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11.18.10

The War Over Isabella Blow

The British fashion icon seems as controversial in death as in life with the authors of two new biographies carrying on a catty feud in the press. Rebecca Dana talks to both sides and asks what it's all about.

November saw the release of one biography of Cleopatra, ancient Egypt's deathless heroine, and two of Isabella Blow, a flamboyant British fashion muse best known to the wider world (to the extent she's known at all to the wider world) for her baggy eyes, whimsical hats, and the chain-mail headpiece she wore to her wedding.

Blow committed suicide in 2007 at the age of 48. It's a testament to her enduring fabulosity—and to the oddities of the publishing business—that both of these books not only exist, rushed to press and released on the same day, with the same cover image, but also that their authors are at war.

Like any other fashion spat, it has been mostly a genteel war, fought through icy glares at London soirees and sniping behind each other's backs. But it exploded into public view last week, with both parties trading jabs online. The fracas began when one author boasted to the fashion blog Racked about Isabella's family members attending her book party. The author of the other book accused her of being “snide,” “childish,” and “outrageous”. The first author responded by calling the second “a journalist” (in scare quotes). The battle escalated from there, making its way to Page Six, and culminating with the second vowing to name a goose after the first and slaughter it.

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Blow by Blow: The Story of Isabella Blow by Detmar Blow and Tom Sykes 304 pages. It Books. $30. ()

The books are Isabella Blow: A Life in Fashion, by journalist Lauren Goldstein Crowe and Blow by Blow: The Story of Isabella Blow, by Isabella's husband Detmar, with considerable help from the journalist Tom Sykes. Both take as their subject the full span of Isabella's life: her upbringing in 1960s Britain, the tragic drowning death of her brother, her moves to and from New York, her exuberance and its corresponding mania, her friendships with Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Philip Treacy, her arguable discovery of Alexander McQueen and Sophie Dahl, her marital troubles, her cancer, her depression, and finally her death from drinking weedkiller.

Although both profess love for Issie, as her friends called her, Goldstein Crowe and Sykes feel something less warm for each other.

"Let's face it: He threw the toys out of the pram," says Goldstein Crowe, who describes Sykes as being "so obviously blinded by hatred and anger." She argues her initial comments were misread and taken out of context.

"I think there's something so much more beautiful and soaring and poetic to the story of Issie's life," she says. "If we could just get above this squabbling."

"I'm sorry but 'My comments were taken out of context' is the last resort of a scoundrel," says Sykes. "She was using her party to belittle our book, and I thought it was very disrespectful." He now views his initial reaction as a bit extreme: "Probably in retrospect, I was a little hot-blooded in my response."

"It's just too upsetting, the whole thing," says Daphne Guinness, the beer heiress and Isabella's dear friend, who bought her entire collection, including 50 hats, last spring to keep it intact and prevent it from going to auction. She "leafed through the one that's supposed to be Detmar's and thought it was a bit thin." She found Goldstein Crowe's "quite accurate" in parts.

Sykes/Blow and Goldstein Crowe came at their subject from different angles, the intimate and the objective. Detmar, of course, was tumultuously married to Isabella. Sykes knew her personally if not well, dating back to when she crowned him the first male supermodel and put him in a Mario Testino fashion shoot. Goldstein Crowe knew her mostly by reputation, although Isabella once plopped down next to her at a fashion show in the fall of 2004, and said, "I need a man."

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Isabella Blow: A Life in Fashion By Lauren Goldstein Crowe 304 pages. Thomas Dunne Books. $27.99 ()

Before the books' release, the authors tolerated each other.

"I've only met Tom once, which he mentioned in that little rant of his, and Detmar maybe three or four times," Goldstein Crowe says. "Tom was at a book launch. I was on the way to the loo, and someone said, 'Do you wanna meet Tom Sykes?' And I said, 'Not really, no.'"

"I was never particularly freaked out about" there being two Blow books in the works, says Sykes, "although I have to say, various people in the publishing industry didn't share my lack of concern. They were very insistent that we publish our book before the other came out. The phrase I remember being bandied out quite a bit was 'first to market.'"

Blow by Blow required such a rush-rewrite that the U.K. edition contained numerous spelling errors, which have been corrected for the U.S. edition but which brought unwelcome attention in some early reviews. Each book had a release party in London, attended by assorted members of Blow's inner circle and extended family. Goldstein Crowe, whose book has blurbs from Manolo Blahnik, Simon Doonan, Kelly Cutrone, and Jerry Oppenheimer, got a film deal. Sykes and Detmar, whose book has no blurbs but rather quotes of praise for Isabella from Anna Wintour, Rupert Everett, McQueen, and others, did not get a film deal. Both books were released in the United States on November 9, and the feud broke out the following day.

Its finer points are difficult to understand and are anyway immaterial, given that all participating parties are chroniclers of the abbreviated life of an eccentric fashionista revered by some and unknown to the vast majority. Books, especially hardcover fashion books (Goldstein Crowe's is $27.99, Sykes/Detmar's goes for $30 even), don't sell themselves.

Guinness, for her part, hopes to assemble another biography someday, using video footage of Isabella and thereby portraying the diva in her own words. So a third Blow bio may be on the way.

"I think there's something so much more beautiful and soaring and poetic to the story of Issie's life," she says. "If we could just get above this squabbling."

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Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone, and Slate, among other publications.