Fashion victim Models, designers, editors — Isabella Blow had them all under her sartorial spell. So what drove the queen of style to end her life with weedkiller?
Haluk Akakce, modern artist, was a casual dresser whose art was all invested in his videos and his paintings and drawings. He had initially been taken unawares by the living theatre of Isabella’s existence, meeting her for the first time at the London restaurant Baltic, where she had turned up in a white headdress and an extravagant outfit. The entire restaurant had stopped to gawp at her. She went straight up to Haluk. “You must be Haluk,” she said. “Can you zip up my dress?” There was no zip, just hooks, and he had obliged.
It was 2003, and Haluk was about to begin renting a house in Theed Street, Waterloo, owned by Isabella’s husband Detmar Blow, the gallery owner. Isabella and Detmar had recently separated. Detmar had told Haluk they were getting a divorce, so the house would be empty for a few months. At the last moment, Isabella had decided she would live there too, with Haluk, and had proposed getting together at Baltic.
With her dress now securely hooked up, they had sat down at the table and Isabella had said, shall we have caviar? The caviar was still on the table when Isabella’s estranged husband, Detmar, arrived. “You f***ing c***s,” said Detmar.
“Who’s ordered the caviar? Who’s paying for it? I’m not paying for it.” He and Isabella had begun shouting in the restaurant. Haluk, who was Turkish and unencumbered by English anxieties over polite behaviour, took the view that there was nothing wrong with a bit of drama, which was just as well, as the next few years of his life with Isabella and Detmar would be full of it. He flew to New York the next day for work, and arrived back to begin his tenancy at Theed Street at 2.30am, with Isabella playing the Sex Pistols so loud you could hear it for miles.
Isabella was then the fashion director at Tatler, arranging and styling photo shoots and spreads. She did not like the Theed Street house, and called it the NCP car park on account of its narrow, multiple floors. Taxis never knew it, and she would spell out the street name when ordering cabs to take her around town or up to Vogue House in Hanover Square: “Yes, Theed Street, that’s T for tits, H for horny, E for erection…” She would try to vary it each time:
“T for testicles…” Isabella had an earthy turn of phrase and gave the impression she thought a lot about sex. Her mobile-phone number ended with the digits 69, which were rendered like a seductive come-on in her voice-mail recording.
Haluk and Isabella became close friends and spent a great deal of time together. She had not long since left the Priory, where she was treated for depression, but Haluk adored her, thought she was absolutely amazing, and learnt to live with the ups and downs, never knowing which of the two Isabellas he would meet today. Would it be the supremely confident Isabella who could go anywhere, do anything, be the Queen of England, or the worthless Isabella who would say: “I’m nothing, I’ve no talent… Philip can make hats, you are an artist. What can I do? Nothing.”
In these last years of her life, Isabella was increasingly troubled by her past. According to Detmar, she had always been “highly strung”. Her aristocratic, well-connected life of glamour and fantasy was beginning to look more like an unsuccessful attempt to flee reality. She had demons, as Detmar called them, that she could not overcome. Isabella had been on the front row of the catwalk shows for years, and had been influential and highly regarded as a talent spotter, as well as a muse and inspiration for young designers, stylists, photographers and models. She was now in her mid-forties and fashion was for the young. Still, it was hard to believe someone so vivid and seemingly full of life could be so unhappy. Many thought her depression was part of her “performance” and didn’t take it seriously.
On his own account, Haluk was barely domesticated, but Isabella looked after him like a mother. Not that he could have told her that – “Oh, Issie, you’re like a mother to me” – as she would have killed him. He had upset her once, trying to describe her appearance, telling her she was not beautiful in the popular sense; meaning her beauty was in her character (not to mention her near-perfect figure and much admired, often displayed breasts). She misunderstood: “You’re just saying I’m ugly!” It was one of her themes, her “ugly” appearance and her fading looks. She sometimes said Philip Treacy’s hats, the surreal, spectacular creations she nearly always wore, were her alternative to plastic surgery, covering her eyes. She had considered plastic surgery, canvassing friends for their views. She decided she’d do it and then changed her mind.
One day in 2004, when Haluk came home from the studio, Issie told him, you’re coming with me to Paris next week, you’ll photograph couture, 22 pages for Tatler. Issie loved Haluk’s video work, but this was different. Haluk had never taken a still photograph in his life. “I can’t do it,” he told her. “You can do it,” she said, in her breathy, resonant, utterly posh tones. “Darling, your work’s a fantasy, couture is fantasy. I need something really beautiful and I can’t just take anyone.” That was typical. With Issie it was always either the very best or a total unknown, a new discovery. “I’m like a pig snuffling out truffles,” she would say. Her discoveries had made her famous – though not as famous as the discoveries themselves, nor nearly as rich, which had become a constant source of tension for her.
Though she remained close to Treacy, whom she had championed from her first encounter with one of his hats, something in green felt cut like teeth, at Tatler in 1989, she often complained she had made a lot of money for unnamed others among her “discoveries” and rarely got anything back. I was told that her cousin, the aristocratic model Honor Fraser, once presented her with a cheque as a thank-you. Issie had also famously helped Sophie Dahl become a highly paid model, defending her at the first shoot during a furious argument with the editor of Italian Vogue: “But she’s too fat!” Issie: “I don’t care – she’s beautiful.” And of course, in addition to the designer Hussein Chalayan, there was Alexander McQueen, the rough diamond who was described to me by one of Issie’s assistants as being like a pig at fittings for her in his studio, snorting and sweating as he moved around Issie, pinning and adjusting the clothes in an animalistic way she found exciting. Issie had bought everything in McQueen’s first collection and promoted him tirelessly. Of course, having a reputation for finding talent was part of Issie’s status as a fashion icon, so she got something from it, but her discoveries always seemed to get the better deal.
She idolised McQueen, but they did not see each other so much latterly, and her assistant said his press-office staff were patient with her and suffered – “a lot!” – on McQueen’s behalf, with Issie’s demands for clothes and her complaints that he was not paying his dues to her.
Issie ought to have been rich, and indeed lived more or less as though she was. But she wasn’t.
Her family’s principal estate in Cheshire could be traced back nearly 700 years, and at the turn of the last century still occupied nearly 35,000 acres, with the substantial country house Doddington Hall at its centre. But Issie’s grandfather Sir Henry Delves Broughton, known to all as Jock, had indulged himself so much that he had been forced to start liquidating assets, selling off land in sizable chunks to finance his horses, his gambling, his estates in Ceylon, his travels in East Africa and elsewhere, and his idle life of bridge, croquet and extravagant weekend house parties, when he hired a band to entertain guests on the train up from Paddington. The parties were sometimes written up in Tatler. In those days the family appeared in Tatler rather than worked for it.
Jock was said to have raised and spent £1.5m, a colossal sum in the days before the second world war. By 1939 there were less than 4,000 acres left. Jock’s wife, Vera, went off with Walter Guinness, Lord Moyne, and they travelled together around southeast Asia, the Pacific islands and the frozen north. Lord Moyne produced two books, with photographs by Vera Broughton – Walkabout and Atlantic Circle – before he became a government minister, and in 1944 he was assassinated in Cairo by Zionist extremists.
Jock and Vera had two children: a daughter, Rosamund, and a son, Evelyn, who would become Issie’s father. With Vera gone, Jock met and married an aspirant blonde socialite, Diana, who was younger than his own son, and together they went to start a new life in Kenya, joining the dissolute white aristocratic settlers known as the Happy Valley set, who drank, took drugs and swapped partners for sex, apparently oblivious to the fact the Nazis had begun a world war and the old days of empire were all but over. Within three weeks of Jock and Diana’s arrival in Kenya in late 1940, she had begun an affair with Lord Erroll. Less than two months later, on January 24, 1941, Lord Erroll was shot and killed in his car.
Jock was tried and acquitted of the murder and returned home to England. His son, Evelyn, confronted him about his excessive spending, which was effectively cheating Evelyn out of his inheritance. Jock was said to have chased his son out of his study with a riding crop. Jock was now also suspected of two insurance frauds, arranging for the theft of pearls and paintings he owned and claiming for them on recently enhanced insurance. He must have been desperately broke.
Jock killed himself just before Christmas in 1942, overdosing on the barbiturate medinal at the Adelphi hotel in Liverpool, where he had evidently gone to commit suicide, asking not to be disturbed in his room. The writers Cyril Connolly and James Fox wrote about the murder of Lord Erroll in this magazine in 1969. Connolly referred to medinal as oblivion’s boarding card. Fox went on to publish an account of the case, White Mischief, which became a film with Charles Dance and Greta Scacchi, and Joss Ackland playing Issie’s grandfather Jock.
Issie was said to be bored with the whole thing, that tedious White Mischief mystery, but Fox’s book carried an intriguing thread, describing how Jock was said to have suffered “headaches and an excitable mental condition” from a young age. He nursed a “lifelong sense of injury and disadvantage” because his own father kept him short of money. He can never have stopped to think he might pass on this unhappy legacy, as his own son, Evelyn, Issie’s father, complained that he and his father were strangers by the time he was a teenager, Jock having visited him only once at Eton during his whole time at the public school, and never once during his years at prep.
Evelyn, too, had a taste for the good life in his early days. Even though his inheritance was much denuded, it was still substantial, with a house in London and numerous properties on the land around the hall, which became a school, while Evelyn went to live in one of the staff cottages, where Issie was born and brought up, until she too was packed off to boarding school. Issie won the “cheerfulness prize” three times during her six years at Heathfield school, Ascot.
Evelyn had married Issie’s mother, Helen Shore, a young barrister, after a brief earlier marriage that produced no children. Helen gave birth to Issie in 1958, followed by Julia in 1961, John in 1962, and Lavinia in 1965. John died in a freak accident in 1964 at the age of two, which Issie always described as a drowning but, according to the records, was actually a result of choking on food. Somehow the boy fell in some shallow water – possibly fresh rainwater in an otherwise empty pool – in the garden of his house on the estate, while his parents were elsewhere. The water caused him to regurgitate his lunch of baked beans, and one or more beans lodged in his throat so that he choked to death.
According to Issie, John died in her arms while their mother, Helen, had gone to put on some red lipstick for a family photograph, and this was the origin of her own fascination with red lipstick and vivid overdressing. Helen has never given her version of events except to say it was different from Issie’s remembering. Helen would not talk to me for this article.
Issie told some friends that the incident tore her parents apart, her mother blaming her father, and both grieving deeply for the loss of a son and heir. Issie and her sisters, in Issie’s version, never felt so valued after that, and their mother eventually left the home and her children in the mid-1970s, shaking them each by the hand before she went.
Issie had limited contact with her mother and did not see her for 17 years of her adult life. It was said that the three girls adored their father and felt adored by him in return, and he was affectionate and kind to them, but something changed after he remarried, to Rona Crammond, a former pupil at the girls’ school on the estate and 25 years younger than him, in 1974.
About a year later, Sir Evelyn went into hospital to have a varicose vein removed. There was a complication and his leg became gangrenous and had to be amputated. The balance in the marriage, seen by some as a trade-off between money and title on one side and youth and good looks on the other, was now lost, and Issie’s father was suddenly disabled, in constant pain and almost wholly dependent on his wife.
When he died in 1993, he left £5,000 each to his three daughters and everything else, the remnants of the estate, the house in Kensington Square, to Rona, Lady Delves Broughton. Isabella was said to have challenged the will, cursorily with a lawyer’s letter, and had the costs of the estate’s response deducted from her £5,000 share. The full value of the estate was finally declared three years later at £3,962,702.
If the death of her brother with its consequent loss of her mother’s love was the first great tragedy in Isabella’s life, this rejection by her father was the second. In her darkest days, I was told, no matter how much the people around her loved her, all she could think about was how her parents didn’t.
As Detmar put it when we spoke, £5,000 was what you might leave a loyal housekeeper: “Five grand is f***-all money, man. People talk about the upper classes, but they are f***ing tough, man: callous, you know.” Some people wondered if Sir Evelyn had been put off by Isabella’s profligate lifestyle, but he had also disinherited her sisters, who did not share their sister’s extravagant tastes (who did?) – Julia, who worked at Christie’s, and Lavinia, who had faced tragedy of her own when her husband was killed by a car while waiting on a motorway hard shoulder in 1989.
Both Lady Broughtons, Helen and Rona, came from a different class from Sir Evelyn, lower down the social order. Helen was apparently anxious for her daughters to be “refined” and then, as Detmar put it, appeared to lose interest in them, abandoning the girls at her divorce. Issie once told a friend, Rory Knight Bruce, that she was ashamed of her mother’s “common” background. If that was true, it was not a typical remark. Issie was blessed with aristocratic social confidence – completely lacking in self-consciousness and rarely snobbish. She was also proud of her mother’s status as a young barrister.
There was no point in Haluk protesting that he could not take a picture. “If I made Bryan Ferry a photographer,” said Issie, “I can certainly make you into one.” Issie and Bryan Ferry had been friends for 20 years, since they met through Lucy Helmore, who later became his wife. Bryan had been instrumental in getting Issie started in the fashion business, arranging an introduction to Anna Wintour at Vogue in New York in 1981, which led to a job, after Issie had previously been turned down. Issie was godmother to the Ferrys’ son Otis, and had kept close ties with both parties and their children after the couple’s separation.
Bryan Ferry was notoriously shy, so shy he found it hard to look people in the eye when he talked to them. But Issie seemed to draw him out. There was a photograph of the two of them together in a frame on the worktop of the galley kitchen of Issie and Detmar’s ground-floor apartment in Eaton Square. Bryan was wearing baggy denims. Issie did not own jeans, Detmar did not own jeans. Issie did not like jeans, but Bryan, of all people, could be forgiven. Issie would always say he had invented glamour.
A Tatler photographer, Robert Astley Sparke, had once told Issie he would love to work with Bryan, meaning photograph him, but Issie had misunderstood. She instead employed Bryan to be the art director on a lingerie shoot with Astley Sparke in Paris.
Astley Sparke had been another of Issie’s “discoveries”. She had called him in originally to work on a project she wanted to call No Muff Too Tough, in which naked women would pose with specially commissioned fur muffs. Issie’s editor had “freaked out” at her suggestion for “muffs and muffs”, so she had reinvented the shoot as Nipples in Naples and orchestrated a posse of “young posh English girls” down to Naples with the idea they would pose on the rocks on the seafront in swimming costumes with one breast exposed. This was a cold November in 2003.
Astley Sparke was new to the game and embarrassed to ask the girls to “get their tits out”, and suggested to Issie that if she took the lead the others would follow. She ordered her new assistant, Jessica Andrews, to take part too. Jessica was then just 20 and mortified – she was only supposed to be the office girl – but didn’t know how to say no. It was tasteful, she told herself, and anyway, Issie had said she would be fired if she didn’t join in. Issie liked to surround herself with beauty, and Jessica was indeed beautiful. “This is Jessica with the blow-job lips,” Issie would say, introducing her assistant to Condé Nast executives, much to Jessica’s discomfort.
Jessica could count herself lucky. Issie had once slapped another assistant round the face during her time at The Sunday Times Style magazine, after the poor young woman had ordered in a disappointing set of clothes for a shoot. The editor, Jeremy Langmead, had taken Issie aside to tell her that you couldn’t go around slapping your assistants any more. “She was a human-resources nightmare,” said Langmead. (Issie was eventually fired from Style by Langmead’s successor, Robert Johnson, and harboured a grievance at the manner of the sacking – a letter delivered by motorbike courier. Johnson said she had not been sacked but “let go”. He denied the couriered letter, but could not now recall the precise details.)
Issie ruined her Manolo Blahniks walking in the Naples surf, then said, “Right, girls, let’s go” and pulled open her corset. Jessica and the other women popped out a breast. Issie, nearly twice the age of the “girls”, appeared on the opening spread…
When Haluk got to Paris, he discovered he would be making his debut as a photographer at the Dior show with John Galliano. I think it’s fair to say he was petrified. He stood smiling and feeling very nervous, his camera hands shaking, while Issie schmoozed the Dior publicist, who told her Galliano would choose the models to shoot. Issie coughed theatrically, excuse me, she said, gesturing at Haluk, do you know who this is, he is an artist, no-one can tell him. He alone will choose who to photograph. Issie demanded, let me see John Galliano! The publicist said Mr Galliano was in a black tent and wouldn’t see anyone. Issie said, tell him Isabella Blow is here. The publicist left. Issie turned to Haluk, looking very stern. Wipe that smile off your face, she said, this is professional, you have to make these people think you are doing them a favour. When you choose the girls you just point and say, you, you, that one, this one. Never, ever, say please.
The publicist returned. Okay, Mr Galliano will see you now. Sure enough, he was in a black tent backstage in the middle of a vast open space, the tent surrounded by bodyguards. They were ushered into his presence. Ah, John, darling! Mwah, mwah. Lots of air-kissing by Issie, then she says, “I’m sure you’ve heard of Haluk…” and goes into her spiel. It seems to Haluk that Galliano is standing there in a daze, then Issie says, and now I’m going to do you a big favour! Great, says Galliano, what is it? “Haluk has never taken one photograph in his life before, but he’s a great artist and you will be his first ever picture.”
Wow, said Galliano, let’s do it.
Haluk’s spread duly appeared in Tatler under the headline Dream Works, which he hated but had no control over, in spite of being a great artist. He was constantly amazed by what Issie could get away with. A couple of summers later they went to a party on an island, Pig Island, near Turkey. Issie had called her accountants and arranged a new overdraft to hire a speedboat – “It’s business, darling, I need a boat” – to take some VIP guests who ended up not going, but Issie was stuck with the cost of the boat anyway, and so none too thrilled when she arrived at the jetty and the woman who owned the island came to meet her. “What a beautiful island,” said Issie, enthusiastically. “It must take its name from you.” “Oh, thank you,” said the owner, not realising she had been grievously insulted.
Issie and Detmar met at a wedding in 1988 and were married the following year, Issie wearing a medieval-style headdress made by Treacy, sweeping up her new young hat-making friend from western Ireland and pulling him into her extraordinary, eccentric, aristocratic world. He arrived at the wedding in Gloucester Cathedral in a helicopter.
Detmar had his own grand lineage, and shared with Issie a passion for art, fashion and history. His family estate was Hilles, near Painswick, not as grand as Doddington perhaps, but not exactly a two-up two-down either. Detmar’s father, Jonathan, had married a Sri Lankan woman, Helga de Silva, whose brother Desmond was a well-known and highly successful QC. Jonathan had been a journalist and suffered from depression, making several attempts at suicide before killing himself by drinking weedkiller at Hilles in 1977, when Detmar was 14. “How romantic,” Issie had once said to Helga, “that he died in your arms.” But he had not died in her arms, he had collapsed on the bedroom floor and the reality had been anything but romantic.
Helga had spent most of the following years back in Sri Lanka, leaving Detmar and his brother and sister to more or less fend for themselves. Detmar said that, in addition to their love for each other and their shared passions, he and Issie were drawn together by a sense of abandonment and, of course, a knowledge of death.
There was an additional burden for Issie, something cleverly identified for me by Issie’s old boyfriend, immediately before she met Detmar. Tim Willis, also a journalist, had met Issie during her earlier stint at Tatler in the 1980s. He recalled her living out of a suitcase on a friend’s floor and never having a home of her own. She was stateless, he said, and this was clearly painfully felt by Issie too, who once told an interviewer she had lived in 29 different homes, including a squat. It appears she did not feel she belonged at her family home in Cheshire. Willis, by his own admission, had not been as kind to Issie as he might have been. She called him the Reptile and would regale Tatler colleagues on Monday mornings with the latest weekend misdeeds of the Rep.
Issie and Detmar lived between London and Hilles, where they often hosted weekend house parties. Detmar said Issie brought the fun back to Hilles for the first time since the 1920s.
According to Helga, Detmar’s mother, she was fond of Issie but wanted her son and his wife to treat the place with respect. She suggested they share it with Detmar’s sister and her family. According to Detmar, his mother began legal proceedings against him and Issie, and eventually served them with a notice to quit. Locks were changed and unchanged. It evidently became quite hostile and unpleasant. His sister had her own family and was wealthy and proper.
Detmar and Issie, despite three attempts at IVF, could not have children, and, of course, had little money of their own either, relatively speaking. Detmar had practised as a family-law barrister, but really wanted to be an art dealer, and first opened a gallery in Shoreditch, later setting up the Blow de la Barra gallery near Savile Row. According to Detmar, the housing situation became a critical issue between him and Issie. She hated the tension with his family and wanted to leave Hilles, but he refused, as it was his home and he had the right to stay. This led to their separation in 2003. Later that year they both had affairs – he with the writer Stephanie Theobald, and Issie with an Italian hotelier who must have been down on his luck, as Issie sold a family painting for £15,000 to support his business and lavished gifts from Jermyn Street on him.
Issie had a brief affair too, during her separation, with Matthew Mellon, the good-looking but notoriously absent-minded former partner of the Jimmy Choo boss Tamara Mellon. Issie continued to care about “Mellon-juice”, as she called him, long after their affair ended. He was one in a long line of her “obsessions”, which were mostly for fads and fashions – saris, for example, or buying a stallion – rather than people. Detmar bought a pug dog he called Alfie, as in What’s it all about, Alfie?” – why are we pulling each other apart?
It was during the 18 months of her separation from Detmar that Issie began to suffer from clinical depression. Detmar thinks it must always have been there, but people who knew her over the years could not recall anything so serious. She was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which seemed to properly reflect the manic highs and desperate lows she was experiencing. Issie spent time at the Priory (supported by Tatler’s publisher, Condé Nast) and, then and later, tried various talking and chemical treatments, including lithium and, somewhat controversially, a bout of ECT – electroconvulsive therapy, also known as electric-shock treatment – which Detmar believed was effective for a while, in 2004.
As Detmar said, she was too impatient for any talking cure. The idea that she would “hang out” in some AA-type environment, complaining “My parents never loved me,” well, that was just never going to happen. She talked to friends, sometimes to anyone who would listen, about how she felt, but it was not directed in any way. And for some friends, it was hard to hear, over and over.
Philip Treacy loved Issie for her honesty. In a world, the fashion world, sometimes seen as populated by superficial, shallow monsters – How are you, darling? I’m wonderful, darling! – Issie was open and true and wore her heart on her sleeve. How are you, darling? I’m suicidal, darling, it’s terrible. Issie began to talk of suicide, of making plans. I have a plan, she would say, but I’m not telling you. Philip Treacy found it distressing hearing her talk like this, and, like everyone else who loved and was close to her, tried to talk her out of it. But of course, in reality, she was too depressed to hear. Detmar said he did everything he could. There was nothing more he could have done to protect her.
Bizarrely, Issie was obsessed with becoming a tramp and really believed she would end up a “bag lady”. The fashion world was moving on, new young stylists were ahead of the game, she was washed-up, forgotten, left over from the 1980s, was how she felt about herself. From there it was a short step to the park bench – that perfect stateless existence, identified by Tim Willis. She often stopped to talk to vagrants and would ask them about how they had ended up on the street.
As far as I could establish, she only tried it once, when she disappeared one day, giving her friends and family an anxious time – they feared a suicide attempt – until she reappeared in the night. She had been on a park bench at Blackfriars, but it had started to rain, so she went home.
The suicide attempts began in April 2006, and though each episode was sad and born of desperation, the stories were comic in her retelling of them, and she would often honk with laughter as the tales unfolded. I want to die, became her refrain. How would you like to die? Her tongue would pop out and wiggle. During oral sex. Blow jobs. She was always going on about blow jobs.
She went out for tea one afternoon while being treated at a clinic in Harrow. Instead of returning to the clinic, she took a taxi to the A4 elevated section near Ealing and climbed up to jump over the flyover. As she described it, she was wearing Prada wedges and a Prada coat. No doubt, too, she was drowned in her favourite Fracas perfume and had smeared her lips with a gash of vivid red lipstick. “Actually, I decided I didn’t want to jump, but it was too late.” She often spoke of losing her courage. She slid down, instead, clutching at the concrete with her fingernails, and dropped, damaging her feet and ankles, so that afterwards she was rarely able to wear her beloved high-heeled Blahniks. Flat shoes, she always said, were for lesbians.
Visited by a friend in hospital, she said, I really want to die, and, pulling something from under the bed, especially now I’ve got these! brandishing a pair of Scholl-type sandals.
On another occasion she should have been with friends in the front row of a Bryan Ferry concert at the Albert Hall. Instead she went to a railway station in Surrey and stood waiting to jump in front of a train. The stationmaster sort of arrested her and called Haluk, who could hear Issie in the background, “Let go of me, now!” Her friends wanted to rescue her, but Ferry, on stage, would have been horrified if they’d all got up and walked out, so Detmar went to collect her instead.
She escaped again from the Harrow clinic, using her old Condé Nast taxi account to call a cab to take her to Cheshire, near her old family home. She went to a hotel, undressed, took pills and vodka and lay naked on the bed – “like Marilyn Monroe”, as she later put it – waiting to die. Frantic phone calls by Philip and others traced her via the taxi firm to the hotel. The manager was called. As she described it, she was interrupted by this gentle knocking at the door and a weak little English voice: “Isabella, Isabella, is everything all right in there?”
“Everything’s fine, thank you. Go away.” But the manager persisted, and she eventually had to abandon suicide and get up and open the door. She ended up being taken by the police back to hospital in Harrow, furious with Philip on the phone at one in the morning for stopping her.
She texted friends from her mobile and signed herself “Miserabella”. She sometimes started to walk off Tube platforms, and would have to be pulled back. She once filled a sink and tried to drown herself by immersing her face in the water. “Oh God,” she would say. “I so want to die.” Then she would burst out laughing. She repeatedly asked one friend to get her a gun. Sometimes, he told me, he became so exasperated with her that he just wanted to give her a gun and say: “Go on, go ahead, do it.”
In the midst of all this she continued to work, sporadically. She and Detmar were reunited after about 16 months – “She’s desperately ill and you’re the key,” Detmar was told by a psychiatrist – and left Theed Street for a flat in Eaton Square, which they decorated beautifully in a baroque style, with large canvases and other art. There was a brass plaque in the hall: Mrs and Mrs Detmar Blow.
She went to Kuwait for a shoot with Sheikh Majed al-Sabah, the owner of the Villa Moda fashion stores. The assignment became difficult and, rather than being the easy return to work her friends had hoped, it led to a new suicide attempt and a spell in hospital, during which a suspected cancerous growth on her ovaries was discovered. Back in England the doctors decided there was no cancer, only cysts that needed to be removed. During that operation a widespread ovarian cancer was identified after all. Many people believed Detmar had made up or exaggerated the cancer to disguise Issie’s true cause of death, but he insists she was “riddled” with it, and though it was not necessarily life-threatening it would have needed chemotherapy.
“It wasn’t caused by smoking,” said Issie, a confirmed B&H smoker when the cancer was discovered. She loved the Cigar Bar at Claridge’s, and was never happier than when sitting there in a revealing black dress with a glass of champagne, wreathed in smoke, holding forth on her latest theme or obsession. “She was clever, eccentric, elegant. She would have amused every century,” said Kamel Belkacemi, a French stylist who was close to Issie in her last months. “She was really an artist.” Issie would have liked hearing that. She planned a party at Hilles for the first weekend in May. Haluk was invited but couldn’t go. Otherwise it was just Detmar, her sister Lavinia, and Philip Treacy with his boyfriend, Stefan Bartlett. Issie decorated the rooms with flowers and placed a book on Wallis Simpson by Philip’s bed. But by the time he arrived she was in hospital, having swallowed weedkiller on Saturday morning, just as Detmar’s father, Jonathan, had done in the same house 30 years earlier.
Detmar spoke to Issie on the Sunday for about two hours. “We both knew, but talked of art, fashion, cooking, a white pony and sunshine. It was very special.”
She died on Monday morning.
Her funeral at Gloucester Cathedral was an extravagant affair, with some “grotesque grandstanding”, according to Jeremy Langmead. André Leon Talley of American Vogue arrived in a navy-blue taffeta cloak with a 12ft train. But it was very moving, too, with an especially memorable speech by Rupert Everett, in which he described how Issie had once likened herself to a tear-sodden Kleenex tissue.
Philip was sorry they had forgotten to place a pack of B&H in Issie’s coffin. She would have needed those. But he had put in the pheasant hat he had once made for her, which she had always said she would like to be buried with, and on top of the coffin, on a black bust, he had placed his favourite of all the hats she’d ever worn, the “ship”, constructed with fine strips of featherbone, which he had ensured would travel into the cathedral at full sail by placing a hidden motor-driven fan in some flowers, so that the sails appeared to be blowing in the wind, as if by magic.
They were kindred spirits, Issie and Philip, and she would have appreciated that last little theatrical gesture
Last edited by Diamond Star; 12-08-2007 at 08:20 AM.