Ivana Lowell: So, who was my father?: Paternity Fraud
Ivana Lowell's childhood was punctuated by disaster, including sexual abuse. But worst of all, she says, was finding out that her father wasn't who she'd thought
Had Ivana Lowell decided to turn her life into a novel, so far-fetched and brimming with disaster would it be that nobody would have believed it. Even a new therapist who asked Ivana to summarise significant events in her life – maternal neglect, sexual abuse, a near fatal childhood accident, losing her father, stepfather and sister before the age of 13, marriage to a drug addict, years of alcoholism and rehab, and finding out that the man she thought was her father was not – looked at her and said: "Oh my God, that's one of the worst stories I've ever heard."
As Ivana's mother liked to say every time some new tragedy befell the family: "This is too bad, even for us." Then they would laugh about it, which is how they always got through.
"In the cab on the way back from the shrink," remembers Ivana, sitting straight-backed in a hotel bar in London, her wide eyes a little nervy, "I remember thinking: You know what, I think I am pretty amazing to have survived that. I had never thought of myself in those terms before." It was partly that realisation a few years ago that made Ivana decide to write her memoir, Why Not Say What Happened? (the title comes from a line in a poem by her stepfather, the American poet Robert Lowell), which is bookended by the discovery – and then the truth – that her real father might not be the man she thought he was. It begins at lunch in February 1996, in New York, the day after her mother had died, when her mother's friend says to Ivana, somewhat out of the blue: "Of course, you do know who your real father was, don't you?"
She was born Ivana Citkowitz in 1966 in New York. Her mother, the writer, muse and society beauty Caroline Blackwood, was on her second marriage, to the Polish composer and musician Israel Citkowitz; the first, to the painter Lucian Freud, had lasted just three years.
Robert Lowell was a manic depressive and alcoholic, whose poetry was famously bleak, but his stepdaughter remembers him differently. "He was so sweet," she says. "He was like a little child and to a seven-year-old he was really fun. I used to run in and interrupt his poetry and we would read out loud to each other. He was very cosy, very sweet. I really wanted to show that side of him." But his terrifying breakdowns are also related in the book, and she remembers him being carted off in ambulances.
For the most part, they lived in a grand but decaying house in the Kent countryside, which Lowell describes as chaotic and, because her older sisters were at boarding school and her new younger brother just a baby, isolating. Once, she screamed at the top of her lungs for 10 minutes in her bedroom in one wing of the house just to see if anyone would hear her. They didn't. So when the six-year-old Ivana began to receive regular visits at night from her nanny's husband, she writes that she almost welcomed the attention, although she felt such shame that she didn't reveal the abuse until much later.
Caroline wanted her daughter to take Robert's name, so she became Ivana Lowell-Citkowitz; it was such a mouthful that she later dropped the last name. In 1977, when Ivana was 12, Lowell died of a heart attack in the back of a taxi in New York. Less than a year later, her 18-year-old sister Natalya died of a heroin overdose. "That was awful," is all she says. Her mother's drinking worsened and it felt as if there was no hope after that. "I always felt I had to look after my mum a little bit," she says. "I was scared – she was all I had now."
Looming over all this was the presence of her grandmother Maureen, Caroline Blackwood's mother, Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava, spoilt and demanding Guinness heiress and crashing snob. Though monstrous, her appearances in her granddaughter's book provide its funniest moments, including her cringeworthy friendship with the Queen Mother, and practical jokes (she liked to turn up to parties wearing a comedy nose in the shape of a penis and with a fart machine hidden under her dress). When her distressed granddaughter called her after that lunch in New York, Maureen was thrilled with the news that Citkowitz might not have been Ivana's father. "She said, 'Oh good, darling. You might not be part-Jewish after all. That means you've got a much better chance of getting married.'"
Ivana didn't push the family friend for details about who her father was. She was still reeling from her mother's death, and this new information was hard to take in. "I didn't really want to think about it, and I also thought it didn't matter," she says.
She remembers a lunch when she was about 17 with her mother and Robert Silvers, the editor of the New York Review of Books, a close family friend and former lover of Caroline. "After lunch I remember my mum saying, 'You know he thinks you're his daughter, don't you?' I just said: 'Stop it; he doesn't. He must know he's not.' She looked all serious and strange, but I just thought it was Mum being Mum – she loved to make things up and cause trouble."
Silvers wasn't the only one who thought he was Ivana's father. After her mother's death, Ivana was invited to lunch with another of Caroline's former lovers, Ivan Moffat, a British screenwriter who worked in Hollywood. Barely two mouthfuls in, Ivan turned to Ivana and said he believed he was her father. Ivana downed her wine, said she didn't believe him and demanded that he take a DNA test. She was furious, she writes – with him, and with her mother. She phoned Silvers, who had become a reliable presence in her life. "I told him that Ivan seemed to think he was my father, and Bob said: 'Absolutely not. I am.' He said it completely directly. He said: 'Your mother told me, but she asked me not to tell you. I'm convinced, and I'll do a DNA test if it makes you happy.'"
Caroline had told both Moffat and Silvers that they had fathered Ivana but made each promise not to say anything to her – for whatever reason, she wanted her three daughters to have the same father. And as far as Ivana was concerned, Citkowitz was her father. "I did think that that was what I was genetically. He was a composer, a pianist, Jewish, Polish. I had a sense that half of me came from that, although I always wondered why I wasn't that musical. That was my identity; he was my father." Did he know he wasn't? "I think he did," she says quietly, "and he agreed to act as if I was his."
Despite these men coming forward to claim her, Ivana did nothing about it. "I just hadn't let it bother me," she says. "Life had gone on, I had got married, I was happy not knowing. I said to my husband: '[My father] is Israel, there's no way anyone would have kept this from me – it's too big a thing.'" It wasn't till she became pregnant with her daughter Daisy in 1998, and doctors asked about her family medical history, that she decided to ask Silvers and Moffat to take a DNA test.
Her sister Evgenia lived in Los Angeles, where Moffat lived, and took a testing kit to him. Ivana met Silvers in New York and they went to a testing specialist together. "The whole thing was so weird. It was my identity. But I wasn't sure if it would change anything anyway." A few days later, Silvers called with the result and sounded disappointed: "Seems it's not me. It's that Moffat fellow."
Ivana was disappointed too – she had wanted Silvers to be her father. Moffat was arrogant and mean, and liked to tell sniping anecdotes about her mother. "I was sad. I loved Bob – he had been part of my life. He had acted as though he had some kind of interest in me. I said to him recently: 'I love you and it doesn't make any difference to me [that you're not my biological father].' He said: 'I know, honey, same for me.' It was nicer than the reunion I had with Ivan – I think he wanted me to go, 'Oh, Daddy!' But I wasn't feeling it at all." She called Moffat and had a strained conversation. "I can't remember what I said, but it was something like 'So – the results are in.' It was very strange, and it didn't feel real. I just felt nothing. It didn't change me in any way."
Her mother, Ivana believes, probably thought it was easier not to know. "She probably never thought that I would do a DNA test. Bob would carry on thinking he was my father and Ivan would maybe think it but not be sure. Maybe she liked the idea of me having lots of different fathers – the more the merrier. If Bob wanted to think he was my father, then let him. She liked him and thought he would have been a good dad."
The other possibility: "I don't know if she even knew."
Ivana smiles when she says this, but she admits she was furious and felt betrayed by her mother. "If she did know then I think it was terrible not to say, to let me believe something else. How could she not tell me? I thought we told each other everything. Especially when I thought about my name: Ivana-Ivan. It was so obvious – such a clue. I thought she was more subtle."
There was no big emotional reunion. Ivana had other things to cope with. Her marriage to Matthew, an interior designer, was imploding. He was a drug addict and alcoholic, and prone to violent rages. Ivana was also an alcoholic, and in and out of rehab.
Then, when her daughter Daisy was a toddler, she decided to invite Moffat to stay at her house in upstate New York, which she had inherited from her mother (and where she lives now). "He said he was thrilled," she remembers. "When he came, he said: 'I always loved you.'" Ivana felt it was time to get to know him better, but it was a painful week. "I was still angry and in shock, and I wasn't sure about the whole thing. I wasn't that nice to him."
The way Ivana tells it now sounds rather understated – it is as though all her years of therapy have given her a detachment from her life – although in the book it sounds more dramatic. During a dinner party with some mutual friends, she blurted out to Moffat that she wished she had never found out that he was her father, and Bob Silvers was. Then she burst into tears. "It wasn't good," she says now, "and I had a nasty feeling about it when he went back to California."
Two months later, Moffat had a massive stroke. Ivana got on a plane to LA and made it to his bedside before he died. "I squeezed his hand and I think he knew who I was, so hopefully it was OK," she says in a suddenly quiet voice. After everything, it wasn't meant to end like this. "I had known him a little bit throughout my life. I liked him as Ivan. It was only when I found out he was my father that I felt it didn't fit. Once my original anger and shock had subsided, I think we could have [had a father-daughter relationship]. The timing was so bad."
Still, just before I leave, she admits that she might have been happier had she never known. Who does she think of as "Dad" now? "Robert Lowell," she says without hesitation. "He was the closest that I loved as a father figure, and he was there. And then Bob Silvers after that – and he's still there. The Ivan thing is genetics, it doesn't really mean anything." But then she talks about her new family – Moffat had three other children, and she has known his son Jonathan since they were teenagers – which clearly does mean something to her.
Ivana says that, finally, she feels more settled – she doesn't drink now and sees a therapist occasionally. She has a good relationship with her ex-husband, who sees his daughter Daisy regularly. "[Being a mother] is very much trial and error for me. Nobody ever taught me – my role models were so shaky. But I always had that idea in the background, that was the goal. I'm there for her as much as possible."
Why Not Say What Happened? by Ivana Lowell is published by Bloomsbury