Why Not Say What Happened?: A Memoirby Ivana Lowell
Born into one of the most celebrated Anglo-Irish families, the Guinnesses, Ivana Lowell tells a stunning story of coming to terms with her blue-blood heritage and her own
An astonishing and at times outright comic memoir that marks the brilliant debut of a writer raised in a creative, bohemian household characterized by extreme privilege tinged with neglect.
Born into one of the most celebrated Anglo-Irish families, the Guinnesses, Ivana Lowell tells a stunning story of coming to terms with her blue-blood heritage and her own childhood traumas. It is also the story of her intense relationship with her formidably intelligent and complicated mother, the writer Caroline Blackwood. A keen observer with an incisive eye, a wicked sense of humor, and no self-pity, Lowell sets a wide range of scenes with a truly unexpected, almost madcap cast of characters, introducing us to such eccentric figures as her maternal grandmother, Maureen, the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava. She takes us from the marchioness’s annual ball for her idol and old friend, the Queen Mother, to Maureen’s stately Irish home, Clandeboye (where the marchioness hopes to die), to summers in Dufferin’s villa in Sardinia; through moves to carelessly furnished, drafty, too-large English country houses with her mother and stepfather, the poet Robert Lowell; to working in Manhattan at Miramax Books for Harvey Weinstein and a trip with his brother, Bob, to the Academy Awards; to her wedding at New York’s Rainbow Room and finally to a life with her daughter. Ivana also has darker stories to tell including her own stints in rehab, and discovering, after her mother’s death, the secret Lady Caroline had successfully kept from her.
Why Not Say What Happened? introduces a dazzling new literary voice and the fascinating story of a tragic and remarkable family.
From the Hardcover edition.
“An exhilarating roller-coaster ride of a book, full of the sort of wonderfully terrible secrets writers seldom have the guts to tell, let alone with such an assured and beguiling candor—but then of course, Ivana’s Irish and a born writer .”
—John Richardson, author of A Life of Picasso, volumes 1-3
"Ivana Lowell’s memoir is a heart-breaking account of a gifted woman, her brilliant but destructive parents, and a glamorous, aristocratic life that was laced with arsenic. That she survived and now shines as literary force in her own right is apparent from the very first page. Why Not Say What Happened? is a tour de force."
—Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire
“Shocking and hilarious, this elegantly lucid memoir by Ivana Lowell is that lethal mix of British aristocracy, giant fortunes, huge freezing houses, beautiful women jagged with sophistication, pedophilia, mysterious paternity, cruelty and yes, cocktails. We are reminded of the plays of Oscar Wilde and novels from Ronald Firbank to Evelyn Waugh as we are introduced to a lively and unlikely mix that includes the Queen Mother and Harvey and Bob Weinstein. I am not making this up.
The startling thing is how recent all this is and how extreme. Lowell is impressive and touching in sparing us none of this tragicomedy, least of all herself.”
“Ivana Lowell's Why Not Say What happened? is a particularly lucid memoir of growing up in simultaneous extremes of privilege and neglect. The book is a riveting history of a family that folds in on itself, consuming generation after generation with money, power, alcoholism, and profound selfishness and emotional disconnection. Lowell’s compact, finely tuned paragraphs render the saga with brave urgency and courage, and while the import and impact of events is horrifyingly clear, there’s an absence of melodrama to the telling and a deep compassion—call it love—for those who failed the author so miserably.”
—A. M. Homes, Elle
“Her recollections . . . could have made for grim reading, but Lowell’s writing remains conversational and refreshingly free of self-pity.”
—Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly
“The tales she recounts about her upbringing range from tender to funny to outright absurd . . . [She has] a wry, unblunted grip on her life story . . . Lowell has executed an impeccable memoir.”
—Claire Howorth, The Daily Beast
“[A] clear-eyed chronicle . . .”
—Town & Country
Unflinching memoir about growing up affluent and unhappy in Britain.
All she wanted was a normal, suburban existence. But for Lowell, under the veneer of privilege as the daughter of a wealthy heiress lay many miserable years of alcoholism, benign neglect and emotional turmoil. Family, household, relationships—all suffered from the "family problem." With an aristocratic pedigree that stretched back centuries, Lowell spent the public part of her young life attending balls and having tea with royals, and the rest of it tiptoeing around her volatile mother in a series of ramshackle mansions. Her mother, arguably the main character of the book, could be self-absorbed, overly dramatic, conniving, exasperating, socially awkward and remarkably unmaternal. It is telling that one of her mother's husbands, the poet Robert Lowell, with his crippling bouts of mania and mental illness, emerges as the most stable person in her childhood. Scarred literally and figuratively by her childhood, she nevertheless grew into a powerful and privileged young woman, hobnobbing with royalty, movie stars, artists and writers, and even dating Harvey Weinstein. But eventually substance abuse got to her, too, and she spent years bouncing in and out of rehab facilities. After her mother's death, she encountered the mystery of her own paternity, a theme explored in the last few chapters. Part of the narrative's power comes from the fact that the narrator, though certainly recovering, is not quite out of the woods yet, and she doesn't speak with illusions of perfect hindsight. Her keenly honest descriptions of her extraordinary circumstances keep the narrative moving swiftly. The other part of the story's allure—perhaps ironically for a book that shows how privilege doesn't always bring happiness or contentment—is the glamorous crowd that surrounded her. Lowell never tries to impress us, but her life undoubtedly makes for a juicy read.
An unsettling yet entertaining chronicle of an exceptional life.
- Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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- Random House
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Read an Excerpt
I have recently started going to a new shrink. She is the latest on a list of many. She is British, straightforward, and cozily plump. The sort of woman you want to sit down with, have a nice cup of tea and a bit of a chat. "You have been so bumped and knocked around," she told me after hearing just a little of my history, "that it's a wonder you survived at all."
I certainly don't feel like a "wonder." In fact, I feel that I have fucked up my life. I have spent so long trying to avoid feeling the pain and anxiety that lie so close to the surface of my skin. Alcohol, antidepressants, and stints in rehabs have done little to alleviate the feelings of desperation.
The worst thought I have is that it is too late, that perhaps I am too damaged ever to be fixed. I have spent so much of my life floundering.
Now that I am a mother, however, I have grown up a bit and become brave enough to look back and try to make some sense of the past.
Dysfunctional does not even begin to describe my family and upbringing. Anyway, that is far too easy a word to use-who doesn't come from some kind of dysfunction? But what part of my history has so ill-equipped me to function in adulthood?
"You do know who your real father was. Don't you?" Maybe I had been given a clue to solve a puzzle that I never knew even existed.
on paper it all looks so perfect, so glamorous, so privileged, and interesting. I come from a fabled background. My mother was born into a family that was wealthy, aristocratic, and good-looking. My grandmother was one of three sisters whom the society pages dubbed "the glorious Guinness girls." All three were beautiful, charming, and, thanks to the popularity of the black stout beer whose name they bore, very rich.
They were also spoiled, selfish, and uneducated. They were born during an era when it was deemed unnecessary for a young lady to be equipped with anything other than nice manners and good child-bearing hips. Education was considered unimportant.
My great-grandfather the Honorable Arthur Edward Guinness was by all accounts an unattractive character. I have heard many stories that illustrate his extravagant and boorish behavior. My mother's favorite was when "Granddaddy" purchased his own private airplane. He knew very little about flying but on a whim one day decided to take the plane out for a little spin. Unfortunately, when he jumped into the cockpit he failed to notice that the plane's mechanic was still working on top of one of the wings. The mechanic was killed immediately after the plane took off, but my great-grandfather ignored this little inconvenience and continued his flight undaunted. Because of his great wealth some of these more despicable acts were labeled as merely eccentric, and as far as I know he never suffered any repercussions or consequences.
At that time he also owned one of the largest yachts ever built. He decided that his girls should see the world, and so he embarked with my grandmother and my two great-aunts on a sailing trip that lasted most of their formative years. Their lives up to that point had been untouched by reality, and the long
sea voyage only removed them further from any semblance of normality.
As a young girl my grandmother was waited on hand and foot, a practice that she made sure continued until her death at ninety-four. If she needed to go to the lavatory, a maid would warm up the toilet seat before "Miss Maureen" was allowed to sit down.
When the girls came out as debutantes, they were in possession of cash and good looks, but they needed class to be accepted at the highest level of English society. My grandmother found it in the form of the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava. Basil Dufferin was young, handsome, and eligible. His grandfather the first marquess had been viceroy in India and governor general of Canada. He had arguably been Britain's most accomplished diplomat of the nineteenth century. Basil himself had done brilliantly at Oxford and was generally expected to go on to do great things.
The huge society marriage between the dashing young marquess and the vivacious Guinness heiress at Saint Margaret's Cathedral in London was seemingly made in Debrett's heaven.
along with his title, my grandfather had inherited a large, gray stone Georgian house and estate in the north of Ireland. On a man-made shamrock-shaped lake and surrounded by acres and acres of parkland, Clandeboye House was the childhood home of my mother and her younger sister and brother.
After the three children were born, their glamorous parents continued their exhaustive socializing and entertaining. Both were overly fond of drink (something that is a recurring theme in my family), and they were at the epicenter of the decadent, hedonistic social life of London in the 1930s.
My grandparents and their set cavorted with the fastest, grandest, and most brilliant people that England had to offer, statesmen, royalty, literary figures, and a scattering of talented snobs. Cecil Beaton, Evelyn Waugh, Frederick Ashton, and Nöel Coward were part of their crowd. When Cecil Beaton met my grandmother Maureen and her sisters, Oonagh and Eileen, in the 1920s, he records, "It was disgustingly smart and so dreadfully like the party in a Noël Coward play." In the Noël Coward song "I Went to a Marvelous Party," there is a bit about Maureen:
I went to a marvelous party
We played the most wonderful game.
And came back in a beard
And we all had to guess at her name!
While my grandparents were enjoying the high life in London, my mother, my aunt, and my uncle were left in the austere atmosphere of Northern Ireland. They were looked after by governesses and nannies. My mother would never forgive her mother for her lack of parental love, the loneliness she felt as a child, and the brutal disregard with which she and her siblings were treated. She never forgave my grandmother for this neglect, and in many ways she spent the rest of her life trying to escape from the cruel and empty world of her aristocratic childhood.
When England declared war on Germany, everyone's circumstances changed dramatically. The children were considered to be safer in Ireland, away from the blitzing of England, rather than at the Knightsbridge house in Hans Crescent. This only increased my mother's feeling of isolation.
Even my grandmother did her bit to help out the war effort, joining the Red Cross and consoling wounded young soldiers. She would remind us of this in self-sacrificing tones for years to come. My grandfather Basil, who had been the secretary of state for war in 1935, persuaded the war office to dispatch him to Burma on an operation aimed at demoralizing the Japanese troops who were steadily advancing.
My mother said that he had volunteered partly to prove that he was more than just a privileged aristocrat. But she suspected his real reason was to escape from my grandmother. She told me that her father had begun to find Maureen's obsession with royalty and her relentless party giving and socializing tedious. Her father, she said, was a "funny, clever and well-educated man," and Maureen was-"Well, she was the opposite of that, wasn't she?"
It was a dangerous and brave mission for him to undertake and on March 25, 1945, Lord Dufferin was killed in action. He was thirty-five. One of the ironies of his death was that it took place near the ancient capital of Ava, his namesake, and in the country that his grandfather had annexed to the British throne.
His death left Maureen a widow with two young daughters and a son. My uncle Sheridan, aged three years old, was now the Fifth Marquess of Dufferin and Ava and the heir to the Clandeboye estate.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Meet the Author
Ivana Lowell grew up in London, Boston, and New York. She now lives in Sag Harbor with her daughter.
From the Hardcover edition.
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