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Book Review

A Life Dogged by Disaster, Which She Seemed to Relish

DANGEROUS MUSE, The Life of Lady Caroline Blackwood \o7 By Nancy Schoenberger\f7 . Doubleday/Nan A. Talese: $27.50; 378 pages

July 23, 2001|MERLE RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It is not surprising, given the world we live in, that a biography of Lady Caroline Blackwood should be packaged as a sexily Gothic saga of danger and glamour. But if one stops to think about it, Lady Caroline's life story is, in fact, a sad story of slovenliness, craziness and waste.

Only in an age like ours, more interested in pathology than real achievement, would the life of so minor a literary figure be considered a suitable topic for biography.

Born in 1931 into the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, Lady Caroline's childhood was unspeakable, giving new meaning to the old cliche "poor little rich girl." Her father, the fourth Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, was killed in action in Burma during World War II, when Caroline was 13.

Her mother, Maureen, one of the immensely wealthy Guinness girls, was chilly and neglectful even by the low standards of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. Caroline (along with her two younger siblings) was practically starved by a sadistic nanny, then sent to a school where new girls were initiated by having safety pins stuck into their breasts.

Blond, beautiful, with staring blue eyes, Caroline was indeed a "glamorous" debutante, but preferred the bohemian world of artists and writers.

Her first husband was the painter Lucian Freud, bad-boy grandson of the august Sigmund. Caroline took to the funky Soho scene like a duck to water, hobnobbing with the likes of the dissolute homosexual painter Francis Bacon and the sybaritic, skirt-chasing literary dilettante Cyril Connolly.

Lucian Freud's gambling and general recklessness became too much even for Caroline to take: "Have you ever driven with him?" she asked one of their friends, who replied, "Yes. I was so terrified that when he stopped at a red light, for once, I threw myself out."

"Exactly," Caroline said, "That's what being married to him was like."

Although Caroline would suffer much throughout her tempestuous life, which ended with her death from cancer in 1996, she was hardly what might be called an innocent victim.

As Nancy Schoenberger portrays her in "Dangerous Muse: The Life of Lady Caroline Blackwood," she was pretty lethal herself.

Not only was she dogged by disaster, she seemed to have a flair for it, recounting each fresh mishap with a kind of nihilistic glee. When she finally got around to doing some writing of her own, her streak of black humor served her well.

An affair with screenwriter Ivan Moffat and a stint in Hollywood were followed by a second marriage. Unlike much of the upper class into which she'd been born, Caroline was no anti-Semite: Her second husband, American composer Israel Citkowitz, like Freud, was Jewish.

Handsome, brilliant and gifted, Citkowitz had been anointed by Aaron Copland as the next great American composer, but after a promising start, he had simply stopped composing.

Caroline hoped his marriage to her might stir his creative juices, but instead of being inspired, Citkowitz transformed himself into the bohemian version of a house-husband, devoting himself to nurturing their children (not all of them his) and fostering his wife's tentative career as a writer.

Alas, this was still the 1950s, and Caroline was not exactly a proto-feminist who would value so supportive a helpmeet. Instead, she called him a "fusspot" and continued her search for Mr. Genius.

She found him, she believed, in the manic-depressive Boston Brahmin poet Robert "Cal" Lowell, who left his notably sane and capable wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, for her.

Cal and Caroline had a lot in common: "[T]hey both smoked endlessly and didn't wash much ... both drinkers, and clever ... and both lived very near the cliff edge," a friend noted.

"We're like two eggs cracking," Lowell would later remark. In this case, two cracked heads were not better than one, and at one point, Caroline had Citkowitz live in the house with them to help stand guard over the children during Cal's manic phases.

Although Lowell was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War and a conscientious objector during World War II, his pacifism did not prevent him from beating all three of his wives.

Glamour is in the eye of the beholder, and clearly Caroline's rather squalid life struck Schoenberger as endlessly fascinating. But judged by this biography, it wasn't. And, since a first-rate biographer can make even a dull life interesting to read about ( vide James Pope-Hennessy's life of George V's charmless wife, Queen Mary), at least part of the fault here must lie with Schoenberger.

For one, she does not really seem to understand the various milieus she writes about, social or literary.

(In a year when the competition included Barbara Pym's masterpiece "Quartet in Autumn" and Paul Scott's marvelous coda to his Raj Quartet, "Staying On," she seems shocked that Caroline's novel "Great Granny Webster" did not win the Booker Prize.)

Nor are things helped by her tendency to gush over the good looks, talent, social connections or "bloodlines" of the various individuals who people her book. (Needless to say, she unquestioningly accepts the increasingly questionable notion that Lowell was a major poet, even as she quotes line after mediocre line of his.)

Most of all, however, Schoenberger doesn't really "get" Caroline: Drawn from the outside, this is a flat portrait, not unsympathetic to its subject but without the imaginative sympathy to bring her to life.

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