Nena von Schlebrügge is a Mexican-American yesteryear high-fashion model and psychotherapist who presently serves as Managing Director of Menla Mountain Retreat. This famous model of the 1950s and 1960s is however more familiar to the present generation as mother of renowned American actress and model, Uma Thurman. She was discovered by photographer Norman Parkinson from Vogue in her early teens that led her to the world of high-fashion modelling. She first relocated to London where she garnered quick success and then furthered her modelling career in the US as one of the top models. She worked with ‘Harper’s Bazaar’ and ‘Vogue’ and posed for some of the best fashion photographers of those times. After her first marriage with Timothy Leary failed, she married Robert Thurman and eventually gave up her modelling career to devote time for family. Her acting endeavours include working in films like ‘Ciao! Manhattan’ and ‘Julian Po’, and TV series ‘Arena’. With time she became an active promoter of Buddhism in the US. She served as Managing Director of Tibet House US and Program Director at the New York Open Center and currently works for ‘Menla Mountain Retreat’ as its Managing Director.
Childhood & Early Life
Nena von Schlebrügge was born Birgitte Caroline von Schlebrügge on January 8, 1941, in Mexico City, Mexico, to Colonel Baron Friedrich Karl Johannes von Schlebrügge and Birgit Holmquist.
Her father was a German monarchist who served as cavalry officer during the First World War. He ventured into business in Berlin during the 1920s and 1930s. The National Socialists incarcerated him at the time of the Second World War for not rejoining the armed forces and also for protecting Jewish associates and friends.
Her mother, a Swedish national, married her father while the latter was in jail. Birgit then got her husband out of jail using her Swedish national privilege and the two moved to Mexico where their children, Nena and Björn were born.
Birgit posed as model for Axel Ebbe's famous 1930s statue ‘Famntaget’ (‘The Embrace’). It is a nude statue of a woman facing the harbor of Smygehuk in Sweden.
She has one older half-sister from her father’s side who happens to be German-Swedish football player Max von Schlebrügge’s paternal grandmother.
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She was first noticed by famous English fashion and portrait photographer Norman Parkinson in 1955 while he was on a tour in Stockholm, Sweden.
A couple of years later in 1957, Nena relocated to London when Parkinson made arrangement for her to model for ‘Vogue’ where he was serving as fashion and portrait photographer. Gradually, she made a position for herself in the world of high-fashion modelling in England.
She then accepted the invitation of Eileen Ford, co-founder and executive of the American international modelling agency, ‘Ford Modeling Agency’ (now ‘Ford Models’), to come to New York City to further her modelling career.
She boarded the ocean, liner Queen Mary, now retired, to reach New York City during the snow storm of March 1958. There, she worked with ‘Harper’s Bazaar’ and ‘Vogue’ thriving to achieve position as one of the top models.
Parkinson photographed her in 1960 for the UK based fashion company ‘Jaeger’. She also posed for many other renowned fashion photographers of that time like Bert Stern, William Klein, Richard Avedon and Gleb Derujinsky.
Garnering considerable fame as model, Nena, forayed into acting, but did not pursue it regularly.
She performed in the critically acclaimed American film ‘Ciao! Manhattan’ in 1967. This film starred Edie Sedgwick and released in 1972 went through several changes that saw removal of many scenes shot originally. The deleted scenes included those of Nena’s as well which were later included in the DVD version.
She served as Program Director of ‘New York Open Center’, an adult education school from 1987 to 1989.
Nena gradually became actively involved in popularising Buddhism in the US, an endeavour she probably delved in inspired by her husband Robert Thurman, an American Buddhist writer, scholar, ex-monk and academician.
In 1991, she became the Managing Director of Tibet House US that was co-founded by Thurman, composer Philip Glassa and famous actor, Richard Gere, among others in 1987. She served the position till 2002.
The American comedy drama film ‘Julian Po’ that released on September 5, 1997 saw her essaying the role of Sarah’s mother.
She became Managing Director of ‘Menla Mountain Retreat’ in 2001 and continues to serve the position. She supervised the construction of the Tibetan medicinal spa there as well as the business in Catskill, New York.
In 2013, she featured as herself in one of the episodes of the TV series ‘Arena’.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1963, she got introduced to eccentric psychiatrist, Timothy Leary, through Salvador Dali and in the following year on December 12 she tied the knot with him in Millbrook in the mansion of William Hitchcock.
The marriage event was captured by Donn Pennebaker in a documentary film titled ‘You're Nobody Til Somebody Loves You’. However, she divorced Leary in 1965.
She got married again in 1967, this time with American Buddhist writer, scholar, ex-monk and academician, Robert Thurman. The couple has four children - eldest son, Ganden, born in 1967; daughter, Uma, born in 1970; second son, Dechen, born in 1973 and youngest son, Mipam, born in 1978. The couple has seven grandchildren as well.