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Many facets of John Weitz

By
GAY PAULEY, UPI Senior Editor

NEW YORK -- Meet John Weitz, the novelist. You've known him for years as the fashion designer.

'Fashion design is a nice craft,' said the 59-year-old Weitz of the career that has made him a fortune. 'Writing is an art.'

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He has no intention, however, of stopping the first career to devote full time to the second.

'I have obligations,' said the German-born Weitz. 'A family, five children to get educated.' He is married to Susan Kohner, the actress.

He also has a variety of other pursuits that demand, or have demanded, of his time. Weitz is an inventor of sorts, was a U.S. intelligence agent during World War II, was a racing car driver and now collects classic racing cars. 'I stopped racing because I was getting too old,' he said.

Had he had time, he might have become a movie hero; he's tall, lean and darkly handsome.

'It is possible to have many lives,' said Weitz, who will be 60 next May. 'I would in no way put myself in the class of Somerset Maugham, but remember, Maugham started as a physician.'

The designer's new book, his third novel, is 'Friends in High Places' (McMillan), most of it taking place in Berlin (where Weitz was born) and is a recreation of the rise of Adolf Hitler and the war that followed the Nazi rise to power.

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Weitz says it is in not autobiographical, although it obviously draws on his knowledge of Germany during the Nazi period.

Said Weitz, in an interview. 'The hero is not Jewish. I am. He's more middle class ... the worst thing to be growing up in Berlin.

'The thing that concerned me, how as a grownup I might have reacted, behaved. How much guts would I have mustered?'

Weitz, the only son of a well-to-do textile manufacturer, was educated at Hall School and St. Paul's in London, and also at Oxford.

Weitz still has an old passport stamped in pre-war London by the German consul general with 'J' (for Jew) and the word 'Israel.' He said every German Jewish male had to adopt the name 'Israel' beside his first given name, every girl add a 'Sarah.'

The family had no trouble fleeing Germany in 1938. His father was used to setting off for St. Moritz for skiing, his mother for Paris for shopping and seeing the fashion collections.

'If I had had relatives killed in concentration camps, it would have been harder to be objective in this book,' Weitz said.

The family first went to London, where at the suggestion of a St. Paul's schoolmate, John Cavanagh, who was to become a leading British couturier, Weitz apprenticed to the house of Edward Molyneux. Molyneux, one of the most famous designers of the 1930s, created the 'Wallis blue' dress for Wallis Warfield Simpson's marriage to the Duke of Windsor, formerly Edward VIII.

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Weitz came to the United States in 1940, was naturalized in 1943, and immediately went into the army. He became a member of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and, because of his background, was dispatched back to Germany.

After three years in the service, Weitz resumed his fashion career, designing for several companies. His specialty then: women's sportswear.

'I was in that wave of designers Dorothy Shaver encouraged,' he recalled. The late Miss Shaver was president of Lord & Taylor and emphasized talents of U.S. designers, among them Weitz, Bonnie Cashin, Tom Brigance, Bill Blass, Claire McCardell and Rudi Gernreich.

'I was best known for women's sportswear derived from menswear,' said Weitz. 'I originated the woman's car coat.'

Weitz went on to win numerous designer awards in America and Europe, and in 1954 incorporated his own firm. Today, the biggest segment of his business is licensing his designs. World-wide, he said, there are 63 licensees, many in Japan, and 23 products. They represent all types of men's and women's apparel, even cutlery and furniture. His licensees do a wholesale volume of $250 million a year.

'We attempt to control the Weitz label by contract,' the designer said. 'But if you have excellent licensees, they are more apt to want to protect the name and the product, as in say the things I do for Palm Beach clothing.

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The Weitz creativity seems never to stop. He has a lot of non-fashion ideas, including a computer-guided balcony to follow the sun, a car with built-in jack for the tires, a cir:ular coffee table that doubles as a television set with four screens, and a restaurant menu with built-in lighting for dim interiors.

'I have this love of the language,' said Weitz of his writing, 'this telling of stories.' His first novel, 'Value of Nothing,' was published in 1970, his second, 'Man in Charge,' in 1970. Both made some of the best-seller lists.

'I write in long-hand,' the designer-novelist said. 'I write on my lap in hotel rooms... I fly about 100,000 miles a year.'

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