Permit me to begin with a confession of personal prejudice: I have never appreciated memoirs or other books whose primary purpose appears to be the opportunity for an author to “work through his or her issues,” to use contemporary parlance. For me, such works abuse the bully pulpit of publication to take unfair advantage of a captive audience of readers.
Let me further confess that, as I began to read Ivana Lowell’s recent “Why Not Say What Happened?” I feared that this was going to be just such a bugbear of a memoir. The very title suggested the words of a therapist or a thoughtful friend, recommending to someone who had led a troubled life that writing a book might be the perfect way to face down one’s demons.
And Ms. Lowell has certainly led a troubled life. Within the first 35 pages or so, she alludes to the following: her family’s history of alcoholism, her own dependence on alcohol and pills, her multiple experiences in rehab and detox facilities, her molestation as a young child by the husband of her nanny, a nearly fatal accident in which much of her body was severely burned and crippled (requiring years of recovery), an often poisonous relationship with her difficult and eccentric mother, and, finally, the overarching question of her own paternity. In the pages following, we also encounter tragic deaths and numerous failed marriages within Ms. Lowell’s family.
What is altogether missing, it turns out, is the slightest hint of self-pity, self-deprecation, victimization, rebuke, or regret. And that is refreshing! It leaves us with a fascinating story, extremely well written, of a young woman’s life among a plethora of boldface names in the Great Britain, New York, and Los Angeles of the last 40 years.
In the end, however, this book is more than Ms. Lowell’s beautifully crafted memoir. It is also at least as much the story of two larger-than-life women who, for better or worse, played a huge role in her life — her grandmother and her mother.
The author’s grandmother Maureen, Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava, was a Guinness Brewery heiress of fabled beauty who married into an old, distinguished Irish family. Money and privilege abounded. The sharp-tongued Maureen, who counted Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, among her personal friends, was a critical, manipulative, self-absorbed snob — the kind of person who took pleasure in pitting houseguests against servants and against each other, the cuisine in whose home was notoriously bad because she herself was “not a foodie” and cared little about it. In other words, she was a “corker,” a grand lady who lived well into her 90s and whom it is great fun to read about.
Maureen’s eldest daughter, Lady Caroline, the author’s mother, was equally fascinating, though her life was much darker. Married in succession to the painter Lucian Freud, Israel Citkowitz, a pianist and composer (and ostensibly the father of her three children), and the American poet Robert Lowell (whom she convinced to adopt her youngest daughter, Ivana), Caroline also enjoyed lengthy, open relationships with Ivan Moffett, a screenwriter, and with Robert Silvers, longtime editor of The New York Review of Books.
Caroline was a writer of some renown who, like her mother, traveled in very high social circles. She was also a serious alcoholic whose relationships with her children could turn nothing short of toxic. Ms. Lowell’s subtle account of how she came to terms with her mother (and what she ultimately recognized as her mother’s love) during Caroline’s final illness and following her death is the most memorable section of the book.
“Why Not Say What Happened?”
The question of who the author’s father actually is weaves its way throughout the narrative. It is at times important for her to find out the identity of her real father, and at other times she professes ambivalence about knowing. Ultimately, when pregnant with a child of her own, she decides to settle the matter once and for all, in the interest of understanding her as yet unborn daughter’s genetics.
Readers of The Star will be struck by the role that Sag Harbor plays in this memoir, as well as by the fact that a portion of Ms. Lowell’s childhood was spent in Kent, England, not far from Maidstone, whence the earliest settlers of East Hampton came.
As I completed reading this book, I recalled the oft-misquoted or improperly attributed lines of F. Scott Fitzgerald from his story “The Rich Boy”:
“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand.”
Ms. Lowell’s memoir enables us to understand better the rarefied world of the extremely wealthy and well born. More significant, she also offers us a glimpse of how — in the face of great emotional adversity — she came to understand better her own self, her own world, and her own place in it. Her story, which melds privilege and pain, is intelligently recounted, with a fair measure of wit. She writes in an elegant, unself-conscious style. This is a writer who has found her voice. We can only hope she gives us more.
Ivana Lowell lives in Sag Harbor.
A weekend resident of East Hampton, James I. Lader regularly contributes book reviews to The Star.