Elisa Segrave

Brava Bella

The dress designer’s account of bohemian family life and her outrageous mafia in-laws is funny, poignant and acute

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, a bestseller. Unusually, this had a dead narrator, and Meet Me in the In-Between also begins with an unearthly creature — a ‘demon’ sexual predator, who won’t leave our memoirist alone.

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.

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