It’s a beautiful, sunny late-summer afternoon in Sag Harbor, but for a moment Ivana Lowell’s gone someplace dark. We’re sitting at a table on the front porch of the American Hotel, as she quietly contemplates the price she’ll pay when some of the more intimate revelations about her life are published in her memoir, Why Not Say What Happened?
“If you’re really going to write a memoir,” she finally says, “you have to really tell the truth. This is my truth.”
To wit: The alcoholism of her mother, the author and Guinness heiress Lady Caroline Blackwood, who was Lowell’s drinking buddy for most of her adult life; Lowell’s not entirely unwelcome sexual abuse at age 6 (“I was quite lonely, and I liked the attention and complicity of an adult. It sounds kind of creepy now”); her sister Natalya’s heroin overdose at age 17; her affair with Bob Weinstein (“the good-looking brother”); and the accident that left her without pubic hair.
Then there is the big question that frames the memoir—which one of her mother’s many lovers was actually Lowell’s father?
The day after her mother died from cancer in 1996, Lowell was having lunch with one of her mother’s friends, who asked, “Of course you know who your father is?” It turned out she didn’t. Her mother’s first marriage was to painter Lucian Freud, the second to composer Israel Citkowitz (who Ivana was led to believe was her biological father), and her third to poet Robert Lowell, who was Lowell’s paterfamilias from age 5 to 13, and whose name she took (her book’s title comes from his poem “Epilogue”). “They write that Robert was crazy and that he was a monster,” she says. “But no one ever writes about his cozy side and sweetness. My mother hid his breakdowns from us.”
Lowell hoped that her father would turn out to be one of her mother’s longtime boyfriends, Robert Silvers, the founder of the New York Review of Books, but to her disappointment a DNA test proved that she was the progeny of Giant screenwriter Ivan Moffat, who was her mother’s intermittent lover. “Even my mother used to say to me, ‘He’s not very nice,’ and that’s one of the reasons she didn’t want me to know. She didn’t think he’d make a very good father.”
Because of a kitchen accident, boiling water burned 70 percent of her body when she was 6. She was in a hospital for nine months. Later, she underwent a painful hair-transplant procedure to try to please a boyfriend. “The day of the surgery, my mother got so drunk she forgot to pick me up,” she says. Save for “a few lonely sprouts,” the transplant was a failure.
Lowell orders oysters and a Diet Coke instead of a glass of wine. She’s been sober a year. Over the years she logged several stints in rehab, which she mercifully skips over in the book. “It’s not a recovery story,” she says. “Rehabs have been written about so much.” Just then a teenager walks by in a Guinness Ale T-shirt and Lowell smiles. “It’s ironic that all the family money came from alcohol.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly quoted Lowell about her affair with “the good-looking” Weinstein brother Harvey. In fact, her affair was with Bob Weinstein.