Ivana Lowell of Guiness dynasty: My mother had husbands and many lovers… but who was my father?
6th November 2010
As part of the famous Guinness dynasty, Ivana Lowell (above) appeared to have a privileged if bohemian upbringing – but beneath the glamorous surface lurked a startling tale of deception, abuse and a surprising family secret
The day after my mother died, I had lunch with one of her oldest friends. I remember thinking that perhaps there was something else I should be doing. But I didn’t have anything better to do. And I really needed a drink.
It’s strange when the person closest to you dies. Everyone assumes you have arrangements to make and tears to shed. But the important things were all being taken care of and I wasn’t ready to cry.
So it was in an unreal state of mind that I turned my attention to the woman sitting opposite me who asked: ‘Of course, you do know who your real father was. Don’t you?’
‘My father? Of course I know who he was. It was Dad. Wasn’t it?’
She smiled indulgently and shrugged, but I was too numb and exhausted to pursue the conversation. Afterwards I called my sister Evgenia and told her what had happened. I thought she would laugh or at least be indignant. Instead she said, ‘Oh, sweetie, I think she may be telling the truth.’
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Dysfunctional does not even begin to describe my family. On paper it looks so perfect and privileged. My grandmother was one of three sisters 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 spoilt and selfish. When my grandmother needed to go to the lavatory, a maid would warm up the seat before ‘Miss Maureen’ was allowed to sit down. She grew up to marry a dashing marquess and had three children – the eldest of whom was my mother, Lady Caroline Blackwood. All were raised by nannies and treated with brutal parental disregard. My mother spent the rest of her life trying to escape the cruel and empty world of her aristocratic childhood.
As a debutante, she was courted by eligible dukes and earls but instead fell in love with the painter Lucian Freud, who was married, impoverished and Jewish. In short, he had all the qualities that would most horrify my grandmother and therefore he couldn’t have been more perfect. In 1953, he became the first of my mother’s three husbands, and by 1958 they were divorced – my mother having discovered that, as well as being compellingly handsome and intelligent, Lucian was also a womaniser and gambler.
She moved to America where she had an affair with Ivan Moffat, an Anglo-American screenwriter who was sophisticated and amusing, but also, my mother complained, ‘not very nice’. Often, just before they were about to arrive at some Hollywood event, he would tell her how awful she looked. ‘Why are you wearing that? It makes you look hideous,’ he’d say.
Her next love was the American pianist and composer Israel Citkowitz. He was kinder and had the chiselled looks that she thought would combine well with her own. They married in 1959 and my mother produced three daughters, Natalya, Evgenia and me. I had always assumed Israel was father to us all, although by the time I was born in the mid-1960s, the marriage was over. My mother then had a relationship with Bob Silvers, editor of The New York Review of Books, before we moved back to London where she met her third husband, the poet Robert Lowell.
Robert was a manic-depressive often portrayed as an artistic genius, but also a crazed, self-obsessed monster. However, I adored him. He came into my life when I was four, and to me he was the gentlest, cosiest man possible. He and my mother had a son, Sheridan, and a year later, in 1972, they married and we moved to Kent. The house my mother bought, Milgate Park, was seemingly grand, but on closer examination it was falling apart. Beyond the vast entrance hall there was a dingy kitchen and living area for the children. In another wing, my mother and Robert had their own studies, kitchen and drawing room.
My mother employed a retinue of staff whose only qualifications seemed to be the ability to dress like hippies – we had several greenhouses at the back of the garden where they grew their own marijuana. My nanny, Margaret, lived in one of our cottages with her husband Mike, a handyman, and they had a fierce German shepherd dog named Lucy.
I was about six years old when Mike began to visit me in my bedroom. He would bring his dog and tell me if I made a noise he would set her on me. He would get into my bed and whisper to me how beautiful I was. He smelt of tobacco and body odour, and his stubble scratched my skin. He would moan, sometimes cry, and afterwards he would tell me how sorry he was. It felt peculiar, yet also exhilarating to be able to exert such power over an adult man.
I remember everything very clearly; it plays in my mind as if I am watching a home movie. I had a long-standing game called ‘Off Ground He’ that I played with another of the workmen called Perry. Every time I saw Perry I would have to run and find some way to get off the ground. As long as my feet were not touching the floor, he couldn’t catch me.
That particular day I had just returned from school when I saw Perry and ran laughing into the kitchen. There was a stool next to one of the counter tops, and I jumped on it yelling, ‘Off ground he!’ Somehow my foot got tangled in the kettle cord. Boiling water crashed down and a white hot pain shot from the top of my stomach down to my knees. I looked down and saw layers of my skin peeling away from my body.
On paper, our family looks so perfect and privileged
By the time we arrived at the hospital, I was close to death. I had third degree burns over 70 per cent of my body and doctors told my mother to prepare for the worst. But though I would remain permanently scarred, I somehow survived and, when I returned from hospital nine months later, Mike and Margaret were gone.
I have thought about the implication that I subconsciously orchestrated the whole ordeal to escape the abuse. True, the burnt area of my body is exactly where I was violated. But I don’t think it was as complicated as that. Besides, the burning was far more traumatic for me than the abuse ever was.
I think that my sister Natalya suffered the most growing up in our family. She adored our father and resented our mother’s marriage to Robert. Also, being the eldest, she was probably the most affected by Mum’s drinking.
When I was 12, Robert died, aged 60, of a heart attack. A year later, Natalya, who was 18, died after overdosing on heroin. After the trauma of their deaths, we never tried to regain any semblance of normal family life. I had already discovered my favourite pastime – drinking. I liked being drunk. It was the only time I was actually able to feel anything. I invariably would become maudlin – my biggest complaint was how awful it was to have a mother who drank so much.
As I went through my teens, my mother spoke about relationships. ‘Sex is the best feeling ever,’ she would say. ‘Absolutely the best.’ Introducing her to my boyfriends, however, was a nightmare. They had to ‘get us’. ‘Getting us’ meant tolerating the squalor of the house and her often cruel sense of humour. She took a particular dislike to one potential boyfriend: Jonathan Moffat, son of her old flame Ivan. In the end, Jonathan said he fancied my friend Melissa instead. Fate, we would discover later, had dealt a kind hand.
This expression took on a whole new meaning when my mother became ill with cancer. By then, I was living in London and trying to forge a career as an actress. She underwent surgery to her bladder and I collected her from hospital afterwards. We went to Wheeler’s, her favourite fish restaurant, and drank to numb our pain, pretending that everything was going to be all right. And knowing that it wasn’t.
Two years later, I had moved to New York and was working for Miramax under the wonderfully ambiguous title of Vice President of Creative. I was sitting at my desk when my mother called. Her voice sounded faint and weird. ‘Darling, I am afraid it’s back.’ We had one last Christmas together before she died, aged 64, on Valentine’s Day 1996.
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After the funeral, I returned to London where her close friend Marguerite Littman, an American socialite, took me under her wing. One afternoon some months later, she rang. ‘Hi, Vaanaah, can you come for lunch tomarra? Ivan Moffat’s over here from LA and I know he would lurve to see yoooo.’
The following day at lunch, I had only managed two mouthfuls before Ivan put his hand on mine and said in his deep, upper- class drawl, ‘Darling, there is something we really have to talk about. You see, I am fairly sure I am your father.’ I wanted to run out of the room, but I felt stuck in my chair. I said, ‘I don’t believe you.’
‘Well, darling, I am fairly certain it is true,’ he replied. ‘Why do you think you were named Ivana? I always wanted to say something to you, but Caroline was absolutely adamant that I never tell.’
I was furious at my mother. I had been catapulted back to the place where adults lied and molested you and almost killed you with their carelessness – a world of excruciating pain and fear. I had always sensed that nothing was quite what it seemed. Now my suspicions had been confirmed.
I did a lot of thinking. About Ivan and Israel and Robert and Bob. Why had my mother been so keen that I take Robert’s name? He obviously wasn’t my real father. Why hadn’t she wanted me to keep the name Citkowitz like my two sisters? I decided to call Bob and tell him of Ivan’s claim of paternity. There was a pause and Bob said, ‘That’s not true, sweetie. Caroline told me that I am your father.’
I realised what a dangerous game my mother had been playing
Now I was really confused. It seemed my mother lied to everyone. Bob volunteered to do a DNA test, but what difference would it make? I would still be the same person with the same mixture of worries, flaws and problems. I decided that I would just let it go. I didn’t need to know.
Then, in 1998, having met my future husband Matthew Miller, I discovered I was pregnant. I was euphoric, but I had an awkward moment when my gynaecologist asked me for a history of my family’s health. On my mother’s side I had all the answers. But when she asked about my father, I faltered. ‘Umm, I don’t know which father you mean.’ She looked at me quizzically and said, ‘I mean the father whose genetics your child will inherit.’
I was going to need those DNA tests after all. Bob and Ivan agreed to them and Bob was the one to call with a result. ‘Seems it’s not me. It’s that Moffat fellow who’s your father.’
I found it hard to connect his words to their meaning. Who was I, really? Just a made-up person, a mishmash. I knew I should call Ivan, but I wasn’t sure how he felt about me. Did he even like me? He already had three children, including Jonathan. An uneasy feeling crept over me. Jonathan was my brother! I remembered my mother’s seriously troubled reaction to my friendship with him. Thank God that I hadn’t reciprocated Jonathan’s feelings. I once again realised what a complicated and dangerous game my mother had been playing.
The following March, I married Matthew and Bob gave me away. I didn’t invite Ivan to the wedding. Daisy Caroline Miller was born on 16 July 1999 – she arrived earlier than I had expected, and, wouldn’t you know, 16 July is also my mother’s birthday.
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When Daisy was three, I invited Ivan to our home on Long Island. Daisy came running out to meet him. I hesitated. Then I introduced him as her grandfather. He liked that. We sat in the garden and talked about my mother. He began mimicking her mannerisms in a spiteful way and my stomach churned. She was worth a thousand of you, I thought.
Mum would have relished the ghastliness of the scene. I could hear her whisper enthusiastically, ‘He really is awful, isn’t he? Don’t you see now why I never wanted him to be your father? He really is too bad, even for us.’
Two months after Ivan’s visit, however, I felt ashamed. He had also tried to be nice and wanted me to be included in my new family. I decided I should give him a second chance. But before I could make the call, my sister Evgenia rang to tell me Ivan had suffered two strokes and was dying.
I flew to Los Angeles and went straight to the hospital. When I got to his room, his face was grey and his eyes closed. I took his hand and squeezed it gently, ‘Ivan, it’s me, Ivana.’ I don’t think he could hear me, but you never know.
The nurse came in and asked me whether I was family, and this time I said without hesitation, ‘Yes, I’m his daughter.’