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Ivana Lowell: Telling It Like It Was

Posted on 22 November 2010

Ivana Lowell-photo Elena Seibert

By Annette Hinkle

To say that Ivana Lowell has been through a lot in life would be a vast understatement. Alcoholism, sexual abuse, tragic death, mental illness and a disfiguring childhood accident all figure prominently in her formative years.

But so does a sense of optimism. Lowell has lived to tell the tale and in her new memoir, “Why Not Say What Happened” she does just that. The name of the book comes from the poem “Epilogue” by the famed American poet Robert Lowell, the only real father Ivana Lowell ever knew, though he wasn’t, in fact, her biological father. That honor belonged to composer Israel Citkowitz — or so she had always believed.

In the days after her mother’s death in 1996, a close family friend took Lowell to lunch in New York, and during the meal came out with, “Of course, you do know who your real father was. Don’t you?”

That is where Lowell’s book begins – but it is hardly where it ends, and for Lowell, putting the full story down on paper began with a therapy session.

“I went to a shrink who was new and they do a 45 minute family history,” recalls Lowell. “I reeled it off as I do … Mother was an alcoholic, I was burned as I child, my father wasn’t who I thought it was …”

“I was getting all twisted,” adds Lowell. “I explained my story and she said, ‘Oh my goodness! That you’re still standing there after being so battered is amazing. You’re a wonder,’” recalls Lowell. “Afterwards, in the cab to my apartment, I thought I am a wonder, and it is amazing. That afternoon I began to write – it just kind of poured out.”

“I thought, maybe this is valuable and interesting for other people,” adds Lowell. “I always thought I was the only person who felt like me — just in that way you don’t feel right in yourself. But maybe some people do have the same feelings.”

Putting Lowell’s family history into context is no easy task, but it’s vital for understanding all that followed. Ivana Lowell was born into a world of apparent privilege. Her mother, Lady Caroline Blackwood, who spent her final years in Sag Harbor, was the daughter of brewery heiress Maureen Guinness, who reveled in the world of well-born aristocrats, and Basil Hamilton-Temple Blackwood, the fourth Marquess of Dufferin and Ava. Lady Caroline, the eldest of three children, was renowned for her haunting beauty — and she was the antithesis of her own mother.

Lady Caroline wholly rejected the upper crust snobbery of her mother and ultimately married a trio of creative men — though she had affairs with many more. At the age of 18, she became the wife of painter Lucian Freud (grandson of Sigmund), a German Jew who represented everything her family abhorred. Lady Caroline’s second husband, and presumed father of her three daughters, was composer Israel Citkowitz. It was third husband, poet Robert Lowell, who officially adopted youngest daughter, Ivana. He and Lady Caroline would go on to have a son of their own as well.

Lowell admits that while her mother was always a great deal of fun, there was not much in the way of stability in her home life. The manors they lived in appeared grand on the outside, but inside, were shabbily decorated, cold and drafty. Though there was always plenty of booze in the house, recalls Lowell, there was generally very little in the way of nutritious food.

“Parenting wasn’t a verb then,” says Lowell, who’s own struggle with alcoholism as an adult –a family trait as she describes it – is detailed in the book with frankness, as is the late night sexual abuse she endured as a young child at the hands of the husband of one of her nannies.

“I told my mother when I was older and she was completely shocked,” says Lowell. “That was the annoying thing – how could you not know?

Then there was Robert Lowell, the brilliant poet who was severely manic depressive. Though his breakdowns were legendary, he was a source of great comfort for Lowell as a child.

“To me he was a cozy, accessible person – he was childlike in his behavior,” says Lowell. “ He was not always crazy, but he had spells and was also very sensitive. When he went to McLean’s [psychiatric hospital in Boston] or English loony bins, he was always apologetic and frightened.”

“He would literally think he was someone else, like General Franco addressing the troops” recalls Lowell. “We had a flat in London, at one point he thought he was a Roman archeologist looking for mosaics and was digging into the wall. That’s very scary.”

“It must’ve been awful for him and my mother,” she adds. “As he got older, the spells got longer and closer together.”

In 1977, Robert Lowell died in the back of a New York City cab on his way to the home of ex-wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, and their daughter. Clutched in his hands at the time was “Girl in Bed,” Lucian Freud’s painting of Caroline Blackwood as a teenager.

Lowell received news of her stepfather’s death from the administrators of the British boarding school where she was a student at the time. Within a year, Lowell would be called to the office again — this time to be told of the death of her eldest sister, Natalya, who overdosed just shy of her 18th birthday.

“It was so surreal – both times I was told at school,” says Lowell, who was six years younger than Natalya. “My immediate thinking when I was called to the office was that something had happened to my mom. I was so worried about her. But when it was my sister I couldn’t believe it.”

“It was really awful. My last memory of my sister was going to buy funeral clothes in London for Robert’s service,” she adds.

But perhaps the most horrible physical childhood experience for Lowell came when she was just six. While playing a game of chase with a household staff member, Lowell attempted to jump up on a counter to escape. Her foot became tangled in an electric cord attached to a boiling kettle and the water scalded her from the waist down. She suffered third degree burns over 70 percent of her body and lives with severe scarring as a result. Her mother always felt responsible for the accident.

“I didn’t blame her. The accident was an accident,” says Lowell. “Yes it was careless — now with all the child proofing you wouldn’t have a cord dangling like that. It was a lot of bad luck. I tried to reassure her that it was no one’s fault, but she felt incredibly guilty. When I was an adult, we went to all these plastic surgeons in New York who had awful techniques to get rid of scars, but it brought us closer in a way. It was hard. She wanted to say it’s okay to be scarred, but at the same time, she wanted to say ‘Let’s try to get rid of them.’”

In the end, Lowell rejected the notion of surgery for her scars, and she wants other burn victims who read her book to take hope from that fact. Lowell admits she had to face a lot of painful memories while writing her book, and she came to Sag Harbor to do it — in the Union Street home she inherited from her mother. Initially, she planned to stay just a year, but Sag Harbor has since become home for Lowell and her own daughter, 11-year-old Daisy, a sixth grader at the Ross School.

“I was in this house and I was writing about my mom, and her ashes are in the back,” says Lowell. “It was really hard. When I was writing it, I called them all back, and visited with them. But I’m finished now and I have to put everyone back.”

And while the process of writing has brought up its share of pain, including the mystery of her biological father (and her confusion over why her mother never told her the truth), it has also allowed Lowell to relive fond memories of her mother and their close relationship. If there is a lesson to be learned, it is that it’s important she be a different parent to her own daughter.

“My inclination was to be best friends with my daughter, but I’ve got to be the authority,” admits Lowell. “I had no authority growing up and to enforce it, I feel like a hypocrite. I’m a single mom and I really want Daisy to have some kind of routine. I want her to have stability and a sense of home — as well as the fun.”

With her new book, Lowell also hopes to dispel some of the myths about her own mother —particularly the notion that she was somehow an uncaring parent.

“She was very loving,” counters Lowell. “She wasn’t the best mom in the traditional sense, but she had a great capacity to love and she loved her children — after all, she had four. She would never do anything to willfully harm us. She was my best friend, she was incredibly vulnerable and she was wonderful — I hope that comes across.”

On Sunday, December 5, 2010, Ivana Lowell will be a speaker at The Friends of the John Jermain Memorial Library’s annual Book and Author Luncheon at noon at The American Hotel in Sag Harbor. Also appearing will writer, editor and publisher Jason Epstein (Lowell’s next door neighbor and a close friend). Tickets are $50 and available by calling 725-3803. Lowell will also appear at an event at BookHampton in Sag Harbor on Saturday, December 4 at 2 p.m.

Top: Ivana Lowell (Elena Seibert photo).

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One Response to “Ivana Lowell: Telling It Like It Was”

  1. SHARON says:

    I just finished reading your book and I am glad you wrote it. Your mother sounds like my kind of person. She seems to have done okay with you kids, in spite of her problems.

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