Monday, June 4, 2012

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“DANGEROUS MUSE – A Life of Caroline Blackwood” by Nancy Schoenberger (first published 2002)

            Reading Hannah Rothschild’s The Baroness, an account of her wealthy aunt’s dabbling in jazzmen, I am put in mind of another wealthy woman who rubbed shoulders with arty and creative people. Nancy Schoenberger, prof. of Eng.Lit. on an American campus, has written two or three gossipy books about real people peripheral to the arts. Her book about Caroline Blackwood, published a decade ago, is probably the most successful of them.

            Caroline Blackwood (1931-96) was born to an incredibly wealthy, titled Anglo-Irish family, the heirs to the Guinness booze fortune. She hated – and had a life-long feud with – her cold social butterfly mother. She idolised her father who, unfortunately, died in the war when she was only a small child.

            Fresh from being a debutante, Blackwood plunged into arty Soho bohemia. She eloped with and married the painter Lucian Freud (Sigmund’s grandson). She inspired him. He painted portraits of her. She drank. He drank. They both had affairs. The marriage lasted about five years. There were no children. The sybaritic critic Cyril Connolly tried to bed her, but without success.

            She took off for America where she failed to be a model and an actress although, as the book’s photos show, she had model-girl looks. She had an affair with the movie scriptwriter Ian Moffatt. She drank a lot more.

            Then she married the once-brilliant, now-has-been composer Israel Citkowitz. He composed nothing and became her abject slave. They had three children but, years later, a blood test showed that one of them was fathered by one of her many lovers. The marriage lasted about five years.

            Then she met the brilliant, manic-depressive poet Robert Lowell. She inspired him. He messily divorced his second wife and made her his third. He wrote a cycle of poems about his love for her (The Dolphin) that won him a Pulitzer Prize. They had a son. He drank. She drank.

            His manic depression turned into sheer mania. He went crazier and began to spend about half of each year in asylums screaming at walls. At this point she left him. He tried to go back to his second wife, but died of a heart attack in a taxi, clutching a painting of Caroline.

            After this third marriage, Caroline didn’t marry again, though she did take some lovers. Age and about forty years of alcohol abuse had peeled away her debutante looks. (The last photo of her in the book shows an old hag with vindictively blazing eyes.) She was never going to be any smitten artist’s muse again, but she could still inspire platonic friendship in such unlikely people as the travel writer and critic Jonathan Raban (who produced an edition of Lowell’s poems) and the Catholic writer Alice Thomas Ellis.

            While married to Robert Lowell, Caroline had begun to write herself. She proved to have some skill. In fewer than 15 years she produced four novels, two collections of short stories and three works of non-fiction. But her fiction was obsessed with morbid themes of deformity, mutilation, child abuse and hatred between parents and children. Meanwhile, her eldest daughter died of a heroin overdose.

            Nancy Schoenberger is as fair to Caroline Blackwood as she can possibly be. As a “muse” Caroline was manipulative and self-centred. You could read Dangerous Muse as a cautionary tale, showing how gullible even talented male poets and painters can become when they imagine they have won the love of a beautiful woman.

            And there is a particular dirty word that Schoenberger rather underplays. It is the same word that Hannah Rothschild underplays in The Baroness. That word is money. As the narrative makes plain, in Dublin, Soho and Greenwich Village, the arty intelligentsia and hangers-on who flocked to Caroline Blackwood were as much attracted by her trust funds as by her (initial) good looks.

            When I first reviewed Dangerous Muse for the press [Sunday Star-Times 25 April 2003], I rather cruelly ended my review with the following words: “Bohemians may affect to despise bourgeois morality and suburban money-grubbers. But wave a million dollar inheritance under their noses and watch their scruples evaporate.
            This is true enough in a way, but a little glib. For all their mental instability, Lucian Freud and Robert Lowell were real artists, and in their time with Caroline each produced work of real worth. Maybe we don’t have the right to question how or why people fall in love, though sometimes we can stand back and be grateful we don’t share their feelings. In fairness I’d also have to say that, unlike Nica Rothschild, Caroline Blackwood did actually produce some work of her own, so there’s more to remember her by than mere bohemian gossip.

            But the connection between ready money and a bohemian lifestyle is undeniable, and artists who despise those who have to work-and-earn are often artists who have simply found a source of unearned cash. 

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