Sunday, March 27, 2011
Blow by Blow by Detmar Blow
Blow by Blow: The Story of Isabella Blow
Readers of this blog and those who know me in person know that my imagination is captivated by the career of Isabella Blow. She was and remains one of my most inspirational style icons. When I recently had a little extra money, I purchased a few of the recently published books on the subject of Isabella Blow. I chose to read Detmar Blow's biography of Isabella Blow first and I think it was the wise choice. I was able to experience the book in a way I don't think I would have been able to had I read Lauren Goldstein Crowe's more conventional biography first, as this book was written by one of the characters in the conventional biography (or, more likely, ghost-written.)
Having spent the past year reading Milton, Shakespeare, and that crowd, the rhetorical style of the book was a bit like the frivolous uncle of a child, whose parents are draconian in their serving of only highly nutritious food, who takes the child out secretly for their first root beer float. Although my Internal Pendant requires me to temper that enthusiasm by mentioning that there were at least two typos, a jarring lack of the Oxford comma at the proper places, and one instance in the book where Isabella was accidentally referred to in the present tense. In contemporary slang, I would most likely characterize it as "a beach read" although a rather grim one.
The other issue I would take with the book is the inconsistent treatment of the subject matter as the forefront of the narrative. Clearly Mr. Blow took great pains to research the early life of Isabella, most likely from her own accounts from their many years together and, by his admission, interviews with key figures in preparation for the book. The second act, when Isabella Blow is at the height of her career and Detmar is her husband, also features Isabella although Detmar's first person arrives. In the third act, as their marriage begins to feel the strain of her mental breakdown, the focus of the narrative seems to shift to Detmar (specifically Detmar's dealings with Isabella in the last portion of her life.)
The other criticism I would bring is that it seemed to me throughout that there was potentially enlightening information being withheld by the author possibly out of respect for the subject (or, possibly, out of still having to deal with the other survivors of the story) although I have no means by which to support that claim. I do, however, strongly expect to find in the other biography more of a "warts and all" portrait of the couple and their relationship. It is also probably not a surprising revelation that there are instances of opinion that may not be entirely objective. I found it pushing the taste envelope that the major examples of specific negative opinion toward certain people's behavior is reserved for those no longer alive to defend themselves (notably Isabella's father and Alexander McQueen. Although, in keeping with my defense of honesty, I am predisposed to not want to ever think ill of McQueen.)
The value of the book is in the love of the man for the subject as well as the bits of informal information gained from personal experience that we might not otherwise glimpse of some major figures of our day. I smiled at Isabella's exasperation that Karl Lagerfeld would only shoot photos at night as he designed all day. I loved the account of Alexander McQueen running to save his brawny Staffordshire Terrier from being chased by a Scottish Terrier. I was charmed but not surprised to see that André Leon Talley comes off as one of the kindest people in the entire narrative. Also of great value, I thought, was that the book could serve as a highly readable crash course in the history of contemporary fashion.
I would also mention Isabella Blow's remarkable ability to find new talent. It was with some amusement that I read the section where other major figures in fashion journalism marvel at the quality and quantity of her discoveries. It seems that Blow achieved this by leaving her office to go meet up and coming artists, attending senior class project shows, and even pulling people off of the street to end up in fashion shoots. She seems to have gained this serendipitous ethic from Warhol. And I don't mean an academic understanding of Warhol's artistic career. I mean Andy Warhol probably turned to her one day when they were at a club or in a cab and said, "Isabella, here's how I find so many fresh new artists. I go out."
The bare information in the first chapter poses the Richard Cory question, "Why would someone at the peak of their creative powers choose to end their life?" Detmar's thesis seems to be that Isabella's eventual collapse started when she was five years old. The inciting incident is the death of her two year old brother who her mother seemingly irresponsibly left in the care of five year old Isabella. Isabella was called to the fence by a passerby and her brother fell in the pool. The boy was her father's only male heir to his barony and the weight of the loss tore her family to pieces. The study of family strife tearing an otherwise bright, creative, and successful person to pieces over decades was harrowing and, I daresay, had a touch of the universal appeal to it.
Although I do have my suspicions over the amount of responsibility placed on Isabella's highly dysfunctional upbringing. Detmar went through a horrific experience and I found myself identifying with him throughout. He had great difficulty in dealing with a harsh situation and I found his honesty over that refreshing. He does not let the reader off the hook, just as he was never let off the hook. In the end, he is one of the characters in the story who elicited the most sympathy and I doubt any further information from other sources could undermine that impression in me now.
The third act boils down to a list of names of institutions and of suicide attempts. There is a photograph near the end of Isabella with Bryan Ferry, both looking happy and prosperous, two of the more elite figures on the planet at the time. The caption at the bottom directs the viewer to Isabella's right ankle. Her leg is crossed and her ankle is showing beneath her calve length dress. On her ankle is a nasty looking scar which, the caption informs us, came from her suicide attempt by jumping off of an overpass and shattering her foot and ankle bones.
I'm afraid that the end of the book does not give the reader much comfort or resolution, but there is a great truth in that. It states outright the hopeless condition of one who is so seeped in their mental illness that they are entirely unwilling to take any action to help themselves and the utter helplessness of those who love them. The book also highlights that even those who seem to be "on top" of the world have their places where they feel they failed, where they feel they were slighted, financial worries, insecurities, and all of the manifestations of fear and regret universal to humankind's existential dilemma. That is why I would recommend the book to anyone and everyone. It points to an existence where all of the success in the world doesn't really matter if there is no happiness and no peace.