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When the writer Anna Haycraft, a devout Catholic, visited her best friend on her deathbed she attemp­ted an 11th-hour conversion but was rebuffed with aplomb.

'Anna had brought a flask of holy water that she had especially blessed for Caroline in Lourdes.

When Lowell was born in 1966, Blackwood was 33 and at the end of her marriage to the much older Israel Citkowitz, but involved with Bob Silvers, both men part of a pattern of intellectuals and artists to whom Blackwood became companion and muse throughout her life.

' the woman asked, and Lowell realised to her horror that things were about to get a whole lot worse.

Nearly 15 years after her death, the presence of the bohemian aristocrat is everywhere.

Above the fireplace hangs a copy of Girl in Bed, her first husband Lucian Freud's 1952 portrait of her, painted around the time she and Freud eloped to Paris, while on the mantelpiece is a photograph of her at 19, all limpid blue eyes, taken by the English screenwriter Ivan Moffat, with whom she carried on an open-ended affair during her second marriage, to the pianist and composer Israel Citkowitz.

'I was recounting it by rote,' she tells me later, over a lunch of mussels and salad in the clubby dining-room of Sag Harbor's Amer­ican Hotel, 'and at the end of it she just looked at me and said, "Oh my God, it's amazing you're still standing".

On the way home I thought, yes, it is amazing I'm still standing, and I was feeling quite chuffed and thought, OK, I'm going to start writing this down, to make sense of it myself.' Lowell, who at 43 is slender and striking looking, with enormous brown eyes that give her the same wide-eyed, fragile look of her mother, can be forgiven the confusion: the story of her life is almost Gothic in the scope of its horrors.

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It turned out that she was not, as she had believed her whole life, the daughter of Israel Citkowitz, but of someone else entirely – a story that had been doing the rounds among her mother's set for years – and the memoir is partly a whodunnit, the question of her father's true identity dogging the author throughout.

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