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Join Date: Feb 2009
Blow by Blow : The Story of Isabella Blow
by Detmar Blow and Tom Sykes
Release date : 2nd September 2010
Fatally flawed fashionista: Isabella Blow's husband reveals how beneath all the glitz, the maverick who discovered Sophie Dahl and Alexander McQueen was crippled by depression
Dressed as Joan of Arc in costume armour with a chain mail headdress, it was a typically dramatic picture of Isabella Blow - and as part of a prestigious feature on British fashion icons in Vanity Fair magazine, it should have been one of the crowning glories of a legendary career.
Yet within a couple of days of this arresting portrait being taken, Isabella was dead after swallowing poison, aged only 48 - her seventh suicide attempt in 14 months. Looking at the picture now, I realise Issie was already preparing herself for her last performance: the shoot was her dramatic farewell to a cruel world.
I was at our flat in Eaton Square, London, when Issie's sister, Lavinia, called to say she had swallowed some poison - and my immediate feeling was one of sickening déjà vu: my own father had died in 1977 after drinking weedkiller, and it had killed him in half an hour as the liquid burned out his insides - a story I had shared with Issie the first time we met. My 12-year-old brother, Amaury, was with him at the time and he said that Dadda never cried out, though his fists were clenched in pain.
In fact, when I got to Issie's bedside in the Gloucestershire Royal Hospital along with Philip Treacy, the milliner who was Issie's best friend, she was pale, but not apparently in pain. Whatever Issie had taken took longer to work - but it killed her just as surely in the end. She passed away in her sleep two nights later.
But why had my wife Isabella Blow - the fashion legend, the toast of glossy magazines from London to New York - wanted so desperately to kill herself? To answer that question, I would have to go back to her extraordinary childhood, her relationship with her parents - and to the great, central trauma of her life.
On 12 September 1964, her two-year-old brother, Johnny, died after falling into a shallow pool in the garden while Issie was supposed to be looking after him. She was only five years old herself at the time. Johnny's death, as well as traumatising Issie for life, utterly destroyed the family.
Her parents, Evelyn and Helen Delves Broughton, never recovered from the loss of their only son and heir. They were unable to seek solace in their three other children - Issie and her two younger sisters, Lavinia and Julia - and eventually divorced ten years later.
By then, Issie was at Heathfield, a girls' boarding school in Berkshire, where up to this point she had been seen as a 'little ray of sunshine' by the teachers.
For most children of divorcing parents at boarding school, it is customary for the parents to come to the school to explain the situation. But this was not the case for Isabella, who learned the news out of the blue when she opened a letter from her mother at lunchtime in the school dining room.
According to her schoolfriend Rosie Pearson, Issie rushed out of the dining room at Heathfield, clutching the letter, in floods of tears. From then on, her behaviour at school became melodramatic and temperamental and she acquired a new nickname, 'Huffy'.
Tragedy ran deep in Issie's family. The stain on the Delves Broughton name went back to her grandfather, Sir Jock Delves Broughton, infamous after being accused of the murder of a fellow aristocrat, the philandering Earl of Errol, who had an affair with Jock's beautiful second wife, Diana, in Kenya in the 1940s.
Jock was acquitted of the murder, immortalised in the book and film White Mischief, but couldn't escape the smears of the press and his contemporaries and committed suicide in Liverpool in 1942 in what some saw as an admission of guilt. Issie believed she'd inherited her depression from Jock, and was later to base one of her own unsuccessful suicide attempts closely around Jock's successful one.
Isabella's childhood was, by any standards, enormously privileged. But it was overshadowed by her father's terror of losing what remained of the family fortune, having watched as a young boy while Jock spent, gambled and unsuccessfully invested away a fortune worth a staggering £70 million in today's money.
Jock inherited two stately homes - Broughton Hall in Cheshire and Doddington Hall in Staffordshire - a collection of paintings and furniture accumulated over six centuries, 15,000 acres of prime farmland in three counties, a London residence and a multitude of stocks and shares.
By the time he killed himself, with a morphine overdose, he left an estate that was only a tenth of the size of the one he'd inherited. Broughton Hall was sold, as was most of the farmland and other assets.
Even as a child, Isabella was perpetually anxious about money. She had undoubtedly picked this up from her father, who, when he wrote to her at boarding school, would put in brackets next to the name of each person mentioned the total number of acres of land they owned.
When Evelyn inherited the estate, he began a lifelong mission to save money - turning the farm into a profitable enterprise and moving his family out of the grand Doddington Hall (which now stands boarded up in a sorry state of disrepair) and into the gardener's cottage in the grounds - something Isabella was to resent all her life.
Though fond of his daughter, Evelyn was penny-pinching and crassly insensitive - his 18th birthday present to her was a Bible and a card telling her she was now 'off the books'.
A year after his divorce, in 1973, Evelyn married again, to Issie's stepmother Rona, who also had three young daughters. When 15-year-old Isabella came home on holiday from school, soon afterwards, she found she'd been evicted-from her bedroom in favour of her stepsisters and moved to a guest room.
She now felt unwelcome at Doddington in the school holidays, and this can be pinpointed as the moment she began to feel as though she belonged nowhere. This demon developed over the years into an obsessive fear that she would end up a homeless bag lady - a belief that haunted her and contributed to her suicide, despite the fact that, at the time of her death, with a flat in Eaton Square, we were manifestly not destitute.
Isabella always got on badly with her own mother - a legacy of possibly feeling blamed by her for her brother's death - but her relationship with her stepmother was also catastrophic.
Another problem with 'The Steps', as she called her young stepsisters, was that they were extremely good-looking. She hated her protruding 'goofy' teeth, blaming her parents for being too mean to spend money rectifying them when she was a teenager. In fact, she had a terrific, slim figure and huge, flashing green-blue eyes - but was convinced she had an 'ugly face'.
Issie later told her friend Hamish Bowles at Vogue, 'If you're beautiful you don't need clothes. If you're ugly like me, you're like a house with no foundations; you need something to build you up.'
Aged 18 and at secretarial college in Oxford, she developed a reputation for wearing evening dresses during the day, dressing as a sexy 1920s-style temptress and performing infamous stripteases. To the staid young men of her circle she was heady and provocative -
particularly to a mature student called Nicholas Taylor, the son of an Oxford lecturer, with whom she had an intense romance, leading to marriage at the age of 22.
The young couple eventually ended up living in New York in the early 1980s - just as Issie's old friend, Lucy Helmore, moved there with her new husband, Bryan Ferry, then one of the hottest rock stars in the world. Bryan arranged an interview for Issie with Anna Wintour, then creative director of American Vogue - and she got the job as one of Anna's two assistants.
Issie immediately created a stir by the bold outfits she turned up to work in, and her eccentric manner. Wintour recalls, 'People would stop by my office just to see what Issie was wearing that day. One morning she might be in full punk regalia, the next dressed like a maharajah, dripping in jewels and sari silks.'
It rapidly became clear that although Issie was not a great administrator, she was highly creative, and hard-working - on things that interested her, at least - and second-to-none at spotting new talent. Wintour says, 'Every day she'd leave Vogue as if her working day was only beginning; the next day she'd come in and relate with breathy excitement about the new artist, the new designer, the new photographer, the fabulous girl we absolutely must work with.'
As Wintour observed, 'the more something shocked her, the more it captivated her imagination'. One such discovery was the painter, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol's collaborator. Both Warhol and Basquiat ended up doing assignments for Vogue as a result of Issie's introductions. Issie met Warhol at a party where she was wearing one silver and one purple shoe of the same style by Manolo Blahnik. Warhol came up to Issie and said, 'Gee, you had to buy two pairs of shoes to get that look.' Their friendship was to last until his death in 1987.
But by now her marriage was on the rocks. Although Issie was later to be diagnosed with chronic manic-depression, she did not identify herself at this stage in her life as suffering from the condition. It put an intolerable strain on their relationship, and she and Nicholas divorced in 1983 after just two years of marriage.
Issie returned to London, landing up at Tatler in 1986. Soon she was shooting four fashion pages of her own every month which, though a creative success, often put her at odds with 'the suits'. Issie solved this problem by spending vast amounts of her own money on props for shoots, then struggling to claim it back in expenses.
She has the distinction of submitting the highest expenses claim in the history of Condé Nast - for a dilapidated building. Issie wrote on the expenses form, 'Just £50,000 for a very small ruin that really was a must'. It went unpaid.
It was at this point that Issie and I met for the first time, at a mutual friend's wedding in Salisbury Cathedral. She walked into the cathedral as the first hymn struck up - and I was dumbstruck at her appearance; she was wearing an enormous hat festooned with giant ostrich feathers, bright red lipstick and a purple Katharine Hamnett coat dress.
I couldn't take my eyes off her. After the service, I waited for an opportunity to speak to her - and we immediately connected. Despite the brevity of our meeting, I knew I had fallen in love with her, and sat with her after dinner. We were kindred spirits and I ended up telling her about my father's suicide. It was, I admit, an unusual chat-up line.
We got engaged 20 days later after a whirlwind romance - and married the following year in a dramatic ceremony in Gloucester Cathedral, with Issie dressed in a dark violet dress by Nadia Lavalle and a medieval headdress by Philip Treacy, whose work she had recently spotted at Tatler and whom she relentlessly pursued to create the headdress. Issie and I would be together for the next 18 years - and in Philip Treacy she had found not only the creator of her wedding headdress, but her best friend for life and the greatest discovery of her career so far. They quickly developed an intense and creative relationship that he later likened to 'having an affair with no sex'.
We returned from our honeymoon to our respective careers - me as a junior barrister and Issie to Tatler, only to discover she'd been sacked. I never found out exactly why - perhaps the new editor, Emma Soames, didn't like Issie's style, or she'd been spending too much time at her house in Gloucestershire, or she just wasn't easy to work with - but once she'd digested the news, she wiped away her tears and took the lift up to the fifth floor of the same building, where the offices of British Vogue were located.
Here she spoke directly with the legendary editor, Liz Tilberis, with whom she'd had no previous relationship, and told her what had happened. She received a handwritten letter the next day, offering her a job at Vogue styling the portraits of the famous people it featured.
One key shoot she did was legendary photographer Steven Meisel's Anglo-Saxon Attitudes in 1993, informally known as the 'London babes' shoot. At a cost of around £80,000, it remains to this day the most expensive ever done at British Vogue. Issie's brief was to find beautiful aristocratic English girls to inspire Meisel - and the hunt was utterly exhaustive. The girls who made the final cut were Issie's cousin, Honor Fraser; the designer Bella Freud; Issie's new assistant Plum Sykes, and Stella Tennant.
Honor Fraser went on to become an internationally successful model - but Stella Tennant's career was catapulted into orbit as a direct result of meeting Meisel, who immediately went on to use her on the cover of Italian Vogue. Soon after, Karl Lagerfeld announced Stella as the new face of Chanel, with a rumoured £1 million contract.
During the Babes shoot, Issie told Stella, 'If I make you famous, I want a bottle of my favourite perfume.' A bottle of Fracas duly arrived.
*Amazon.co.uk & Dailymail.co.uk
Oh oh see you said some key words, alright, you said I have spice and fire, so stay away before I burn yo
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