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The Sad Hatter

Isabella Blow as a child, left; Blow at a ball with Rupert Everett.  

Even in death, Blow was fabulous. “I think she was in thirties silver lamé in the hospital,” says Bowles, “even though it scratched. Self-presentation was always more important. Even at that point.”

Issie Blow was born Isabella Delves Broughton in 1958 and lived with her family in a small house on the grounds of her family’s estate called Doddington, in Cheshire. The main house had been let to a girls’ school when the gambling debts of her grandfather, Jock Delves Broughton, had bankrupted the family. (Sir Jock took off for Kenya, where he was later accused of murder and eventually killed himself.) Blow described her childhood home as “small, hideous, and pink,” but the Delves Broughtons were properly aristocratic: The impoverishment was a part of the whole, grand picture. Great eccentrics dotted the thin-blooded gene pool long before Blow came along. Her grandmother was most regularly described as a cannibal after once devouring a fantastic barbecue in Papua New Guinea only to be told it was human flesh, at which point, says Detmar, she demanded more. How delicious!

When Blow was 4 years old, her younger brother drowned in a half-full swimming pool while, as she later recalled, her mother was upstairs putting on lipstick and her father mixing some drinks. “The nanny was off on holiday,” Detmar explains, “and the little boy had been given Heinz Baked Beans for tea.” It was poor digestion, Detmar suggests, and the cold pool water that gave him the fatal shock.

Blow’s parents never recovered from the tragedy, and her mother eventually left when Blow was 14. “It was literally a handshake and then she was off,” says Detmar. “The stepmother came with three daughters and sort of said to Issie, ‘Okay, then. You’re out.’”

Issie Blow inhabited her Cinderella phase boldly. She moved to a London squat and did oddish jobs—like cleaning house with a kerchief knotted on her head. Once, on break, she ran into a cousin who confused Blow’s look for fashion. Which it was, of a sort, as most things were when interpreted by Blow.

In English society, if you are born posh, you are posh, even when you’re selling scones (which she would later do) or emptying someone else’s trash. Blow’s poverty never mattered socially in England and her status served her well even here in New York, where she moved in 1979 to study ancient Chinese art at Columbia. She roomed with Catherine Oxenberg (of Dynasty) and was quickly picked up by Andy Warhol, who was immediately drawn to her feet. She was wearing, at their first meeting, a mismatched pair of Manolo Blahniks. “Do you always buy two pairs?” Warhol wanted to know. When she had to, she explained. He was intrigued, and together they’d go to lunch, often with Jean-Michel Basquiat, with whom Isabella was proudly, fruitlessly in love.

In 1980, Blow moved to West Texas to work for the designer Guy Laroche, but she was back in New York a year later, looking for a job. Bryan Ferry, the lead singer of Roxy Music who was also a member of her English social set, encouraged her to interview with Anna Wintour, then the recently installed creative director of Vogue and in need of an assistant. On Wintour’s desk, there was a biography of Vita Sackville-West. “I’ve read that three times, and it always makes me cry,” she told Wintour.

“Issie,” Wintour responded with her signature sangfroid, “there’s nothing to cry about.”

But they were a match. “I loved coming to the office,” Wintour says, “because I never knew what to expect. One day she’d be a maharaja, the next day a punk, and then she’d turn up as a corporate secretary in a proper little suit and gloves.”

There were tutus, and also two-fingered typing, and sometimes there was Basquiat, who would sit beside his friend while she worked away the afternoon.

Blow stayed at Vogue several years, eventually assisting André Leon Talley. But ultimately, she knew she belonged back in England. “She’s really not the usual type you find in America,” Wintour says. She’s lovably mad enough to be the seventh Mitford sister; she’s Diana Cooper’s spiritual heir. She’s in the great tradition of English eccentrics, though it was always a descriptive she loathed. “Eccentrics eat goldfish,” Detmar explains of her distaste for the term. “Issie was never anything like that.”

Issie moved back to London in 1986 to work at Tatler magazine, and one gray day in 1988, she went to a wedding at the Salisbury Cathedral wearing an ostrich-feather hat and a tight Katherine Hamnett coat. Detmar Blow was there, too, wearing the pink coat his grandfather had once worn as ambassador from Sri Lanka. “I saw this girl come past me, and I said, ‘I love your hat,’” says Detmar, who is smooth-faced and talks all the time, with a tendency to giggle and to yelp at the end of his sentences. The child of a failed writer and a fashion model, he is blessed with what he calls “fabulous, part-Oriental genes.” His other grandfather was a society architect who designed Hilles, where both Nehru and Gandhi once stayed. “She said she liked my coat, eh! But that she wished she was wearing her violet shoes for me, eh! Then we went to the reception and talked about being the court jesters, being kicked to death ourselves with suffering, eh! I just loved her voice.”