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Close Encounters

by Linda Yablonsky
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Detmar Blow (with Tom Sykes), Blow by Blow: The Story of Isabella Blow, It Books, 2010, 304 pp., $30.

There isn't much meat for art sharks in Blow by Blow, British art dealer Detmar Blow's irritating biography of his fashion-icon wife Isabella, who was 48 in 2007, when she committed suicide. Though the author opened the London gallery Modern Art in 1998, with a 23-year-old Stuart Shave (now his ex-partner), artworks rarely come up for mention in his book, and the few artists who do play a role make appearances that are inconsequent and fleeting.

Most are merely names dropped in a sea of others belonging to gentried scions of the British aristocracy whom he and Isabella, or "Issie," ran among throughout their 18-year marriage. Walk-ons by artists like Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, for example, are downright peculiar and even distasteful, partly for the way Blow exploits their marquee status to assure us how fabulous a couple he made with Issie.

Meanwhile, she really was fabulous -- and as big a mess as people who are brilliant in one area and fatiguing in others can be. She had a daring eye for style and an enthusiasm for creative genius that led her to discover the designers Alexander McQueen, Jeremy Scott, Julien Macdonald and milliner Philip Treacy, as well as the models Sophie Dahl, Stella Tennant and her cousin Honor Fraser, now an art dealer in Los Angeles. As an editor or assistant at American Vogue, Tatler, British Vogue, and the Times of London's Sunday Magazine, she worked with photographers like Mario Testino, David LaChappelle, Lord Snowdon and Steven Meisel to style layouts in the ‘80s and ‘90s that are still as spectacular and as they were costly.

She and Blow -- but mostly Issie -- appeared as the subject of feature stories in some of the same magazines and other publications whose readers were enthralled by her frequently outrageous look and their extravagant lifestyle. Despite their privileged upbringing, Blow says one of Issie's biggest fears was running out of money, and this neurosis fulfilled itself every time she booked a first-class ticket or five-star hotel room and went out to buy her Manolos and outrageously expensive clothing, paid for in installments. Largely at her own expense, she also refurbished his family’s Gloucester estate, called Hilles, south of London, where they entertained their society friends and fended off their respective families, who brought them grief in several ways at once.

Suicide ran in each: Blow's father killed himself by swallowing weed-killer when Detmar was just 14; Isabella’s grandfather, Jock Delves-Broughton, did himself in after spending most of his considerable fortune and being tried for the murder of Lord Errol when the two of them were leading debauchees of Nairobi's "Happy Valley" colonial set, which was vividly portrayed by James Fox in his book White Mischief.

Would that Blow by Blow were as gripping or racy. As told to Tom Sykes, brother of fashion writer Plum Sykes (another of Issie's privileged pals), the best that can be said for this biography is that its title is right on the money. By interviewing family members, friends, acquaintances and his wife's professional colleagues, Blow recounts the progress of her life before they met and after as an exceedingly banal inventory of tragedy and triumph. He also selects for quotation only those comments that square with his own feelings. For him, the only truth was the unstable Issie.

The childhood stories are particularly boring, not because their events lack drama, but because his wide-eyed appreciation of inconsequent details makes every little snub and heartache into a melodrama worthy of pathos. He portrays the youthful Issie as a boob-flashing, gold-digging horror show, too insufferable to consider befriending and incapable of holding onto even one of her several six-figure jobs. Granted, she was wild and self-absorbed, but scads of people -- Anna Wintour, Elton John, Rupert Everett and McQueen among them -- thought her fascinating and fun as well as inspiring.

The only time Blow becomes insightful is when he offers observations about the physical or emotional injuries that Issie's long-term manic depression and her six failed attempts to kill herself inflicted on herself and others. (He also admits to being subject to deep insecurities and disabling bouts of depressions of his own.) She was diagnosed as bipolar during the couple's separation in 2004, when they each took other lovers, though it's clear she had been incubating serious problems since the accidental death of her younger brother, when she was only five. Blow paints their life together after reconciliation as a series of disempowering upheavals that included her infertility, excommunication from her beloved Hilles, McQueen's failure to repay her many kindnesses by hiring someone else to be his muse at Gucci, her profligate spending, her mother's cold shoulder and her near disinheritance by a stingy yet beloved father, her shock treatments, sinking celebrity and ovarian cancer.

If only the bloviating Blow had leavened this awesomely depressing story out of its upper-crust lethargy with more amusing anecdotes instead of list-making! He had plenty of material, including his wife's singular career in the upper reaches of fashion and the burgeoning art market in '90s London, of which he was both witness and participant. Though he makes much of Sue Noble and Tim Webster, Modern Art's first stars, he doesn't seem to have included them or others in his clubby personal circle. (For a definitive inside view of the YBA scene, see Lucky Kunst, a propulsive memoir by Gregor Muir, currently director of London's Institute of Contemporary Art).

But Blow's obsession was Issie, whom he worshipped and to whose will he submitted again and again. Clearly, she was not easy to live or work with, but he stood by her, blaming others too often for her seemingly genetic unhappiness. Perhaps it is his resentment of critics who might call him to account that makes his weirdly suffocating biography read more as a defense of himself than a love letter to her, as well as an expression of outrage against the uncomprehending, class-conscious attempts of friends and family to save her. (Before he went into the art business, Blow was a practicing lawyer.) "The fact is," he says, "we were all being driven completely insane by the situation. As anyone who has experienced the mental breakdown of a family member can attest, you do at times find yourself saying the unsayable and doing the unthinkable."

Ultimately, his is a conflicted, wall-eyed story of family and betrayal, heady celebrity and mental disfigurement. It should have had me bawling; instead, it left me perplexed and put off by a personal agenda at odds with the cheeky, spirited and poor little rich girl at its center.

LINDA YABLONSKY is an art critic who writes for, the Art Newspaper, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, W and other publications.