'Beauty is a dubious blessing, "muse" a doubtful compliment. Both imply passivity: The action belongs to others, usually male. Lady Caroline Blackwood's Irish-countryhouse beauty was the kind idealized by W.B. Yeats -- "not natural in an age like this": large staring eyes, sculpted cheekbones and haughty carriage suggesting ancestral portraits in the great hall. For Blackwood (1931-1996), a title and beauty (plus a Guinness fortune) attracted three artists as husbands and many lovers, drawn by the astonishing blue-green eyes and the aristocratic hint of the beast in bed.
Contemporaries often saw Caroline Blackwood as some sort of sorceress. Her father, the fourth Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, was a changeling, according to his mother, who believed that fairies had stolen her real child at birth. Lord Dufferin grew up to marry Maureen Guinness, one of the three Golden Guinness Girls, each heir to a brewing fortune. ''The sisters are all witches,'' wrote John Huston, who stayed with one of them in Ireland on his way to shoot ''The African Queen,'' ''lovely ones to be sure, but witches nonetheless.'' They had pale gold hair, pale blue eyes and transparent skin. Huston believed they could change men into swine, and back again, without anybody realizing.
This was a gift Lady Caroline inherited from her mother. She captivated people to her dying day. Her three husbands felt themselves first magically transformed, then threatened with extinction in her vicinity. She was 22 in 1953, when she married Lucian Freud, a saturnine youth said to stalk the London streets in those days wearing a greatcoat belonging to his grandfather Sigmund and with a hawk tethered to his wrist. She married next Israel Citkowitz and dumped him when he failed to measure up as an American Beethoven. Her third husband Robert Lowell portrayed her in ''The Dolphin,'' as a miraculous creature, part fish, part mermaid, spouting a joyful liberating spume that batters its victims and knocks the breath out of them in the end.
Caroline came to writing late, in her 40s. A friend claims "what made her mesmeric was not just her beauty, but her wit, funniness, and her tragic, nihilistic insight which went like a dagger into character and motive." Her writing is often hilarious, and always black.
Ghosts, and worse, stalked her earliest memories. Caroline said that her grandmother (the one who believed in fairies) had tried to smash her baby brother's head against a stone at his christening. The children grew up terrified of the dark, of strange knockings at night, of being sent alone to visit their great-grandmother, who lived in a dark, creaky house with a one-eyed maid and a one-legged butler. Worst of all they dreaded their own nanny, who alternately bullied, beat and starved them into submission.
By the end of her life Lady Caroline could wreck any room without effort at record speed. Chambermaids recoiled. Hosts thought they had been burgled. Top hoteliers put her on a secret blacklist. A young academic, who interviewed Lowell with Caroline in the 1970's, described their New York hotel room awash with crumpled underwear, scattered ash, empty vodka bottles, broken glass and bloody towels. Lowell left her shortly afterward in self-defense. ''I'm manic,'' he said, explaining why they had got on so well to start with, ''and Caroline's panic.'