- The Washington Times - Friday, January 7, 2011

By Ivana Lowell
Knopf, $27.95 287 pages, illustrated

We’re all familiar with biographies - and even the occasional works of fiction like “The Forsyte Saga” - that have family trees to help us figure out who’s who. This memoir could sure use one, but then again, its author, burdened as she is by heredity and experience, might have been hard put at various times in her life to provide an accurate one. You might even say that the text of “Why Not Say What Happened?” is a kind of extended account of a quest to climb it. Or perhaps that’s too active a metaphor to fit the bill here: Her life seems more akin to being swept up in a monster tidal wave.

Let’s start with the author’s name. For most of her life she believed that she was the third daughter of the Anglo-Irish-American writer Lady Caroline Blackwood and her second husband, the Jewish-Polish-American composer Israel Citkovitz (who died when she was a child), although she took the name of her mother’s third husband, the American poet Robert Lowell. But after her mother’s death, round about the time Ms. Lowell turned 30, biological fathers starting popping up.

Was it the New York Review of Books editor, Robert Silvers, a treasured family friend and presence for much of her life, or the saturnine expatriate British screenwriter Ivan Moffat, whom she hardly knew and didn’t much like? She longed for it to be Silvers, in part so that she could keep the treasured Jewish heritage she had clung to and that bonded her to her sisters and, she felt, accounted for her dark beauty. But DNA told her that it was Moffat, a member of the Beerbohm-Tree British theatrical and literary dynasty, and so another loaded branch appeared on that already overburdened family tree.

There was already plenty there, thanks to her aristocratic and very wealthy mother, who would not have dreamed of marrying anyone but a very talented artist or writer. (Her first husband was the painter Lucian Freud.) The money came from Lady Caroline’s mother, the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava, a member of the Guinness brewing fortune, but there was a lot more to the heritage in which genetics and upbringing seemed to have combined to make Ivana’s mother a train wreck to her children and others involved with her.

Or perhaps one should say enmeshed: Blackwood seems to have been the incarnation of a siren, a Lorelei mad, bad and dangerous as well as beautiful - but irresistible to her children as well as to men who fell for her. Ms. Lowell mentions the curses associated with the Guinnesses and the Dufferins (theirs apparently came from the first marquess’ stint as viceroy of India), but has spent too much time on the psychiatrist’s couch, in rehab and at AA meetings not to have learned the importance of taking responsibility for one’s own actions.

Whatever its background, her childhood was a chamber of horrors, including constantly being uprooted, subjected to molestation by a servant and suffering horrendous third-degree burns over much of her body from a household accident caused by negligence that left her permanently scarred. Boarding school seemed like an island of stability (as has rehab in an adult life that has carried on some of the less savory parental traditions) and families who actually ate dinner a thing of wonder and envy.

Her mother’s idea of dinner was unlimited vodka and cigarettes, but there was a charge account at Harrods’ food hall, so her daughters could dine on all the delicacies on offer there. This neatly encapsulates the conundrum so well illustrated by this memoir. Its author seems all too aware that she was both genuinely over- and underprivileged, and it is a measure of her success in telling her tale (its title comes from a poem by Robert Lowell) that she can convince the reader equally on both points.

The trouble with “Why Not Say What Happened?” is that Ms. Lowell is too enmeshed in it all to have real perspective. No matter which side of the Atlantic she is on, she lives in a hothouse world of nepotistic opportunity. Want to become an actress? Meet superagent Swifty Lazar. Want to work in publishing? Here come the Weinstein brothers of Miramax fame. Socializing in New York involves Jayne Wrightsman and Mercedes Bass, then it’s across the pond for her grandmother’s annual dinner for Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.

Turns out her real paternal great-grandfather founded the dramatic academy that almost accepted her - if she had known then who he was, would she have got in? And the web of her world is infinitely complicated, more even than she knows. For instance, her putative father Robert Silvers‘ companion’s late husband, the Earl of Dudley’s first wife - got that? - perished in the same air crash in 1930 as Ms. Lowell’s maternal great-grandfather, the Marquess of Dufferin. And that selfsame Earl of Dudley’s second wife, if you please, was the sister of Ann (Mrs. Ian) Fleming, who introduced Lady Caroline to Lucian Freud.

If your head is spinning, imagine what Ivana Lowell’s does as she tries to make sense of such a complex life and heritage.

Martin Rubin is a Washington-area writer.

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