Am feeling slightly haunted.
At the beginning of the year, I called my old friend, Vogue European editor at large Hamish Bowles, and demanded the phone number of fashion-world fixture Isabella Blow. My reason? I was wrapping up my next book, a series of essays and interviews entitled Eccentric Glamour (Simon and Schuster, spring 2008), and it seemed churlish to hand it in without at least a cursory conversation with the woman generally acknowledged by modish insiders to be the Nancy Cunard/Peggy Guggenheim/Millicent Rogers/Marchesa Casati/Otteline Morrell of our time.
Why had I waited so long to approach Ms. Blow? Why the reticence? Any woman who wore Philip Treacy hats shaped like lobsters and ships and never left the house without being dressed head to foot in surrealist couture clearly deserved inclusion in my oeuvre, but I was reluctant to give prominence to someone I assumed was a pampered aristocrat. The populist in me—he’s an irate little chav with missing teeth who lives near my spleen—was determined to keep the focus on those self-invented, self-styled gals who were not on Karl Lagerfeld’s Christmas-card list. I was, in other words, discriminating against what I assumed was an undeserving bastion of moneyed privilege.
I was indulging in the same turgid reverse snobbery that was blatantly exhibited this week by The New York Times. I sincerely hope y’all had a chance to read the horribly unsympathetic coverage of Anne Bass’ extremely nasty April 16 Connecticut house invasion in last Friday’s paper. Talk about blaming the victim! Despite the fact that Ms. Bass’ tormentors injected both her and her boyfriend with a strange blue “poison” and then demanded eight million bucks in exchange for an “antidote,” there wasn’t a glimmer of sympathy for the super-rich philanthropist. The Times used quotes from grumpy locals to paint La Bass as a latter-day Marie Antoinette, buying up massive tracts of land and indulging her bucolic fantasies with herds of exotic cattle. And now, here I am, hypocritically slagging off The Times, when I, as you will see, am guilty of exactly the same kind discriminatory thinking regarding Ms. Blow.
Back to our main story: I began to leave messages for Isabella in late February, early March. If I expected to get any phone time with her, I knew I would need to be persistent: A high-born party gal like Ms. Blow would never make time to return the calls of a lowly commoner like me. She would be too busy shooting grouse with her fancy-pants chums, or quaffing champagne during endless couture fittings with Alexander McQueen. Or maybe she was lying under a massive cedar of Lebanon on the grounds of her country estate, wearing vintage Zandra Rhodes and reading first editions of Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh.
Her unresponsiveness only fueled my persistence. Gradually, tenacity gave way to mild hostility: After leaving the umpteenth message, I began muttering things like “So much for good breeding!” and “ Call me back! You bloody Sloane Ranger!” When I opened the newspaper on May 9 and read that the poor darling had died, I was stunned. More shocks were in store: I quickly discovered that my preconceived notions about Ms. Blow’s life could not have been more off the mark. Oh! The folly of judging a broad by her wardrobe!
The reports of her last months on this planet painted a desperate picture: In place of that cavalcade of snooty couture and country-house grandeur, there was only misery and, most shockingly, a crushing lack of cash. Long since disinherited, abandoned by her husband, diagnosed with ovarian cancer (after multiple unsuccessful I.V.F. treatments, like the late Harper’s Bazaar editor Liz Tilberis), unsuccessfully leaping off a highway overpass, allegedly drinking weed killer to hurry the end, Isabella’s life—she was 48 when she died—had gone from magic to tragic.
Just as I had been ignorant of her last struggles and her suicidal sufferings, I was also ignorant regarding the true scope of her accomplishments. Reading the scores of obits and profiles, I came to understand that the great Isabella was a woman of almost Vreeland-esque influence and creativity. The list of creative folk who were discovered and propelled to stardom by La Blow’s unstinting support and patronage is truly astounding: photographer Juergen Teller, model Stella Tennant, designer Julien MacDonald, among others.
Last week I was in the U.K. staying with my dad in the old people’s home where he now resides. On Tuesday, I seriously toyed with abandoning Terry Doonan for the day, jumping on the train to Gloucester and paying my last respects to this incredible woman on whose answering machine I had left all those unrelentingly gnat-like, annoying messages.
“Maybe you should go,” Terry said, “She seemed like such a nice, good-natured trout.”
When, the following day, I saw the outfits of the attendees—the capes, the plumed hats, the trains, the finery … and that was just the men—I was glad I hadn’t gone: I would have felt like a chav version of Agnes Gooch.
“If Izzy could have seen the glamorous send-off she got, then she would never have killed herself,” one funeral attendee told me upon returning to New York. I have decided that I like this daffy notion. For purely selfish reasons, I wish La Blow could have somehow previewed her send-off in a magical crystal ball and changed her mind. Maybe we could have chatted and had tea and scones—my treat! Instead, I am left with the gnawing feeling that I missed out on someone truly exceptional.