By Lee Wohlfert
Updated September 03, 1979 12:00 PM

With his intimidating 6’2″ macho charm, John Weitz looks like a Central Casting Army intelligence officer or race car driver, and he has been both in life. But now, at 56, he is better known as the menswear designer who has built a $185 million empire splashing his name and imposing his style on products ranging from cigars and furniture to ice buckets and cologne. In short, he projects a glossy image that makes lesser men and women feel gauche.

An exception is John’s wife, Susan Kohner, 42, the semiretired movie star once nominated for an Oscar (Imitation of Life in 1959). Weitz’s crisp urbanity is no threat to her, says Susan, who notes that she never lapses into jealousy even when her husband is away on business. “Does that sound smug?” she asks. “Well, let it. John makes me aware he’s not interested in other women.” Weitz, who admits to being “a little bit Victorian,” agrees. “I’m appalled at a man who flirts with a stewardess. I know I’m going to see him in business or something later and I’m going to think, ‘He’s the guy who made such an ass of himself.’ ”

In fact, for all his relentless self-promotion and high-style tastes, Weitz is a closet homebody. The Weitzes focus their lives around sons Paul, 13, and Chris, 9. Weitz, who has two grown children by his first wife, says, “Susan accuses me of buttering up the kids. Not long ago I was on the phone talking to Japan about a $12 million business matter and Chris wanted to talk. Years ago I’d have said, ‘Shut up and go away.’ Now I find myself covering the phone to hear what my 9-year-old has to say.”

When Chris was sick recently, it was John who demanded a doctor make a house call while Susan calmed him. “She’s an Aztec stoic,” he says admiringly. Though Weitz often appears to take the title of the grooming book he published, Man in Charge, seriously, that is deceiving. “If I want to say something I say it,” insists Susan. “I don’t feel like the gray shadow in the background.” Her old friend film producer Sam Spiegel partially agrees. “Susan can be vocal when she feels her oats, but she is shy. John is entirely different; he can’t be identified with anything very shy.”

The two met in Palm Beach in 1964. Weitz was freshly separated from his second wife, fashion consultant Eve Orton. (His first marriage, to a Philadelphian, ended in 1952 after 10 years.) He was promoting his then fledgling line of functional menswear. Kohner, who had just completed Freud with Montgomery Clift, was appearing in a play opposite Jon Voight, then 27. Mutual pal Bill Blass, who was doing Susan’s costumes, invited Weitz to a fitting. “It appears to have been just one of those things,” recalls Blass. “Susan kicked Weitz out of the fitting room—and it took off from there.”

In fact, both feel that, given their European backgrounds, their meeting was fated. “He told the same anecdotes my father tells,” smiles Susan. Five months later they were wed at the Bel Air home of Susan’s parents, Czech-born agent Paul Kohner and Mexican leading lady Lupita Tovar. John, who wore formal attire, reminded Susan of a mâltre d’hôtel, greeting Kohner family friends like Edward G. Robinson, Charles Boyer and Lana Turner (who whispered to Susan of John: “My, he’s a big one!”).

Kohner says she has never regretted giving up her career: “Acting wasn’t what I wanted to do forever. I wanted a home and I wanted children. Something had to give.” She is reticent about her engagement to George Hamilton, which she ended after he reportedly left her at a party to introduce himself to then teenager Sue (Lolita) Lyon. “That’s fan mag stuff,” Susan snaps, but adds, “I couldn’t have ever married an actor. They have a childishness carried into an age when maturity should have set in.”

Weitz’s parents left Germany in 1938 for Paris and then London to escape the Nazis. His father, a textile manufacturer, had sent John to school in England in 1932; he later dropped out of Oxford after a year to apprentice briefly with Paris designer Molyneux. After a sybaritic year in China, he came to the U.S. and ended up as an OSS intelligence officer. After the war he began designing women’s casual clothes in New York, and on the side racing cars at Sebring and other U.S. tracks.

Kohner grew up in Bel Air with such schoolmates as Maria Cooper and Ava Astaire, then put in a year at UCLA Drama School. Her first picture, To Hell and Back, with Audie Murphy, was in 1955; her last was Freud. Her ideas on woman’s role would make feminists blanch, but Susan argues, “The woman has to be prepared to give a little more. It’s the Latin in me. I like to be dominated. I’m happiest when things are taken care of.”

It is, however, Susan who has orchestrated the Weitzes’ unpretentious life-style. “Susan decides how we live and whom we see,” says John. “I might be inclined to pick more superficial friends, but instead we see only people who please us both.” John admits he is still impressed by his wife’s Hollywood pals. “Sometimes I’ll answer the phone,” says Weitz, “and the man’ll say, ‘It’s Cary.’ And I say, ‘Cary who?’ And it’s Cary Grant!”

The Weitzes limit possessions (except for his antique cars) and have a remarkably nonposh apartment. Simplifying further, the Weitzes recently donated their 50-foot yacht, Milagros, to the U.S. Navy. They have bypassed Florida since another member called John a “kike” at the Beach Club in Palm Beach this spring. When he had a showdown with the bigot, Weitz was asked to resign his membership. The club later apologized, but Weitz is unsure what he will do. “Perhaps I’m overly sensitive, being a refugee,” he says. “Some people would have let the whole incident go unnoticed—I can understand that. But I could not.”

John’s design dominion is growing almost to a point of absurdity—he just completed a sports-car prototype, and a camera and refrigerator line may be next. He contends that Susan helps him retain his perspective: “She is a cold and dispassionate viewer of people and their motives.”

But after 13 years of mothering she says: “I miss having something of my own to do now that my children are nearly grown.” Susan considers going back to acting—she was in José Quintero’s famed Circle in the Square group in 1962. She’s also talked, informally, with theatrical producer Joseph Papp. “There are things I might like to do,” says Susan. Then she looks at John and becomes the old-fashioned wifey again. “But I wouldn’t want to be separated from you and the boys,” she says. “It’s not important enough.”