It should have been a warning, or perhaps at least an inkling, of things to come, but we were teenagers and couldn’t possibly have known.
Ivana was a 15-year-old wild child living with her mother, the novelist Caroline Blackwood, in a large, dilapidated house in London’s Redcliffe Square. Jonathan was a 16-year-old boarder at Westminster School. His father, the screenwriter Ivan Moffat, and Caroline had known each other from Hollywood when she had been an aspiring actress. On one of Ivan’s infrequent visits to London, our parents introduced us over a rather awkward—and, for them, boozy—lunch at Fortnum & Mason.
Jonathan found the confines of being a boarder in a bustling city oppressive and took refuge in Redcliffe Square, often spending the night only to sneak back to his dorm early in the morning. On one of his late-night excursions, a couple of girlfriends and Ivana had the bright idea to spike Jonathan’s drink with some drug they had been given at a party. Ivana heard the familiar sound of her mother’s unsteady step outside the front door and reacted in mock horror: “Jonathan, you have to hide!” Ivana and her giggling girlfriends took great pleasure in arranging clothes to conceal his presence in the bedroom closet.
Caroline knew something was up, but as she never minded anything her children did and usually encouraged such shenanigans, she initially went along with the charade. Ivana expected a look of amusement when she opened the closet door, but instead her mother’s face flushed red with anger. “What are you doing with my daughter?” she screamed. “Get out!” Ivana was shocked at her explosive and uncharacteristic reaction, and Jonathan’s face went the color of the bedsheets as he hurriedly scrambled to get back to the safety of his school dorm. The incident was never mentioned again, but it forestalled any future nocturnal visits from him.
It was many years later, after Caroline’s death, when Jonathan noticed a headline in a British newspaper: Hollywood screenwriter has love child with Guinness heiress Caroline Blackwood. Ivana had failed to tell him that when rumors and gossip about her true paternity became too persistent and annoying to ignore, she had done a DNA test with Ivan and three other potential fathers. When the results came in, it was 99.9 percent positive that Ivan was the lucky fellow. In the subsequent years, we became close, brother and sister in an unambiguous way.
On a recent visit to Jonathan’s house in Oxford, we began digging through letters, photos, and archives to learn more about our talented, bohemian, and serially unfaithful ancestors. Each generation intertwined 20th-century Hollywood and theatrical royalty with some of Europe’s most vivid social and artistic figures.
Bright Young Things
Our great-grandfather Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who founded His Majesty’s Theatre and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and his younger brother the celebrated caricaturist and satirist Max Beerbohm had a coterie of friends that included everyone from Edward VII to Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw.
Sir Herbert was the first to play the role of Henry Higgins in Pygmalion, a character Shaw wrote with him in mind. As a theatrical producer, he promoted a mix of Shakespeare and classic plays with new works and adaptations of popular novels. His three lively daughters, Felicity, Viola, and our grandmother Iris, grew up backstage and often took part in the productions. When Sir Herbert’s company toured America, they were treated like superstars, even receiving an invitation to the White House from President Cleveland. On a subsequent tour during the First World War, Sir Herbert played Svengali in Trilby, one of the earliest Hollywood movies.
Alongside his three daughters, Tree had six secret children by a mistress, Beatrice May Pinney (later Reed), and at least one other by an actress in America. Virginia Bath, cousin of our father, and Lady Diana Cooper told us that once, when Sir Herbert visited the Duke of Rutland at Belvoir Castle for Christmas with his daughters, he arranged for a phony telegram to arrive from London on Christmas Eve requesting his urgent return to deal with an emergency at his theater: an elaborate ruse to allow him to spend time with his other family.
One of these children, Carol Reed, went on to become among the most celebrated film directors in England, winning Oscars for The Third Man and Oliver! Sir Herbert’s grandson and Carol’s nephew, the hard-drinking actor Oliver Reed, once convened a family dinner at Longleat (then the home of Herbert Tree’s granddaughter), the purpose of which was to ask Virginia and Ivan whether he could use the Beerbohm-Tree family coat of arms. During this dinner, he proclaimed that “all the talent in the family is on the illegitimate side.”
Sir Herbert was the first to play the role of Henry Higgins in Pygmalion, a character Shaw wrote with him in mind.
Sir Herbert and his wife, Maud, who was an actress, entertained frequently in rooms above Her Majesty’s Theatre, and their parties became known for their grandeur and theatricality, with servants dressed in full livery with powdered wigs. Felicity, Viola, and Iris divided their time between the stately homes of their parents’ aristocratic friends and the fantasy world of the theater.
Iris exchanged original verses with a schoolmate, the shipping heiress Nancy Cunard, and became a published poet in her later teens, gaining critical success. The two secretly rented a studio, where they kept makeup and costumes. Iris loved to shock: “I have had 28 lovers, some more, some less,” she wrote in her early 20s.
Living on the fringes of the Bloomsbury Set, Iris enrolled in the Slade School of Art with the painter Dora Carrington and Lady Cooper, both of whom became lifelong friends. On an impulse, she chopped off her hair, leaving her well-known copper tresses behind on a train. Iris was photographed by Man Ray and painted by Amedeo Modigliani and Augustus John. A bust by the sculptor Jacob Epstein shows her signature bobbed hair, a lock of which we were simultaneously intrigued and unsettled to find in an envelope at the Tree Family Archive at the University of Bristol.
Oliver Reed proclaimed that “all the talent in the family is on the illegitimate side.”
Iris was one of the Bright Young Things, a group of blue-blooded bohemians who spent the interwar years party-going; they were later fictionalized in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. She was married twice, first to our grandfather the American photographer and artist Curtis Moffat, with whom she had an open relationship, and then to an impoverished Austrian count, Friedrich von Ledebur, who made an appearance in the 1956 film Moby Dick. She also had countless affairs with artists and writers, John, Modigliani, Aldous Huxley, and Oskar Kokoschka among them. There were even rumors that our father, Ivan, was Huxley’s son; the resemblance is quite startling.
Curtis, who had numerous affairs of his own, including with his wife’s friend Nancy Cunard, was described by his frequent collaborator Cecil Beaton as “the center of enormous creative activity. He was the most European of Americans. With velvet eyes and enormous charm.” Curtis was brought up between New York and Paris, where he attended the École des Beaux-Arts. The family dog, Handsome Dan, is the mascot of Yale University.
Iris met Curtis on one of her father’s theatrical tours in support of the war effort. The two got engaged so quickly that her father, Herbert, had to rush back from performing in Chicago to give them his blessing. When America entered World War I, the young couple moved to Cuba, where she gave birth to Ivan.
Jonathan recalls Ivan complaining that Iris was a terrible mother. She sent him away to boarding school when he was eight. She would promise to take him out for his birthday and then not show up. He once received a letter from America justifying her absence by saying she had been staying for three months at Hearst Castle, in California, “a place full of exotic animals and fellow guests from a new industry called ‘the movie business.’”
After the war ended, Ivan was sent to be raised by his grandmother in London. Iris and Curtis, meanwhile, went to live in Paris, where Curtis shared a studio with Man Ray. In 1925, the couple moved to London, where he opened Curtis Moffat Ltd., an art gallery and design studio financed by Jock Whitney, which became a popular salon for artists, intellectuals, and gourmands.
Iris was frequently absent, and Curtis was a very distant figure, so Ivan was left to his own devices. He grew up surrounded by his Tree cousins, the Parsons and the Cory-Wrights, and went to Dartington, a then experimental school that my sisters and I would later attend.
Iris’s spirits remained high all her life, even as her resources dwindled. In 1959, she was asked by her friend Federico Fellini to play herself in his film La Dolce Vita, a cameo that provided some much-needed funds. Sadly, a great deal of her papers, including unpublished manuscripts, were lost in 1966 when her car, which doubled as a filing cabinet and wardrobe, was stolen.
In her later years, she sniffed the powder of hallucinogenic mushrooms as a nightcap. At age 71, she wrote her final poem on her deathbed. It began, “Bury me under a tree / because of my name and ancestry.”
Jean-Paul and Simone and Natalie and Ivan
By the time World War II came, Ivan was 21 and already a card-carrying Communist, having railed against Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirt Fascist movement. He was working at Strand Films, making documentaries for the government to promote the war effort, alongside the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. The pair would spend their evenings drinking at the Gargoyle club, in London’s Soho.
When America entered the war, Ivan enlisted in the U.S. Army. He served, along with Ernest Hemingway’s brother, Leicester, as a writer in the Signal Corps, under the director George Stevens. The special unit, which filmed the D-day landings, was known as “the Hollywood Irregulars.” They were among the first to arrive at Hitler’s lair and command center, Berchtesgaden, known as “the Eagle’s Nest.” Ivan came to regret not removing Eva Braun’s diaries, which they uncovered in a safe.
George Stevens Jr. later discovered color footage shot by his father’s unit, which he turned into the 1994 documentary George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin. In the film, Ivan can be seen as a young soldier next to Dwight Eisenhower, Charles de Gaulle, and Bernard Montgomery in the outskirts of Paris and, later, at the newly liberated Dachau concentration camp. The horrors they discovered there would scar Ivan for life.
During the liberation of Paris, Ernest Hemingway came and introduced Ivan to Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. It was through de Beauvoir that he met and fell in love with Natalie Sorokin, an 18-year-old studying at the Sorbonne. It soon became clear to Ivan that the beautiful young Russian émigré was embroiled in a ménage à trois with Sartre and de Beauvoir, her professor. A scandal ensued when Natalie’s parents launched a complaint with the school that resulted in de Beauvoir losing her license to teach.
The special unit, which filmed the D-day landings, was known as “the Hollywood Irregulars.” They were among the first to arrive at Hitler’s lair and command center, known as “the Eagle’s Nest.”
After the war, Stevens suggested that Ivan come to Hollywood to write “real movies.” Ivan happily agreed and took a pregnant Natalie with him. He soon reconnected with his mother, Iris, who had spent the war in Santa Monica, where she had set up a salon frequented by European émigrés such as Billy Wilder, Bertolt Brecht, and the theater director Max Reinhardt. Ivan happily fell in with this group and grew close with Charlie Chaplin, David O. Selznick, Ellie and Dominick Dunne, Connie Wald, Edie Goetz, and Betsy Bloomingdale.
Ivan worked predominantly as a screenwriter, assisting George Stevens on films such as Shane, A Place in the Sun, and I Remember Mama. He was nominated for an Oscar alongside Fred Guiol for their adaptation of Edna Ferber’s Giant.
In 1956, de Beauvoir flew over and disappeared with Natalie into the Mojave Desert for a few weeks. De Beauvoir delivered her back, before returning to Paris, but Ivan and Natalie’s marriage dissolved shortly after.
So had Caroline’s marriage to Lucian Freud. She arrived in Hollywood fresh from the breakup, in the hope of pursuing an acting career.
Ivan and Caroline, who had met years earlier in Venice, now embarked on an intense love affair. But she grew disillusioned with Hollywood, and the relationship ended when she left Los Angeles. Or so we had thought.
Christopher Isherwood described Ivan at the time as having “the slightly guilty grin of an accepted lover. He is always so pretty and bright eyed and clean—he has to be for I imagine his evenings usually end, if they don’t begin, visiting some girl.” Elizabeth Taylor was one. Another was a young starlet and girlfriend of Howard Hughes, whose surrogates warned him off. Ivan blamed Hughes for the termination of his studio contract and his subsequent blacklisting.
The Dunnes introduced Ivan to Kate Smith, a friend from England who came from the wealthy WHSmith retailing family, and whose mother was the lady of the bedchamber to the then Queen Mother. Ivan and Kate soon married in the Dunnes’ house in Beverly Hills and lived nearby for a while, renting the home of Boris Karloff.
The couple later moved to London, following a long stint in Germany, where Ivan was working on The Great Escape. Ivan recalled a day when Steve McQueen had a new Porsche delivered to the set and asked him to go for a ride. They drove through the narrow country lanes of Bavaria to a cottage McQueen had rented, where he had arranged for some attractive female companions to spend the evening. They were later to be woken by the German police knocking on the windows, having been alerted to their disappearance by their furious director.
Ivan and Kate gave big parties, mixing old England with new Hollywood. At one dinner, Richard Burton became convinced that the English writer and war hero Patrick Leigh Fermor was flirting with Taylor. Burton took a swing at Leigh Fermor. Leigh Fermor threw Burton out a window.
It was during this time, we learned much later, that Caroline and Ivan briefly rekindled their earlier relationship—an affair that led first to Ivana’s existence and, more recently, to us both discovering and uncovering our complicated family, its further secrets, talents, and eccentricities waiting to be uncovered through the as yet untold branches of the family named Tree.
Ivana Lowell is a writer whose memoir, Why Not Say What Happened?, is being adapted into a television series
Jonathan Moffat is an investor based in London and Oxford. He is currently working with Ivana on a book and a treatment for a television series