I first heard of Caroline Blackwood through her association with Lucian Freud – he was the first of her three husbands, and many of his most famous early paintings are of her. At his exhibition last year, I was particularly struck by the portrait of her in a Paris hotel room – the last painting of her he ever did before they split up, and it shows. She is fascinating in all sorts of ways – an aristocratic and bohemian writer and muse. My favourite combination, obviously. She had a couple of other interesting husbands after Freud – Israel Citkowitz and Robert Lowell – and many other glamorous dalliances.
Ivana Lowell is her daughter and the author of this book.
I love books by and about mad posh people (from the Mitfords through to Isabella Blow) and this ticks those boxes pretty spectacularly. We learn that when her mother died, Ivana went to lunch with a family friend – who got drunk and blurted out to Ivana that ‘I presume you know THE REAL TRUTH about who your father is’! (She, um, didn’t.)
Much of the book is about her search for the real truth about who said father is. This turns out to be a murkier task than she could possibly anticipated – not only is her ‘real’ father not who she thought he was, but it turns out that it could have been one of quite a few people (confusingly, mostly family friends) and nobody actually seems to know who the likeliest candidate is.
By the time Ivana finds this out, her mother is already dead, so she can’t even ask her. Obviously she has some anger about this but – to her credit – she manages still to look back at her mother with pretty much nothing but a massive amount of love and humour. This is definitely not a bitter book. This again is to the author’s credit – if she’d have wanted, she could have written a real misery memoir. Her story includes sexual abuse as a child, a near-fatal childhood accident that left her scarred for life, the heavy alcoholism and mental health issues suffered by members of her family, the death of her sister, the instability and constant upheavals of her mother. Yet – somehow – this is not a grim read. In fact, a lot of the time it made me laugh out loud – just like Ivana and her mother themselves would do, whenever another awful thing would happen to them. Their favourite phrase, ‘oh, this is too bad – even for us!’ (usually accessorised with a bottle of champagne and helpless laughter) is used a lot and to great effect.
As well as looking back at her mother and the issue of her paternity – not to mention her grandmother, who is monstrously brilliant, with her pass-agg notes shoved under the door of family members’ rooms at night and her cringe-inducing friendship with the Queen Mother – Ivana has led a fascinating life in her own right. I loved all her tales of living in New York and upper-class London in the 80s and 90s. She spent some time working for Miramax in their book department – in their heyday of Pulp Fiction et al – and had a lovely relationship with Bob Weinstein (which used to be romantic, and now she is still good friends with).
I’m probably romanticising it because it was a time I’m too young to have been a part of, but it seems like the late 80s and early 90s really were a great time of glamour and coolness and possibility. When great people were getting stuff done and there was an atmosphere of possibility with things that are now considered quite niche and indie.
This is quite obviously a book not written by ‘a writer’ – it’s very jumbled and sometimes artless. But, while this can be annoying, I think that adds to the charm of it. This is an interesting woman, telling the story of herself and her family. If you like this sort of thing – which I definitely do – then you’ll probably agree that she does it very nicely.