What do you do when your mother is a famous heiress and your father might be Robert Lowell, Bob Silvers, or some other literary icon? If you’re Ivana Lowell, you write a revealing memoir, as she explains to Claire Howorth.
For a woman whose legacy carries an enormous fortune, a family tree cluttered with renown, and unparalleled eccentricity, Ivana Lowell is shockingly all right. And she has plenty to tell, so… Why Not Say What Happened? as the title of her new memoir goes.
“I never thought that we were grand or famous; I thought that we were just odd,” says Lowell, speaking on the phone from Long Island's Sag Harbor. Her last name belongs to Robert Lowell, the troubled, brilliant, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who was one of postwar America’s towering literary figures—though he is not her biological father. Her mother is Lady Caroline Blackwood, the Guinness heiress and writer of coruscating novels like Great Granny Webster, whose paramours read like a laundry list of some of the most formidable masters of the arts in the 20th century (starting with Lucian Freud).
Lowell’s family was indeed odd. And grand. And famous. The tales she recounts about her upbringing range from tender to funny to outright absurd. On the heartbreaking end of things is her horrific childhood accident: While horsing around, Lowell dumped a pot of boiling water on herself, burning and permanently scarring most of her lower body. (Blackwood wrote a story, titled “Burns Unit,” about the experience, which is included in the recent collection Never Breathe a Word.)
On the ludicrous end of things is the pubic hair implantation Lowell endured in adulthood to restore growth to the scarred area. Maybe this would have fallen under “heartbreaking,” too, were it not for Lowell’s wry, unblunted grip on her life story. But considering her genetic and sociological predisposition to good writing, it’s not surprising that Lowell has executed an impeccable memoir.
Writing the book under the weight of a family history that includes title roles and bit parts by the likes of Lowell homme, Ivan Moffat (her biological father), Evelyn Waugh, and Robert Silvers did not daunt Lowell, who has worked in publishing before (for Harvey Weinstein—and more on that shortly).
“Writing is the family trade in a way,” says Lowell. “It didn’t have a particular mystique for me—it was just something people did. I tried not to think, 'Am I good?' And I always loved telling stories.”
Telling stories of fancy is one thing, but telling stories about your often drunk, genius, dark mum, who was also involved with the painters Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, is another. Lowell experienced a torrent of emotions over the four years she spent writing Why Not Say What Happened?
“I was surprised at how angry I felt. When I was writing, I had this anger—I felt I’d been treated sort of cavalierly.”
“I was surprised at how angry I felt. I always sort of pushed my emotions away. And then when I was writing, I had this anger—I felt I’d been treated sort of cavalierly. It felt so unfair,” says Lowell.
What comes through crystal-clear, though, is how much she truly loved Blackwood, and, however troubled her mother may have been, how much her mother loved her. Other stories are wacky anecdotes of total togetherness.
“When the anger went away, I realized how much I missed everyone. Recalling the stories, and the madness, and Robert’s vagueness, it was as if I had to say goodbye all over again.” When asked if she feels she was too revealing, Lowell considered the question for a few moments. “Not then,” she says, “But it does now. At the time you’re writing in a void, and you don’t think you’re trying to censor yourself. I didn’t censor myself. I was just kind of writing in a diary form.” Ultimately, though, “No, I wouldn’t take anything back.”
Thank goodness for that, because readers would otherwise be deprived of a very bizarre scene with Harvey Weinstein, her onetime boss. Lowell had known of his “reputation as a womanizer,” but one evening Weinstein shows up at her apartment, where Lowell is hanging out with a friend. Weinstein barges in, flops down on her bed, and requests a massage: “The scene was comical: Harvey lying spread-eagle, dwarfing the bed like Gulliver pinned down by midgets, and Francesca and I laughing nervously, still edging as far away as possible.” The ornery mogul finally departs, leaving Lowell and her friend to marvel that he had likely bribed his way past the doorman for the surprise visit.
Men seem to be constant harbingers of weirdness for Lowell. There was Mike, the sexual molester on her mother’s domestic staff; Lowell’s own various boyfriends, some completely enamored of her, and some total jerks (like the one who suggested she get that pubic hair operation in the first place); and, of course, the complexities of paternity that lingered throughout Lowell’s life.
“I feel that Robert Lowell was really my father,” says Lowell. “I was the closest to him as a father figure, from ages 5 to 12. Citkowitz,” another of Blackwood’s boyfriends and the father of Lowell’s half-siblings, including fellow author Evgenia Citkowitz, who published a collection of stories last year, “wasn’t living with us and he seemed so distant a figure.”
“When Robert died [in 1977], Bob Silvers came to take me to see Star Wars during the funeral.” Ivan Moffat finally stepped in to assert his fatherhood after Blackwood’s deathbed admission that he was Ivana’s father, Lowell thought, “’Oh, no you’re not.’ Even if you are biologically, you can’t just step in when I’m 34.”
This was in the late '90s, by which time Lowell had established herself in New York. She remains in the U.S., splitting her time between Manhattan and her mother’s old home in Sag Harbor.
Thinking about her next project right now is, she says, “like getting pregnant while you’re having a baby.” That said, she looks forward to more writing.
“It’s probably going to be more nonfiction. I love Ireland, and would love to capture that part of my background, my grandmother and her sisters, and that period. That whole era”—meaning the eccentric English aristocracy—“is over. It doesn’t make sense to live like that anymore, which is so sad.”
Claire Howorth is the Arts editor at the Daily Beast.