Ivana Lowell: Girl, Interrupted
In a juicy new memoir, Guinness heiress Ivana Lowell searches for the truth about her roots.
Ivana Lowell’s new memoir, Why Not Say What Happened?, is one book that certainly lives up to its title. Lowell—a Guinness heiress and daughter of Lady Caroline Blackwood—says, among other things, what happened when she attended the 1997 Oscars with her then boyfriend, Bob Weinstein (he told her she looked like a “ridiculous old lady” in her Galliano fishtail gown, and ordered the hotel housekeepers to hack four inches off the bottom minutes before the ceremony); what happened when she underwent a pubic-hair transplant after a burn accident left her bare down there (her mother, who was meant to pick Lowell up afterward, had passed out drunk, stranding her at the doctor’s office in a post-anesthesia fog); what happened in the months following her 1999 wedding at the Rainbow Room, which was planned by social queen Mercedes Bass and featured in W (the marriage turned violent and quickly dissolved); and most significant of all, what happened when she visited a DNA specialist known for his regular appearances on Jerry Springer (she found out, at age 32, that the man she’d always thought of as a not particularly likable family friend was, in fact, her father).
Sitting at the kitchen table in her rambling, shabby-posh home in Sag Harbor, New York, Lowell—striking and rail thin, with a halting voice and upper-crust marble-mouth accent—says she didn’t consciously set out to reveal her darkest secrets and deepest humiliations to the world. Raised in a literary family (Blackwood authored nine books and was married to poet Robert Lowell, who unofficially adopted Ivana when she was six), she grew up writing to process her feelings, a practice that was encouraged during three stints in alcohol rehab. Two and a half years ago, a visit to a new therapist required Lowell to discuss her twisted family history, and, she says, the book “just sort of spewed out.” Uber agent Andrew Wylie, who had represented her mother, showed the first 50 pages to a few publishers, and, says Lowell, “They got into bidding, which was wonderful. Only now that it’s going to be published, it’s like, Oh, God!”
The book, out this month from Knopf, will no doubt raise eyebrows. Lowell spares few details in recounting her dysfunctional childhood, which was spent in grand houses and fancy apartments, where the family lived more like hillbillies than titled Brits. “I have a photo of me as a small child perched on an old broken sofa next to several defunct TV sets and other pieces of unidentifiable furniture,” she writes. “I look confused and out of place, as though I had just been dumped and left in some builder’s scrap yard. It is only when I look closely at the picture that I can tell that I am, in fact, in our drawing room.”
The living conditions were certainly not due to lack of funds. Blackwood’s father was a marquess, and her mother, Maureen, was one of a trio of sisters known as “the glorious Guinness girls.” Along with the family fortune, however, came the family propensity for alcoholism and eccentricity. Maureen, a friend of the Queen Mum’s who circulated in the highest orbit of London society, “would often arrive at social events wearing a false penis on her nose and a hidden ‘fart machine’ between her legs. She would let the machine rip at opportune moments,” writes Lowell. Blackwood, a reluctant debutante who came out with Princess Margaret, rebelled by marrying a series of men who horrified her mother: first, painter Lucian Freud; then, composer Israel Citkowitz; and, finally, Robert Lowell, who suffered from extreme bipolar disorder. In between she carried on romances with New York Review of Books editor Robert Silvers and screenwriter Ivan Moffat.
Lowell had always been told that, like her two older sisters, she was a Citkowitz, but after Blackwood’s death in 1996, friends began to hint that Moffat was actually her father, a rumor confirmed by the aforementioned DNA test. While her grandmother Maureen was thrilled—“She said, ‘Oh, great! You’re not Jewish after all. Make sure you tell everyone!’” Lowell recalls with a laugh—the revelation left her disoriented and angry at her mother. “And it really is annoying to be cross at a dead person,” she says.
There is much, it would seem, to be cross about. Beyond deceiving her daughter about her paternity, Blackwood, a lifelong alcoholic, was not exactly a hands-on mom. She didn’t notice, for instance, that six-year-old Ivana was being regularly molested by a family acquaintance. The abuse stopped only after Ivana stumbled over an electric kettle, resulting in third-degree burns on 70 percent of her body. The nine months she spent in the hospital and the decades of follow-up care resulted in a deep bond between mother and daughter, she says, though the rest of her childhood was no less dark. Citkowitz died when Lowell was seven, Robert Lowell three years later, and her eldest sister, Natalya, a year after that, from a heroin overdose. Lowell made it through, she says, thanks in part to the dark sense of humor she shared with her mother. “We used to laugh and say, ‘Oh, this is just too bad—even for us.’”
Happily, the past several years have been brighter. Lowell has made peace with her ex-husband, who lives nearby and helps raise their 11-year-old daughter, Daisy, and she is close with her “new” half brother, Moffat’s son Jonathan. (Petrifyingly, the two nearly had an amorous relationship as teens.) And the process of writing her memoir has given her at least a modicum of closure. “I wasn’t light and dancing with joy when I finished writing,” she says, “but it definitely gave me a much better understanding of my mother and everything that went on.” At this point, she insists, she has few regrets—even about the tell-all nature of her book. “And believe it or not, there are things I left out that I now wish I had put in,” she says. “Stay tuned for volume two.”