Model Nena von Schlebrugge wearing a blue suit with three-quarter-length sleeves, gloves and a Persian lamb beret and matching scarf, circa 1961. (Photo by John Rawlings/Conde Nast via Getty Images)

From modeling to Buddhism, Nena Von Schlebrugge’s life has been far from ordinary. It only made sense that she eventually gave birth to actress Uma Thurman (of Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill and Dangerous Liaisons fame). Nena was known for her classy beauty that made for dynamite photographs in the top high-fashion magazines throughout the ‘60s. But when she married Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman, her perspectives changed and led her to a life of peace and happiness she still experiences today.

Nena Was Born Into A High-Class Family

Source: facebook.com/Nena.Von.Schlebrugge.Official

Nena was born as Brigitte Caroline in Mexico City, Mexico in 1941 to a pair of prestigious parents. Her father was German aristocrat Friedrich Karl von Schlebrugge and her mother was Swedish model Brigit Holmqvist. Those close with her family insisted her beauty derived from her mother and her charismatic personality was passed down from her father. Her friends called her by the nickname Nena, the name that would stick with her throughout her entire life and career. After World War II, her family moved back to their mother’s homeland of Sweden, a decision that would change Nena’s life forever.

From 'Unsophisticated' A To Poised Supermodel

Source: facebook.com/Nena.Von.Schlebrugge.Official

Famous Vogue photographer Norman Parkinson decided to take a newer and altogether creepier approach to discover models instead of continuing to find them at high-class parties. He now strove to find young girls, and he started by searching for blonde bombshells in Stockholm, Sweden. This is where he found Nena in 1957, who blew him away with her breathtaking beauty, although she would be considered as having an “unsophisticated” look at the time. Nena was only fourteen at the time. 

Nena Von Schlebrugge Was An 'Ugly Duckling'

Source: facebook.com/Nena.Von.Schlebrugge.Official

"I never thought that I would be a photographic model, at that time, at 14 years I felt like the ugly duckling," Von Schlebrugge told Georgian Journal. She went on:

As it happened one very rainy day my girlfriend and I looked out the school window and saw a family friend under an umbrella outside in the yard , we went down and she told us to come after school to a hotel to meet a famous photographer... so we went there and I remember sitting in a chair and looking up at a very tall man with a mustache. He looked at me and said, 'I’m a photographer at British Vogue.' I said, 'What is Blouge?' Apparently he fell in love that moment... his name was Norman Parkinson.

She Won Vogue's Annual Modeling Competition In 1959

Source: facebook.com/Nena.Von.Schlebrugge.Official

A few years later she moved to London to pursue a modeling career eventually signing with the Ford Modeling Agency who relocated her to New York. She immediately gained massive popularity and worked with Vogue and Harper's Bazaar and photographers that included Bert Stern, William Klein, Helmut Newton, and Richard Avedon. She even won Vogue’s annual modeling competition in 1959. In 1967, she landed a role in Eddie Sedgwick’s film Ciao! Manhattan, but after four years of filming and script rewriting her scene was cut from the final production in 1972. Soon, the “unsophisticated girl” became a world-famous model famous for her elegant and poised appearance.

Models Had To Become Experts In Hair And Makeup As Well

Source: Pinterest

She may have been in the big leagues of fashion modeling, but the industry was much more D.I.Y. back then. She explained to Georgian Journal:

During my seven year career, I did exclusively 'high fashion photography,' as it was called in those days, so I did not have much to do with designers. I would be booked by a magazine or an advertising client and arrive at a photographer’s studio with my heavy big bag full of make up, hair pieces, even high heel shoes! In the early sixties, we models had also to be expert in make up and doing our hair for every shot! I would go to sleep with hair curlers, then wrap a silk scarf around my head in the morning on my way to the studio.

Nena Married The Psychedelic Professor

Timothy Leary. Source: The Psychedelic Master

Nena was known for her polished and classy beauty which attracted artsy and creative people into her life. She was actually turned off by the ultra-chic lifestyle of the designer fashion world and chose to live in New York’s Greenwich Village amongst the poets and musicians. In 1963, she met Timothy Leary who worked with the science of psychedelic drugs and studied the positive effects LSD caused in the brain. Fascinated by his studies and who he was as a person, Nena married Leary the next year at Leary's base of operations in Millbrook, NY (also known as the Hitchcock Estate) for an event that would be considered “The Wedding Of The Season.” The affair was almost filmed and released as a documentary. However, Nena divorced the counterculture hero in 1965 after he seemed to be stuck in a permanent hallucination from his constant high state.

Nena’s New Husband Inspired Her To Become A Follower Of Buddhism

Source: facebook.com/Nena.Von.Schlebrugge.Official

When Nena and Dr. Leary were signing their divorce papers at the Millbrook estate, she was intrigued by a man with a shaved head filled with wonderfully philosophical ideas. Nena had been searching for answers to life’s bigger questions since she was a young teen, and the man Robert Thurman seemed to have all of the answers with his Buddhist teachings. Thurman was an ex-monk and a Western Buddhist activist, and the two married in 1967 and began a life of promoting Tibetan Buddhism throughout America. They gave birth to their son Ganden Thurman the same year of their wedding and later gave birth to their famous daughter Uma Thurman (whose name means “giving bliss) and Dechen and Mipam, all names inspired by Buddhism. With a full house of children, Nena decided to quit modeling and focus on her religion and motherhood and became a certified psychologist.

Nena And Robert Thurman Continue To Promote Buddhism Throughout The West

Source: New York Times

During the late 1980s, Nena became the director of the New York Open Center and later headed the US branch of the Tibet House, which was founded by the Thurmans along with Philip Glass and Richard Gere. The Thurman children experienced bullying and judgment for their lifestyle and philosophies from their peers, but their parents helped them use their beliefs to get through the difficult times. Today, Robert Thurman is a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University and the president of the Tibet House US, while Nena is the Executive Director of the Menla Mountain Retreat Center for Tibetan Medicine. The pair are still married and happier than ever as their focus remains on peace and harmony.

Tags: Fashion In The 1960s | Models | Nena Von Schlebrugge | Uma Thurman

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Emily Morenz

Author

Despite her younger age, Emily Morenz (Emo) is a serious 1960s/1970s enthusiast who is pretty much the Austin Powers of this decade. Through her all-vintage wardrobe, obsession with old time rock 'n' roll, and her mid century bedroom and 1,200+ vinyl collection you might think she just stepped out of a time machine. Emo plays the rare gems of the ‘60s and ‘70s on her radio show on OC’s 101.5 KOCI and teaches rock ‘n’ roll history on her podcast “The Rock & Roll Sweetheart.” When there's not a pandemic, she's rockin’ out with all the middle aged-men at every single classic rock concert happening around the town, and she will battle her away to front row and dance hard. Paul McCartney even once brought her up on stage to dance...while she was in a walrus costume. You also might find Emo surfing waves, skateboarding through a neighborhood, groovin' '60s gogo style, and pretending like she can play bass. And she's obsessed with peanut butter and corgis.