I like Bella Pollen for her open-mindedness, self-deprecation and verve. Given her early success as a fashion designer — top client Princess Diana — her memoir is extraordinarily modest. Now in her mid-fifties, she has also published five novels — one, Hunting Unicorns
It also deals with writer’s block. Scared of psychotherapy (suggested by her second husband, Mac), Bella playfully positions her two literary agents as pretend therapists: ‘Hasn’t anyone ever suggested you might need to work through your past in order to move on to your future?’ one suggests, echoing hubby.
I read the first half with pure enjoyment. Bella grew up in Manhattan, where her father, Peregrine Pollen (whom she clearly adores, but I took a dislike to for regularly getting his parrot drunk) was chairman of Sotheby Parke Bernet in the 1960s. The book’s dedication is to Bella’s mother, ‘for her wisdom, her love and her lion’s heart’; but, compared to fun (if often absent) Dad, Mum is not nearly so vivid — apart from roast chicken picnics and voluntary teaching in Harlem. Much livelier is Lenor, the family’s black cleaning lady, who, unfazed by Bella’s childlike wish to be black, gives her advice on how to keep her Afro wig (bought to imitate Pam Grier). ‘She pinched the curls and murmured: “You might want to use a little castor oil on Pam.” ’
Will Self on his new novel, Phone, psychosis and postmodernism – Listen and subscribe to the Spectator Books podcast, hosted by Sam Leith:
Bella, the middle child — between Susie and Marcus — is a daddy’s girl and her account of the day when, aged ten, she disobeys her sister by refusing to leave Central Park, deliberately getting lost, and then persuading an old man to buy her bubble gum before driving her home, is poignant. Hoping Susie will be punished, and herself anticipating a scolding, Bella finds a worse event unfolding. At an uncharacteristically formal parental meeting, their mother declares to the three: ‘Your dad is moving out.’ The excuse is that sheepish dad must live closer to his work (ten minutes’ walk away) which Bella, a reluctant walker, understands — at first. Susie, suddenly kind, puts her to bed and their lives change abruptly.
The next four years are skipped, but linked by a series of charming faux naive drawings — a transatlantic liner, the Statue of Liberty — with captions: ‘Why do we have to Go?’ ‘Mum Stays Behind to Sort Stuff Out’. And then a snakes and ladders board, with ‘First Love, Will It Hurt?’ and ‘Shit 1st Job’ on the squares.
Aged 21, the pregnant Bella marries Giacomo, whose father is probably in the mafia. Affectionate vignettes of this venal charmer add spice to what is already a high-spirited tale. Here’s the wedding:
‘Cara’, Gilberto purred, late by a full hour. ‘I am honoured you will marry my son.’ He nuzzled his shoe-brush moustache against my neck and poked at my cleavage. ‘So big and swollen’, he murmured. ‘Brava, bellissima.’
Bella excels at depicting outrageous characters. Pamela is her housekeeper in the American west:
She alluded cheerfully to halfway houses, a daughter long since given up for adoption, and an old flame living in a Detroit penitentiary.... ‘So you get why I don’t come cheap’, she concluded.
(Bella by now has four children, two by Mac.)
Unfortunately, in the second half of the book, she gets carried away by other ‘characters’ in the American west and in daring trips across the US-Mexican border. In journalistic mode, she wants to experience getting to the USA as an illegal immigrant.
This is a digression, and the reader wants more about Mac, and about Bella’s long-suffering mother. We are told briefly that dad acquired a second family but still regards his first wife as ‘home’. Bella equates her escapism with his, and the most moving passages are their têtes-à-têtes — a chance meeting at a cinema; when she is in labour; on a road trip in America; and finally, when he is dying:
‘Holding your hand in labour, giving you half my popcorn….’
‘Yes?’, I say.
‘Well, I think I must have been a terribly good father.’
He gives my hand another squeeze.