Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Fatal Blow

This is how Isabella Blow tried to kill herself: sleeping pills (three times), drinking weedkiller (twice), driving her car into the back of a truck (didn't work), drowning herself in a horse pond (also unsuccessful), overdosing on the beach in Goa (a taxi driver took her inert form back to her hotel) and jumping off of an overpass in London (shattered the bones in her feet and lower legs).

It was her second tango with the weedkiller that finally did her in, although it took Blow nearly three days to succumb.

Blow by Blow, written by Isabella's ex-husband, Detmar Blow (with help from Thomas Sykes) is an uneven, self-aggrandizing pile of embellishments. There are a few little sparkles here and there, but overall, the book seems less like a biography and more like a mea culpa.

No one would quibble that Isabella had problems, only some of which she brought on herself. Born Isabella Delves-Broughton, the child of the aristocratic Sir Evelyn Delves Broughton and his second wife, the greengrocer's daughter Helen Mary Shore (whose bougie roots Isabella never failed to twit her about), Isabella's childhood was marked by tragedy when her younger brother (and only heir to the Delves Broughton estate) drowned in the family's swimming pool.

Isabella's mother left not long after, and her father remarried when Isabella was a teenager. His second wife promptly moved her adolescent daughters into Isabella's room and set about forcibly trying to wrest her husband's attention from his two older children.

The flamboyant Isabella's life reads like a series of Very, Very Bad Decisions. She met Detmar at a wedding - there's a great picture of them, her in a towering crown of feathers - and he proposed to her about two weeks later. Their wedding was held in Gloucester Cathedral, with Isabella wearing a crown and wimple like a medieval queen.

The couple then embarked on their famously tumultuous relationship, complicated by Isabella's inability to have a child, their perennial financial problems (you can't pay the rent with fancy hats, alas), their inability to hold down any sort of gainful employment, and a whole host of other problems that are rather hard to dredge up any sympathy for.

It's not that Isabella wasn't talented - she was, just not in a way that was very useful. Isabella's credited with launching the careers of milliner Philip Treacy, designer Alexander McQueen, and model Sophie Dahl, but she never earned much in her various jobs at Vogue and the Sunday Times, and certainly not enough to support her opulent lifestyle.

Blow by Blow is unevenly written, and it's pretty obvious when Detmar is equivocating. There are a few genuinely funny and sad passages, but the book tries and fails to make Detmar and Isabella more sympathetic.

Nonetheless, Isabella, wherever two or more are gathered wearing lobsters on their head, there are you also.

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