February 01, 1982 12:00 PM

When I was a little girl I was terribly unhappy,” says Anna Maximilian Potok of her childhood in Warsaw some 80 years ago. “My older stepsisters were very pretty, and they told me every day that I was ugly. Sometimes I would visit my grandfather, who was a fur trader. I’d go to the corner of his office where Russian sables were handled and play with them. They smelled very bad, but I adored them. I still love the smell of raw sable.”

Since then the tiny (4’9″), shy Anna Potok survived a harrowing escape from Poland—fleeing a day before Nazi troops arrived in Warsaw in 1939—to become the unrivaled doyenne of international furriers. For six decades the world’s wealthiest and most glamorous women have snuggled up in Anna’s Maximilian furs, which start at $5,000 for a mink jacket and soar to $100,000 for an ankle-length crown sable. Queen Elizabeth, Christina Onassis, Audrey Hepburn and Barbara Walters all have acquired Maximilians from Anna’s Manhattan salon. Diana Ross’ closets bulge with Potok creations in white and dyed green fox, red mole and Russian sable. And now that Reaganites have made the flaunting of wealth acceptable, Maximilians are again decorating Washington parties. (Nancy Reagan’s friend Betsy Bloomingdale has collected Potok furs for 20 years.)

Anna’s rise is a study in sheer grit. After her father’s death, she and her older brother, Maximilian, opened their first salon in Warsaw in 1922. “I wanted to be somebody,” she remembers. “I wanted my mother to wake up someday and find her purse filled with money.” Their first show, featuring ballerinas draped in floor-length broadtail, ermine, mink and sable, was a smash. Soon all Europe—Rothschilds and royals alike—flocked to their salon on Marszalkowska Street. “Warsaw was a little Paris,” sighs Madame Potok. “It was very elegant.”

But when the Germans invaded, Anna “lost everything in an hour,” barely escaping with Maximilian, her husband, Leon, and their son, Andrew, to Sweden and then to New York. They started over in a little Fifth Avenue salon, where they were championed by the likes of Diana Vreeland and Helena Rubinstein, and soon the rich and famous were back: actresses such as Kay Kendall and Marilyn Monroe, Egypt’s King Farouk (for whom Anna designed a full-length white mink coat) and Jacqueline Kennedy, who bought a black mink coat. (“Only you could have done it so perfectly,” Jackie thanked Anna.)

Today Anna is untroubled by environmentalists’ protests over fur coats. Most minks and chinchillas are raised on domestic farms; sable, for the most part, flourish on guarded preserves in the U.S.S.R. Potok does not traffic in endangered species such as leopard and cheetah.

She lives alone (her husband and brother have died) a few doors from her West 57th Street atelier. Her four-and-a-half-room apartment is filled with French antiques and with paintings by the brothers Raoul and Jean Dufy and by her son, Andrew, now 50, who was tragically blinded by the genetic disease retinitis pigmentosa. (His book dealing with the experience, Ordinary Daylight, was published in April 1980.) Unlike her early days in Warsaw, when she did fittings until 9 p.m., Potok is usually home by 6. Evenings are for reading books—recently Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park, whose plot features sable smuggling. She is still consumed by her work. When will she retire? “Never, never, never,” insists Madame, 84. “To the last minute of my life, I’ll be in business.”

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