Which of a writer’s books one picks up first matters. Any further reading will be heavily influenced—if not totally skewed—by that introduction. Expectations and suppositions sprout regarding the writer’s methods and motifs that will be proved or disproved by the next title grab. In the meantime: freshness and discovery.
Who/what have we here?
I entered the world of author/reporter/character Caroline Blackwood via the last book she published (though not the last book she wrote) before her 1996 death from cancer. I had hunted down The Last of the Duchess not for its author but for its subject because at the time I’d been kicking around the (doomed) idea of writing a novel about young Bessie Wallis of Baltimore, fiction that would focus exclusively on the Southern portion of the Wallis Windsor saga, pre-Prince of Wales romance, pre-Edward VIII abdication, and pre-worldwide fame/infamy for depriving England of its monarch. Despite the narrowness of my intended focus, I had flung wide my research net (e.g., Some Favorite Southern Recipes of the Duchess of Windsor) on the working theory that any middle or end contained seeds of the beginning and vice versa.
To say that Blackwood’s go at the Wallis Windsor story differs from other accounts on my Wallis shelf is to wildly understate. It is another species. On page one of the preface, Blackwood refers to Maître Suzanne Blum, the Duchess’s attorney and Blackwood’s adversary in terms of gaining access to the Duchess of Windsor, as Wallis’s “necrophiliac lawyer”—someone who had “seized the right to act as (the Duchess’s) spokesperson” and whose penchant for lawsuits had delayed, until 1995, the publication of a book Blackwood had written in 1980, Blum’s death finally eliminating the litigation threat. The intervening fifteen years had done nothing to diminish Blackwood’s animosity toward Blum. Midway through Blackwood’s lead paragraph I already suspected this would be a writer disinclined to tread lightly, who’d get down and dirty not only without apology but with obvious relish; a writer unconvinced by—and possibly contemptuous of—the pose and affectation of writerly restraint. Having since read my way through Blackwood’s catalogue of nonfiction and fiction, I stand by my original impressions. There are no tepid Blackwood texts. Seasoned with rage and spiced with acidic humor, they boil.
The Last of the Duchess grew out of a British Sunday Times assignment. Blackwood had been enlisted to supply the copy—a brief profile of the Duke of Windsor’s widow—that would accompany Lord Snowden’s photograph of the Duchess, then eighty-four, in her Paris home in the Bois de Boulogne. That particular puff piece did not appear, but its failure gave Blackwood the material and opportunity to fashion a more lively and contentious account that pitted tenacious reporter Caroline Blackwood against wily lawyer Maître Blum. Structured as a quest narrative, Blackwood three times interviews Blum, attempting with flattery, deflection, obfuscation, and bribery (what if Lord Snowden photographed Blum as well?) to get past the ogre at the gate to the isolated Duchess, cut off from friends and confined (as Blum eventually admits) to bed in an upper story of an increasingly dilapidated mansion. Blackwood describes the décor of Blum’s own Parisian digs as a “mixture of equally ugly modern furniture and fake antiques” that suggested “a woman devoid of visual sense.” When—regally tardy—the woman herself deigns to join Blackwood for their first conversation, she exhibits a “cruel” mouth, “waxy” skin and, owing to an “overexcessive…use of cosmetic surgery,” a difficulty in blinking. After Blum “feeds” Blackwood “a steady diet of untruths” about bedridden Wallis’s indomitable health, unblemished beauty, and financial impoverishment, her “aggrieved and therefore vengeful” interviewer takes off the second glove, describing Blum as a “malignant old spider sitting in her cavern of an apartment spinning out her web of fantasies about the Duchess of Windsor.” In support of her anti-Blum sentiments, Blackwood marshals the ill opinion of others. Biographer David Pryce-Jones, for one, characterizes the lawyer as “the purest horror and nightmare.” Rumors are rife that Blum is stealing from the Duchess, selling off her jewels. There is speculation that the paralyzed, comatose Duchess, sustained only by feeding tubes, is being kept alive, her existence inhumanely prolonged, solely for the benefit of her keeper. Stonewalled by Blum, Blackwood chats with a number of Wallis’s one-time pals and acquaintances about the Duchess’s past and fate. Clever additions, those Lady Mosley, Lady Tompkins, Lady Monckton, and Lady Cooper set pieces, for they add another layer of wit and repartee to the tale. Old women themselves by then, Wallis’s compadres are confined to wheelchairs, going deaf, denied their evening cocktails by well-meaning (or sadistic) doctors, stripped of choice and agency, at the mercy of someone else’s whim, and suffering the indignities and infirmities of age that await us all—even women who enchant kings. Nonetheless, the crew Blackwood consults still thrives on gossip. “The Duchess was certainly never in love with the Duke,” Lady Monckton assures Blackwood. “The Queen Mother is really nearly perfect,” Lady Cooper confides. “But her one weakness is the Duchess. She still feels very unforgiving towards her.” At the close of the book, Caroline Blackwood still has not set eyes on Wallis Windsor, a victory for Maître Blum—but a temporary one. Blackwood’s excoriating portrait of Wallis’s lawyer remains in print. To paraphrase Harry Crews: Don’t screw with writers. They’ll get you in the end.
That Lady Caroline Maureen Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood would become a writer seemed, at the onset, unlikely. Born into the Anglo-Irish aristocracy in 1931, Blackwood was the eldest child of Basil Sheridan Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, 4th Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, and brewery heiress Maureen Guinness. (In a wink-wink passage in Blackwood’s autobiographical novel Great Granny Webster, the character Aunt Lavinia drinks “Guinness…mixed with vintage champagne.”) Blackwood spent her childhood at Clandeboye, the crumbling ancestral estate near Ulster, viewable on the BBC’s “The Country House Revisited” series and currently doubling as a wedding venue. Blackwood’s father was killed while on a covert Army mission in Burma when Caroline was thirteen. Vain, anti-Semitic, society-mad, fart-machine-between-her-legs practical joker Maureen lived on. And on. Flamboyant, indifferent mothers do not fare well in Blackwood’s fiction. In “Taft’s Wife,” flashy, overdressed Mrs. Ripstone, who ignores the son she abandoned at birth to flirt with the social worker who has orchestrated their three-way meeting, is presented as a maximally insensitive, preening fool. In the mother/daughter story “How You Love Our Lady,” although daughter Theresa anguishes over her own “drabness,” all too aware that her mother “longed to get away from (her), as if (her) dullness was like a disease that might contaminate,” it is the mother Blackwood kills off; Theresa survives.
Descriptions of Blackwood’s simultaneously entitled and bleak childhood tend to foreground absent parents (through death, by choice), Ireland’s endless rain, and the homestead’s leaky roofs and bitterly frigid interiors. At Dunmartin Hall, Clandeboye’s stand-in in the novel Great Granny Webster, the staff wear Wellingtons indoors to “wade through the puddles” because “the roof was incurable,” a sieve for rain. Valuable books in the library have become “glued together and blue with mildew”; the cold is so intense that the prescient “put on an overcoat to walk the halls.” Outside, “hostile native forces” have invaded the grounds, “fierce armies of stinging nettles…seizing…the driveway.” For reasons obscure, food for Blackwood and her two siblings was less than plentiful. Ruling the nursery: a series of questionable nannies, one of whom dangled Blackwood’s brother, Sheridan, out the window to stop him from humming himself to sleep. Blackwood portrays a different kind of danger in “Never Breathe a Word,” nonfiction originally collected in the Ulster section of her first book, For All That I Found There. McAfee, ex-jockey and riding instructor for Blackwood and her sister, Perdita, is introduced as unsightly (toothless, deformed shoulder, stunted legs, “manure-clotted” fingernails) and annoying—but harmless. When McAfee sees—or pretends to see—potential in the elder Blackwood sister to become “the best wee rider in the whole of Ireland” and suggests a nighttime meeting in the woods to hand over the pills that will ensure that attainment, as readers we tense. Although uneasy and skeptical of a brilliant equestrian future, Blackwood bikes to the agreed upon assignation through darkness that “seemed like an evil, inky soup, floating with every ghastly kind of supernatural spook and spectre.” The real threat, McAfee, creepily “wearing his best shiny bowler” and “false teeth,” emerges from the shadows and urges Blackwood to take capsules from a bottle whose label has been scrubbed. Frightened and disgusted, Blackwood makes her escape, her adolescent self assuming McAfee meant to poison her, the adult writing the story knowing, and conveying, he intended something quite different. It is a piece in tune with the characterizations and atmospherics of fairytale—the dark woods, the young and vulnerable female, the sinister designs of a misshapen male. “Please…please…never breathe a word!” McAfee shouts as Blackwood flees, the plea of many an abuser. It is a chilling piece of work from the author who would later pen the novel-length tale of horror, The Fate of Mary Rose.
Sent to boarding schools in Switzerland and England, Blackwood completed her formal education at Miss Cuffey’s finishing school in Oxford. At eighteen, born who she was and to the mother she had, Blackwood made her societal debut and here the fun begins. At one debutante bash, guest Princess Margaret sang Cole Porter (off-key). While others beamed and applauded, the painter Francis Bacon hissed and booed. At Bacon’s elbow was Lucian Freud, grandson of Sigmund, who in those early stages of his career liked to ponce about in his dead grandfather’s overcoat. The married Freud had already made a string of sexual conquests and left behind a string of bruised and bitter lovers. (As reported by Phoebe Hoban in Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open, former paramour Joan Wyndham described going to bed with Freud akin to “going to bed with a snake.”) Bohemian, handsome in a feral sort of way, and on the make in every respect, Lucian Freud was catnip to Caroline Blackwood. Bonus attraction: running off with a married, impoverished, Jewish painter would infuriate Maureen. Freud equally disliked Maureen, calling her “corrupt” and “monstrous” and accusing her of paying “some people to have (him) killed” once he and her daughter became a couple (Geordie Greig, Breakfast with Lucian). In Paris, Blackwood and Freud lodged at the Hotel La Louisiane, where Freud began painting the now famous, eye-centric portraits of Blackwood, the first three, including Girl in Bed, making his sitter look like a waif of twelve. (The last, Hotel Bedroom, painted some time later, transformed Blackwood into a wizened, worried, considerably older creature.) An anecdote both Blackwood and Freud loved to repeat and embroider about their time in Paris—neither immune to its reflected glory—concerns the couple’s visit to Picasso’s studio. Picasso began his seduction of Blackwood by painting her bitten nails, then invited her to see his doves. Interviewed by Michael Kimmelman for the New York Times in 1995, Blackwood described the “old letch” doing a “complete lunge” at her on the rooftop while Freud waited below for three hours, as Freud told Geordie Greig, or for half an hour, as he told Martin Gaylord (Man with a Blue Scarf). To circumvent the hiccup of low funds and gain access to Blackwood’s trust fund, Lucian and Caroline married, returned to London, and settled in to day-drinking and carousing with Francis Bacon and chums in Soho pubs. When not in the pub or in the studio, Lucian slept around and gambled, as was his wont. The odd final straw, as Blackwood tells it, was Freud’s indifference to an elaborate meal she had prepared. When Freud pushed away his plate, Blackwood left for a hotel and swiftly thereafter for Italy. Maureen was delighted: “It was marvelous. Caroline ran, ran, ran” (Greig); Freud was bereft. Reportedly he tracked his wife down in Italy and begged her to return, which Blackwood refused to do. Francis Bacon, among others, feared Freud, in his misery, might “top” himself. Freud did no such thing. Like his nemesis, the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava, the painter lived on and on, outlasting his younger second wife by fifteen years.
Fans of Blackwood applaud her good looks; composer Ned Rorem, for example, declared Blackwood “one of the two or three most beautiful women” he’d “ever seen.” Detractors remember her as slovenly and unwashed. Sir Ian Fleming once complained to friends that Blackwood needed “a damned good scrub all over.” Blackwood herself seemed to believe her eyes were her best physical feature and throughout her life heavily outlined them with kohl for added emphasis. To judge by Walker Evans’s photographs of her, Evans agreed with Blackwood’s self-assessment. The pro-Blackwood faction appreciates what Geordie Greig summarized as the “lethal accuracy” of Blackwood’s conversational observations, her flair for ignoring the “social niceties” and getting “straight to the point.” As a young woman, Blackwood’s shyness was said to have tongue-tied her. Alcohol solved that problem but, in the opinion of brother Sheridan’s widow, Lindy Dufferin, created another: “Caroline could be mean and a terrific bore when she drank.” In her memoir Why Not Say What Happened?, Caroline’s daughter Ivana details her mother’s loyalty to friends, noting Blackwood’s daily habit of spending hours on the phone with those friends, sharing news and dispensing advice. Ex-husband Freud acknowledged her pecuniary generosity, telling Geordie Greig that when he asked Blackwood for funds for Francis Bacon, she readily supplied them, no questions asked. (Blackwood would eventually own—and sell—several of Bacon’s paintings, including The Wrestlers.) Others found Blackwood’s “aristocratic sense of entitlement,” in the phrase of Robert Lowell’s biographer Ian Hamilton, difficult to stomach. Steven Aronson, who published a lengthy interview with Blackwood in a 1993 issue of Town & Country, described his subject as “the most entitled titled person I’ve ever known.” Xandra Hardie (herself the former Lady Gowrie) explained Blackwood’s attitude thus: she had “her tribe’s fearless, arrogant authority.”
With the means to relocate whenever the urge struck, still in her twenties and in the wake of her break with Freud, Blackwood decided to give acting a try. In Hollywood, she learned to drive, bought a Thunderbird, and hooked up with screenwriter Ivan Moffat, a man who would remain in her life for many years to come. In New York, sans Moffat, she briefly attended Stella Adler’s Academy of Acting. (Who were her fellow classmates? Which scenes did she perform? How many servings of vodka, tonic on the side, did it take for Blackwood to overcome her “shyness” and mount the stage? The curious remain curious.) In New York, Blackwood met composer and Aaron Copland protégé Israel Citkowitz, slated to become her second husband and the father of two of her three daughters. Early in their relationship, Blackwood continued to divide her time between New York and California, still, nominally, pursuing an acting career. It was during one of those West Coast sojourns that Stephen Spender invited Blackwood to contribute to Encounter. The result, “Portrait of a Beatnik,” is a sneer-y and under-researched piece of work—also funny. The Beatnik, Blackwood writes, “marries in the Ocean (her capitalization), only at midnight.”
At a brownstone Blackwood purchased in Greenwich Village, she and Citkowitz settled into domesticity and parenthood. At least initially, Blackwood did not live in the squalor that reputedly characterized her later households and got her banned from multiple hotels. About Blackwood in her New York brownstone, painter Cornelia Foss insists: “There was nothing sloppy about her there…. She had a wonderful eye. The colors that she chose for her rooms, and the infinite care she took with things! That house was a miracle.” If so, a miracle with an expiration date. Despite maids and nannies, disorder set in. Blackwood drank, wrote, and left much of the active parenting to Citkowitz. Bored with her in-house companion, she turned elsewhere for romance, embarking on a long-term affair with Robert Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books. When art historian John Richardson visited Blackwood and Citkowitz, he saw “a mess everywhere.” Richardson also observed that the once “brilliant, promising composer” had been reduced to “caretaker,” subservient to Blackwood’s whims. Erstwhile Blackwood friend Barbara Skeleton based two of the characters in her short story “Born Losers” on Blackwood and Citkowitz during their New York residency. Skeleton describes Grace/Blackwood as someone who created “shambles wherever she went; stubs chucked across a room and left to smoulder”; someone who presided over a residential free-for-all of “stained” sheets, “blocked” lavatory, cockroach-infested kitchenware and “trash bins rankly overflowing”; someone who, told of another’s “ghastly misfortune,” would “double up laughing”; a wife utterly contemptuous of her passive, acquiescent husband, fully aware that she held “all the trumps” in their unequal relationship.
If Blackwood had become the Queen of Chaos, she met her chaotic match in third husband Robert Lowell. Unlike the extraordinarily patient and unflappably sane Elizabeth Hardwick, Blackwood could not deal with Lowell’s manic episodes. His madness exacerbated her drinking and vice versa. After re-meeting Blackwood at a London publishing party, Lowell, still married to Hardwick, moved in to Blackwood’s Redcliffe Square townhouse. Initially Hardwick assumed Blackwood represented merely the latest in a long line of her husband’s passing fancies—a rare Hardwick miscall. Lowell joined Blackwood in the top flat of the townhouse; Citkowitz, who had followed Blackwood to London to remain close to the children, continued to occupy the middle flat, and the girls and their nannies continued to occupy the flat below Citkowitz. A scant few months into the Blackwood/Lowell relationship, the poet locked himself and Blackwood in their quarters for three days and refused to allow Blackwood to telephone for help. Thereafter Lowell was hospitalized, his first hospitalization in more than three years, according to Kay Redfield Jamison in Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire, a Study of Genius, Mania and Character. Blackwood bundled up her kids and fled to the Hebrides. It would become a repeating pattern in their lives together: hospitalization and flight. During various of his manic episodes, Lowell dug at the electrical wires in the walls, read Mein Kampf aloud, and incessantly telephoned Jacqueline Kennedy; Blackwood ping-ponged between terror and despair. In early 1971, age thirty-nine, Blackwood discovered she was pregnant; Sheridan Lowell, a first son for both, was born in September. In 1972, Blackwood and Lowell divorced their spouses of record (Citkowitz, Hardwick), married each other, and with her and their children repaired to Milgate, Blackwood’s country house in Kent. Walker Evans visited in 1973, snapping Polaroids of the family that show a haggard, wary Blackwood and a glum, pensive Lowell. They were, at that moment, still four troubled years from the finish line. In the now famous conclusion to their story, Lowell was returning to Hardwick when he died of a heart attack in the backseat of a New York taxi. Indicative of his constant wavering between the two women, he was clutching Freud’s painting of Blackwood, Girl in Bed, when he expired. It was Blackwood, in the Town & Country article, who put about for public consumption the detail that hospital attendants had had to break Lowell’s arms to separate corpse from prize. The poet may have been returning to Hardwick, but he died married to Blackwood—a connection his widow continued to tout on book jacket bios. In On the Perimeter, her 1984 report on the nuclear protest camps at Greenham Common outside Newbury, her bio paragraph includes the tantalizing news that Blackwood was “at work…on a memoir of Robert Lowell.” Regrettably—for what a read it might have been!—no such book was published. Left to our imagination: how Blackwood would have portrayed herself, the dead, and the still standing Hardwick.
Despite the turmoil of their seven years together, when Lowell was sane and Blackwood sober, they wrote and published. Lowell composed, among others, the poems that would form The Dolphin, a collection depicting his complicated attraction to Blackwood (the dolphin) and the break-up of his marriage to Hardwick. His decision to include passages from Hardwick’s actual letters dismayed and enraged many of his friends (Elizabeth Bishop, Adrienne Rich, W.H. Auden) and deeply wounded Hardwick, but the book netted Lowell the 1974 Pulitzer Prize. During her Lowell era, Blackwood primarily concentrated on fiction and finished two novels: The Stepdaughter, awarded the David Higham Prize for the best novel of 1976, and Great Granny Webster, shortlisted for the Booker Prize. The couple often wrote in the same room. A compulsive reviser, Lowell regularly interrupted Blackwood’s progress to confer on the aptness of a word, phrase or line. (How Blackwood felt about those interruptions goes unrecorded.)
Blackwood’s worldview was never a cheery one. As a person and as a writer, she did not bask in the glow of positivity or ride the tide of hope. The Blackwood Christopher Isherwood socialized with during her Hollywood adventure was “only capable of thinking negatively,” Isherwood confided to his diary. “Confronted by a phenomenon, she asks herself: what is wrong with it?” (For perspective, in Isherwood’s diaries, Joan Didion is tagged “Mrs. Misery.”) In interviews, Blackwood liked to quote from Lowell’s poem “Since 1939”: “If we see light at the end of the tunnel, / It’s the light of the oncoming train.” Readily acknowledging the macabre twist to her humor, she attributed that coloration to origin, explaining to Michael Kimmelman: “Irish people are…funny but have this tragic sense” (“Titled Bohemian,” New York Times). The quality Isherwood described as Blackwood’s “negativity” particularly announces itself in her fiction. Many of her short stories are relentlessly nihilistic, some ghoulish, all blunt and brutal in their depictions of humanity. Just when one assumes the worst of a character has been revealed, Blackwood digs deeper, exposing another layer of selfishness, malice, and deceit. Depending on the reader, that pile-on comes across as comic or horrific—a Blackwood Rorschach test.
Characters consistently and repeatedly behave badly in Blackwood’s fictional universe. They run out on marriages (The Stepdaughter, “Marigold’s Christmas”). They run out on dying dogs (“Addy”). They fire Holocaust survivors from jobs (“Who Needs It?”). They thrive as petty tyrants (“Matron,” “The Baby Nurse”). They hector and hate (“The Interview”). They reflexively lie (“Taft’s Wife”). Quite regularly they hallucinate. A Blackwood specialty is the internal crack-up. The protagonist of “The Answering Machine” refers to herself as a “female customer drinking in (a) pub who was not always in contact with her own brain.” The unhinged fixate on ears, “those absurd rubbery appendages clamped to the sides of…heads” (“Angelica”). They fixate on fat: “Her eye caught the blue mottled and fatty flesh of thighs swelling obscenely out of transparent panties” (“The Shopping Spree”). The stepmother narrator of The Stepdaughter is convinced that the “weight” of her husband’s cake-eating progeny is “monumental enough to bring the whole apartment building down.” Some of Blackwood’s mentally unbalanced characters are institutionalized (Great Granny Webster); others kill themselves (“How You Love Our Lady,” Great Granny Webster). In every narrative, rage percolates. Even in Blackwood’s final novel, Corrigan, by far the kindest and gentlest of the lot, daughter Nadine feels “disgusted” by her widowed mother’s life choices and fiercely resents her mother for “depriving her of her father in death” as she had deprived Nadine of that father “in life.” Many are the deceased fathers. Many are the mothers and daughters operating at odds. Continuously in her fiction, Blackwood plays with and off the reader’s expectation that some tiny corner of the misery will brighten. It does not.
Perhaps because I started with Blackwood’s quirky brand of reportage, I prefer it. In its offshoots, rabbit holes, and emphases Blackwood’s nonfiction retains its capacity to surprise, but does so through tonalities more varied. As a memoirist and as a journalist, she gives presumption, vanity, and hypocrisy more leeway, depicting those foibles and failings with a less lacerating pen. For anyone familiar with Blackwood’s oeuvre, her witness/reporter stance of wide-eyed wonder at the information and confessions she’s collecting adds to the enjoyment. Whereas Blackwood’s fiction goes directly for the jugular, her reportage circles its quarry, assembling damning tidbits along the way. As part of her 1987 report on fox hunting, In the Pink, she visits a sanctuary for animals in northern England called “Little Heaven,” run by Tim Morgan, who derides Blackwood for restricting her subject to fox hunting, demanding that she “cover every aspect of human cruelty to animals.” What, for instance, does Blackwood plan “to do about the cows”? Vegan Morgan exhibits “the unhealthy complexion with which those who restrict their diet to the very purest of ingredients are oddly cursed,” Blackwood toys before describing a “persistent sobbing coming from a nearby stable,” its source a lone infant fox a member of Morgan’s commune has rescued. When Blackwood inquires how Morgan plans to “rehabilitate” the animal, he says he intends to “let it spend the night in the stable,” then release it into the fields the following day. To Blackwood’s question: “Won’t the fox-cub be eaten by the hounds?”, Morgan indifferently shrugs, an animal rights’ activist “unable to identify with the plight of any individual animal.” In On the Perimeter, Blackwood interviews the encamped women protesting an American nuclear facility on British soil and the townspeople who object to the protestors’ presence. She details the verbal abuse the protestors withstand from the base’s military personnel as well as passersby, the physical hardship of sleeping for months in plastic “benders” attached to the ground with “clothes-pegs and washing line,” the emotional hardship of leaving behind children and families in an attempt to ensure those children have a future, given the threat of nuclear destruction. Then comes the Blackwood swerve: Did the protestors ever find protesting boring? “Dead boring,” a young protestor named Mary replies. After some delay, Blackwood arranges to meet the homeowner who lives across the way, a founding member of RAGE (Ratepayers Against the Greenham Encampments). Mrs. Scull informs Blackwood that the “people of Newbury were suffering horribly from the mob rule of the Greenham women” and invites Blackwood to see for herself “what they had done to her view.” Blackwood obliges, confiding to the page that Mrs. Scull’s view would “never be much improved…while the base remained.” Mrs. Scull, on the other hand, “seemed to be able to blot out the sight of the vast military installation that was right in front of her windows. She appeared to see only a lovely and peaceful English common which had been ruined by the benders of the peace campers.”
Blackwood continued to contribute one-off articles to Robert Silvers’s New York Review of Books until a year before her death. When Francis Bacon—the early friend who remained a friend—died, she wrote a fond obituary. Reviewing a trio of ex-husband Lucian Freud’s shows and show catalogs, she gets in a few licks (e.g., “His earlier work…had a lyricism and tenderness rarely to be found in his later paintings”; currently the artist only paints “plants and flowers and animals…with his old excited wonder”). She reminds those who require reminding of their entwined history (“When I used to sit for him nearly forty years ago…”) and reminisces about pre-World-War-II Soho, the “legend” in which she played a part. Altogether it is a flattering assessment of the work of the man she left behind. In 1979, Blackwood reported on the gravediggers strike in Liverpool for NYRB. It was a story that allowed her to go full-bore Blackwood. Included is commentary on Thatcherite politics, anti-Semitism, and the dismal working conditions of the gravediggers themselves. “Almost always” there was a grave beneath the one being dug, Blackwood reports, then embellishes: The gravediggers’ “feet go through (the lower coffin) and they find themselves wading around in foul water which is floating with rotting human remains…grinning skulls staring them in the face.” Blackwood interviews Liverpool’s “leading undertaker,” a “brisk and dapper…businessman,” who gripes about the “unsatisfactory…freelance embalmers” he’s been forced to hire to deal with the back-up. There’s even a scene of comic mix-up. Blackwood’s taxi driver mistakenly drops her off not at the factory that serves as a makeshift morgue but at a car factory nearby. When Blackwood quizzes the outside guard—“Exactly how many hundreds of bodies are being stored here?”—he suspects reconnaissance by the competition.
Given the artistic fame of two of her husbands, Blackwood already commanded a biographical presence. But in biographies of Freud and Lowell, she counts as sidelight, not focus. Perhaps the buzz and renewed interest created by the Town & Country and New York Times features, perhaps the initial diagnosis of cancer and subsequent surgery, spurred Blackwood to scout for her own chronicler in 1995. Shana Alexander, Sag Harbor neighbor, suggested Nancy Schoenberger for the job. Blackwood and Schoenberger agreed to meet, but Blackwood’s final illness nixed those plans.
Whether Blackwood’s presence and cooperation would have turned Schoenberger’s Dangerous Muse: the Life of Lady Caroline Blackwood into a different book is anyone’s guess. “Obsessed” with her subject, Schoenberger revives the Caroline-as-witch innuendos in her opening acknowledgments, links a car accident of her own to Blackwood’s “haunting,” and announces that the book before us will be an “exorcism as well as a biography.” Apparently exorcism took precedence. Schoenberger dutifully covers the Blackwood trajectory but fails to get at her subject’s reckless, black (or otherwise) heart. Among the biographer’s eager if unconvincing sources is Blackwood’s last boy toy, Andrew Harvey, “twenty years younger than Caroline, and gay,” but for whom Blackwood’s “passionate sexuality was part of her glamour.” In his discussions with Schoenberger, among other claims, Harvey, current director of the Institute for Sacred Activism, takes credit for “opening up” Blackwood to “social issues.” Somewhere in the ether, witch Caroline is cackling.
In 2010, Blackwood’s youngest daughter, Ivana, published Why Not Say What Happened?, a memoir that took its title from a poem written by her adoptive father. Ivana Lowell’s book is a recovery text that stars two drinkers, one of whom never stopped imbibing. In recounting Blackwood’s life prior to her own birth, Lowell employs the “Mum told me later” approach. Whether Lowell inquired or Blackwood shared without prompting is unclear. Lowell dispels the notion of Blackwood’s fine decorating sense (“My mother’s idea of decorating was to place as many rickety antiques as could fit in a room onto a comparable number of worn antique rugs”) and confirms the havoc, their accommodations “always untidy and unruly.” We’re told that, although Blackwood considered “sex…the best feeling ever—absolutely the best,” she had a “cynical view of men.” Blackwood was also “strange about money” and had “wide feet” that made finding comfortable footwear a challenge. We learn precisely what the meal cooked by Blackwood and pushed aside by Lucian Freud consisted of: “tender baby lamb chops with mint sauce, petit pois and potatoes dauphinoise.” We’re apprised of Blackwood’s drinking habits and fondness for house hunting, her last residence on Union Street in Sag Harbor conveniently located a short walk from an upscale bar. Lowell reveals that she could gauge “how many drinks” Blackwood had consumed “by the way she said hello on the telephone” and on that basis decide whether “it was worthwhile to continue with the conversation.” Regardless of “what kind of night had passed,” however, come morning, Blackwood would “get up early, pour herself a s strong cup of coffee, and sit down with her notebook to write.”
In Ivana’s telling, when she was a child, her deeply troubled sister Natalya, six years older, capitalized on “any chance” to “harass” and “frighten” her younger sibling, throwing “plates of food” at Ivana and chasing her “around the house with a knife.” As a teenager, the Blackwood daughter who “would do anything to get attention,” taunted her mother that she’d slept with Lucian Freud, a claim Ivana is unable to confirm or deny: “I never knew whether this was true or whether (Natalya) had just made it up to upset Mum.” Others, such as Geordie Greig, accept the claim as truth. “It was a shameful episode,” Greig writes in Breakfast with Lucian. “She was seventeen; he was fifty-five.” A year later Natalya was dead. Drunk, she had passed out while prepping to shoot heroin and toppled into a bathtub full of water.
The big reveal of Lowell’s book is the identity of her biological father. Because Blackwood wanted her daughters to “have the same father,” Israel Citkowitz assumed that title and role. Privately, Blackwood told Robert Silvers that he was the father of her third daughter; she told Ivan Moffat the same. Despite the first-name clue, both Silvers and Lowell hoped the DNA test would go his way. It did not. Unlike Deceived with Kindness, Angelica Garnett’s outraged account of the hypocritical adult conspiracy that peddled Clive Bell as her father rather than Duncan Grant, Lowell’s memoir presents her reaction as less angry than disappointed. Once the truth was finally out, Moffat came round to visit, entertaining himself—though not his daughter—by enacting “cruel impersonations” of the dead Blackwood, sharing “vicious stories” about Blackwood’s drinking, and engaging in a critique of Blackwood’s literary shortcomings (e.g., “unconvincing” male protagonists). A bit of a jerk, Ivan Moffat. Little wonder Lowell felt disinclined to celebrate the genetic link.
Too ill to return to her Sag Harbor house, Blackwood spent the last few weeks of her life in a suite procured by Ivana’s boyfriend, Bob Weinstein, at the Mayfair Hotel on Sixty-fifth and Park. At that late date, if Blackwood remained on any hotel blacklist, the co-chair of Miramax Films and The Weinstein Company had the power to override it. In attendance during Blackwood’s final days were her two surviving daughters, Ivana and Evgenia, her son Sheridan (who, according to Ivana, had recently renounced socialism for communism), and her son-in-law, Evgenia’s husband, the actor Julian Sands. Robert Silvers visited daily. Ivan Moffat telephoned. Lucian Freud telephoned. Marianne Faithfull, who had not long before recorded the direly funny and dirge-like “She’s Got a Problem,” lyrics by Caroline Blackwood, dropped in to sing a “Surabaya Caroline” goodbye. Blackwood’s longtime friend Anna Haycraft, who published novels as Alice Thomas Ellis, flew in from London. Years before, the two had co-edited a cookbook designed for the woman who “wanted to be free to drink and talk to her friends without worrying whether the dinner she is about to produce will be a catastrophe,” recipes provided by their famous friends (“Thick, Fat, Genuine Mayonnaise” from Francis Bacon, tomato soup from Lucian Freud, corned beef “stovies” from Beryl Bainbridge). A devout Catholic, Haycraft finagled sprinkling disbeliever Blackwood with holy water from Lourdes—just to be safe. And then, Ivana reports, eighty-nine-year-old Maureen booked a seat on the Concorde and descended on the Mayfair Hotel draped in a “floor-length mink,” a platoon of suitcases bringing up the rear. After establishing herself in the suite down the hall from Blackwood’s, Maureen settled in at the bedside of her rebellious, dying daughter. The rest of the family retreated, leaving the two alone to exchange whatever last words each cared to exchange.
Another Ivana Lowell disclosure: when tests revealed that Blackwood’s cancer had returned, her New York doctor declared to the room at large: “I am afraid all of Lady Caroline’s naughty years of smoking and drinking have finally caught up with her.” If that medical practitioner expected the woman to whom he’d just issued a death sentence to express regret over her improvident ways, he was fast corrected. “Yes,” snapped Lady Caroline Maureen Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, eldest child of the 4th Marquess and Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava. “And I really enjoyed them!”