A well-known figure in the literary world through her journalism and her novels, Caroline Blackwood was equally well known for her high-profile marriages, first to the artist Lucian Freud, then to the composer Israel Citkowitz and finally to the poet Robert Lowell, who described her as "a mermaid who dines upon the bones of her winded lovers". Her novels are known for their wit and intelligence, and one in particular is scathingly autobiographical in describing her unhappy childhood.
She was born into an Anglo-Irish aristocratic family from Ulster at 4 Hans Crescent in Knightsbridge, her parents' London home. She was, she admitted, "scantily educated" at, among other schools, Rockport School (County Down) and Downham (Essex). After a finishing school in Oxford she was presented as a debutante in 1949 at a ball held at Londonderry House.
Blackwood's first job was with Hulton Press as a secretary, but she was soon given small reporting jobs by Claud Cockburn. Ann Fleming, the wife of "James Bond" author Ian Fleming, introduced Lady Caroline to Lucian Freud, and the two eloped to Paris in 1952. In Paris she met Picasso (and reportedly refused to wash for three days after he drew on her hands and nails). She married Freud on 9 December 1953 and became a striking figure in London's bohemian circles; the Gargoyle Club and Colony Room replaced Belgravia drawing rooms as her haunts. She sat for several of Freud's finest portraits, including Girl in Bed, which testifies to her alluring beauty. She was impressed by the ruthless vision of Freud and Francis Bacon and her later fiction was a literary version of their view of humanity.
In the early 1960s, Blackwood began contributing to Encounter, London Magazine, and other periodicals on subjects such as beatniks, Ulster sectarianism, women's lib theatre and New York free schools. Although these articles were elegant, minutely observed and sometimes wickedly funny, they had, according to Christopher Isherwood, a persistent flaw: "she is only capable of thinking negatively. Confronted by a phenomenon, she asks herself: what is wrong with it?" During the mid-1960s, she had an affair with Robert Silvers, the founder and co-editor of The New York Review of Books.
Her third husband, Robert Lowell, was a crucial influence on her talents as a novelist. He encouraged her to write her first book, For All That I Found There (1973), the title of which is a line from the Percy French song "The Mountains of Mourne", and formed a coruscating memoir of her daughter's treatment in a burns unit. Blackwood's first novel The Stepdaughter (1976) appeared three years later to much acclaim, and is a concise and gripping monologue by a rich, self-pitying woman deserted by her husband in a plush New York apartment and tormented by her fat stepdaughter. It won the David Higham Prize for best first novel. Great Granny Webster followed in 1977 and was partly derived on her own miserable childhood, and depicted an austere and loveless old woman's destructive impact on her daughter and granddaughter. It was short-listed for the Booker Prize.
In 1980 came The Last of the Duchess, a study of the relations between the Duchess of Windsor and her cunning lawyer, Maître Suzanne Blum; it could not be published until after Blum's death in 1995. Her third novel The Fate of Mary Rose (1981) describes the effect on a Kent village of the rape and torture of a ten-year-old girl named Maureen and is narrated by a selfish historian whose obsessions destroy his domestic life. After this came a collection of five short stories, Good Night Sweet Ladies (1983), followed by her final novel, Corrigan (1984), which was the least successful and depicts the effects on a depressed widow of a charming, energetic but sinister cripple who erupts into her life.
Blackwood's later books were based on interviews and vignettes, including On The Perimeter (1984), which focused her attentions on the women's peace encampment at the Greenham Common air base in Berkshire, and In The Pink (1987), which was a reflective, ghoulish book looking at the hunting and the hunt saboteur fraternities and exposed the many obsessive personalities of both fox-hunters and animal rights activists.
Blackwood's marriage to Lucian Freud disintegrated soon after they married in 1953; and, in 1957, she moved to New York City and studied acting at the Stella Adler school. She also went to Hollywood and appeared in several films. Her marriage to Freud was finally dissolved in 1958 in Mexico.
On 15 August 1959, she married the pianist Israel Citkowitz (1909–1974), a man who would have been the same age as her father. They had three daughters. By the time of the birth of the youngest daughter, Ivana in 1966, Blackwood's marriage to Citkowitz was over, though Citkowitz continued to live nearby and served as a nanny-duenna until his death. During the mid-1960s, Blackwood had an affair with Robert Silvers, a founder and co-editor of The New York Review of Books, who stayed close to the family thereafter.
According to Ivana, both Silvers and Ivana suspected that Silvers was her biological father. However, a deathbed admission by Blackwood revealed that Ivana's biological father was another boyfriend, the screenwriter Ivan Moffat, the grandson of actor-manager Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree.
In 1970, Blackwood returned to London and, in April, began a relationship with the poet Robert Lowell, who suffered from bipolar disorder. Lowell was at the time a visiting professor at All Souls College, Oxford. Their son, Sheridan, was born on 28 September 1971; and, after obtaining divorces from their respective spouses, Blackwood and Lowell were married on 21 October 1972. They lived in London and Milgate House in Kent. The sequence of poems in Lowell's The Dolphin (1973) provides a disrupted narrative of his involvement with Blackwood and the birth of their son (Lowell's friend Elizabeth Bishop strongly advised Lowell not to publish the book, advice he ignored).
Blackwood at the time was distressed and confused in her reactions to Lowell's manic episodes, feeling useless and afraid of their effect on her children. Her anxieties, alcohol-related illnesses, and late-night tirades exacerbated his condition. In 1977, Lowell died, reportedly clutching one of Freud's portraits of Blackwood, in the back seat of a New York cab, on his way back to his second wife, the writer Elizabeth Hardwick. This heartache was followed a year later by the death of her daughter Natalya from a drug overdose at the age of 18.
In 1977, to avoid tax, Blackwood left England and went to live in County Kildare, Ireland, in an apartment at the great Georgian mansion of Castletown House, which was owned by her cousin Desmond Guinness. Ten years later, in 1987, she returned to the United States, settling in a large, comfortable house in Sag Harbor, Long Island, where, although her powers were greatly depleted by alcoholism, she continued to write, including two vivid memoirs of Princess Margaret and Francis Bacon, published in The New York Review of Books in 1992.
She never lost her dark, macabre sense of humour, even during her final illness. British writer and essayist Anna Haycraft, a staunch Roman Catholic, brought holy water from Lourdes, which accidentally spilled on Blackwood's deathbed sheets: “I might have caught my death”, she muttered.
On 14 February 1996, Blackwood died from cancer at the Mayfair Hotel on Park Avenue in New York City, aged 64. She was survived by her two younger daughters Eugenia Citkowitz Sands (b. 1963), wife of actor Julian Sands, and Ivana (b. 1966); her son Sheridan Lowell; her sister Lady Perdita Blackwood; and her mother, the former Maureen Guinness, who died two years later, aged 91. She was predeceased by her father, Basil Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, 4th Marquess of Dufferin and Ava (1909–1945), her oldest daughter Natalya (1960–1978), and her brother, Sheridan Dufferin, 5th Marquess (1938–1988).