Courtney Loveless: Family Tree Remains Mystery as Feud with Grandma Sizzles

Courtney Love.

Courtney Love.

A few weeks before The Paris Review’s Spring Revel, the Transom asked Courtney Love if she would be in attendance to watch her grandmother, the novelist Paula Fox, accept the Hadada Award.

No, she would not.

“Paula’s absolute dislike of me is shocking and inexplicable,” Ms. Love told us.

The strained relationship is perhaps not that inexplicable. Ms. Love found out about her literary lineage late in life, when her mother, Linda Carroll, tracked down Ms. Fox, who had put her daughter up for adoption. Ms. Fox had herself been abandoned by her mother, a Hollywood gadabout who party-hopped with her husband’s cousin, Douglas Fairbanks, out-drank F. Scott Fitzgerald and once got thrown into a lake by Humphrey Bogart.

Ms. Love and Ms. Fox have met only once, during a brief sit-down at the Mercer Hotel. And Ms. Fox has no relationship with her great-granddaughter, Frances Bean Cobain.

Much of Ms. Love’s animosity toward Ms. Fox, she told us, stems from the fact that she doesn’t know the identity of her grandfather. She’s wondered, given some evidence from the past, if it could be Marlon Brando.

This speculative genealogy lingered when the day of the Spring Revel arrived last week. Paris Review editor Lorin Stein had corralled Gay Talese, Jeffrey Eugenides, Zadie Smith, Sam Lipsyte, Mona Simpson and many brilliant others into Cipriani on 42nd Street, and they all mingled beneath the marble buttresses, exuding literary genius and ordering drink after drink at the bar.

The novelist Lynne Tillman asked if we wanted to meet Ms. Fox and then steered us to a tiny table. There sat Ms. Fox, the writer whom Jonathan Franzen called superior to John Updike and Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, diminutive and raspy but still vigorously alive.

“These chandeliers,” Ms. Fox said, staring up. “They look like tangerines.”

Or blood oranges, we countered.

“Blood tangerines,” she decided.

The subject of Courtney Love came up.

“She’s awful, she’s awful. She’s terrible!” Ms. Fox told us. “I met with her for an hour, and the hour was like an hour in the devil’s pocket, for both of us. Things last such a short time in this country. People have their moments. Courtney had her moment, and was very strong, and she had enormous vitality, but that moment is gone.”

She launched into a coughing fit.

“I don’t want to be mean,” she said after composing herself. Her eyes almost watered, and maybe she was on the brink of forgiveness. “Poor everybody,” she sighed.

A few days later, the Transom rode out to New London, Conn., where the Lyman Allyn Art Museum was hosting a reception for Mentoring Courtney Love, an exhibition displaying watercolors by Ms. Love and photographs by David LaChapelle. It is her first museum show.

“Over here, over here,” Ms. Love beckoned from the middle of a mob as we entered the lobby, squeezing by a cluster of local teenage girls clutching Hole records and posters, pens at the ready. “It’s like a record signing,” she said.

Later that evening, Nancy Stula, the director of the museum, had arranged for an intimate dinner at her home in Old Lyme, and we found ourselves near the head of the table, where Ms. Love sat.

Art by Courtney Love.

Art by Courtney Love.

“You know, Nate met my grandmother the other night,” Ms. Love told the muted Connecticut gentry seated around her. That topic hung like a ghost in the room, and after a few moments, the discussion turned to Paula Fox’s onetime companion, the unknown man who begat Courtney’s mother.

“It could be a sailor, for all I care,” said Ms. Love, though she admitted that she would at least like to know who granddad is—and pursuing that theory is a fun parlor game. “Paula was living with Ellen Adler when she became pregnant, and Marlon Brando was basically a member of the Adler household then,” she said.

We rattled off the evidence to skeptical guests: Ms. Love had become intrigued by comments Brando made to her while hanging out at Carrie Fisher’s house, and then she discovered the connection between Brando, Stella Adler—the actor’s influential mentor who housed him before he became a star—Ms. Adler’s daughter, Ellen Adler, and Ms. Fox. They were all very close—Ms. Fox would dedicate her 1990 novel, The God of Nightmares, to Ellen, and Brando spoke with Ellen daily until his death. What’s more, during the period that Ms. Fox was pregnant, Brando claims to have fathered dozens of kids he’d never know.

But there is no proof. Ms. Love explained that she had a chance to steal Brando’s toothbrush and test the DNA, but decided against it.

Then she rose, though we were still on our salad course. She had to fly to Las Vegas to film a commercial for an electronic cigarette. But before leaving, she had time to offer one more clue as to her bloodline.

“If you look at me before my first nose job,” Ms. Love said, smiling, “I kind of look like Marlon Brando.”