Isabel Allende: ‘When I’m lying on my deathbed, I want warm socks and a hairy mammal’
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
My personal style signifier is a gold snake ring. After my daughter Paula died in 1992, I was heartbroken and experienced writer’s block, so my then-husband and a friend decided to take me to India to get me out of my comfort zone. It was there that I learned a snake is a sign of renewal and spirituality, and I really needed to shed the skin and start again. When I returned from the trip, I designed the ring and had it made by a Scottish jeweller, William McBride. I never take it off and it always reminds me not to linger in the past. rossgoldsmith.com
The last thing I bought and loved was a fragrant tea called Marco Polo from Mariage Frères – it’s very aromatic. I usually have black tea with a little bit of milk, but this is a treat when you want something special. Mariage Frères Marco Polo tea, from €12
My favourite building is my Victorian house in Sausalito – it has a special charm. It’s one of the oldest in town and apparently was its first brothel, which I thought was such a good pedigree for a house.
The best souvenir I’ve inherited is an ornate silver Russian samovar from my mother. I coveted it and asked her to give it to me many times, but she always refused. My mother was a very generous person and offered me her pearl necklace, but all I wanted was the samovar and she made a point of never giving it to me. She died shortly before the pandemic, so I decided to bring it home.
The podcast I’m listening to is Wiser Than Me with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the 61-year-old Seinfeld actress, who is funny, outrageous and irreverent. She interviews women who are older than her, not really to ask for advice but to challenge ideas, and I was one of her guests. I’m 80 and she asked me if I was having sex, to which I replied yes, sometimes. When she asked if I was enjoying it, I told her it depends; if I eat blueberries coated in marijuana-infused chocolate, then yes.
The best gift I’ve given recently is from Thistle Farms, a social enterprise that provides refuge and support for women survivors of trafficking, prostitution and addiction. In order to support themselves, the women make soaps and candles, which I think make the perfect gift. The founder, Becca Stevens, also came up with the idea to repurpose life vests left on the beach by refugees in Greece. With the help of women from the camp, the shredded vests are transformed into what are called Welcome Mats – an ironic name given they’re not made to feel welcome anywhere. I have several at home and have given many as gifts. thistlefarms.org
And the best gift I’ve received is a blue and beige Christian Dior tote bag that my husband bought for me in New York. On one side it says the brand name so everyone knows it’s expensive, and on the other side it says my name, so everyone knows it’s mine. It’s something I would never buy for myself but I’m looking forward to using it.
My style icon is Carolina Herrera. She always looks neat, crisp and feminine without being too fussy. Most of the time she wears a stark white blouse with trousers or a skirt. I wish I could dress like her but I can’t – I’ve tried and I think it makes me look too Republican. I’ve simplified my life a lot by deciding that I’m only going to worry about half of myself. From the waist down it’s always black pants and then the top varies, but it’s usually a solid jewel colour.
In my fridge you’ll always find yoghurt and berries, but mostly dog food. I have two very ordinary mutts who are small, spoiled and ugly. But like children, you don’t choose the dogs, they just come.
I’ve recently discovered the power of saying no. I was raised at a time, and in a family, where women were supposed to be nice and compliant, so everybody came before me. I push myself hard; I am a workaholic, responsible and committed – even with a fever, I will get up on stage to do an event. But during the pandemic, I realised I could do book tours and interviews via Zoom, and that for years I had been investing time and effort into something that wasn’t even worth it. I did that in many aspects of my life, like attending parties even though I’m not a sociable person and hate small talk. Now I just say no without an explanation, and people accept it. It has given me incredible freedom.
The thing I couldn’t do without is make-up. I get up very early in the morning, turn on the coffee machine, shower, dress and put on my make-up as if I am going somewhere, even though I’m not. No one is going to see me and nobody cares, but I do. I feel that I make my face every morning and, when I look in the mirror without make-up, it’s blurred and undefined. My routine usually involves black mascara, thin eyeliner and red lipstick, often Sisley’s Sheer Cherry – I need the colour now that I have white hair. Sisley Sheer Cherry lipstick, £43
The last item of clothing I added to my wardrobe was an Eleventy white linen blazer. I used to avoid white because I thought it might make me look like a waiter, and it gets dirty. But when Vogue came to do a photoshoot with me, they brought a truckload of clothes including a white jacket, which looked so clean and lightened up all the black I wear. So I bought one for myself and wear it all the time.
My favourite websites are two grantees of my foundation. The first is called Too Young To Wed; it’s an organisation that rescues girls from premature marriage in places like Afghanistan and Kenya. It has a beautiful website and the images are taken by the founder, who is also an excellent photographer. The other is called the Nepal Youth Foundation. It was founded by an extraordinary woman called Olga Murray, who’s now 98, and it has helped more than 45,000 children in Vietnam. isabelallende.org. nepalyouthfoundation.org. tooyoungtowed.org
The beauty staples I’m never without are Chanel mascara and two perfumes, Annick Goutal’s Eau d’Hadrien and Eau de Cologne Impériale by Guerlain. The latter is fresh, lemony and slightly masculine, whereas Eau d’Hadrien is more feminine but also very clean. I mix the two together, and that has been my staple smell for the past 30 years. Goutal Eau d’Hadrien, from €95 for 30ml. Guerlain Eau de Cologne Impériale, £91 for 100ml
In another life, I would have been a veterinarian because I love animals. When I’m lying on my deathbed, I want warm socks and a hairy mammal.
The work of art that changed everything for me was a reproduction of a painting by Chagall. When I was young, I lived in my grandparents’ house with my mother and siblings because my father had abandoned us. My mother never had pocket money or anything for herself. One Christmas, she couldn’t afford the gift I had asked for so instead got me a box of acrylic paints and stuck that Chagall picture on the wall. I assumed a kid had painted it because I couldn’t imagine an adult would have floating goats and brides upside down. I thought, if a child can do this, so can I – you can paint anything, you don’t have to stick to rules or reality. The idea that there was something magical and unexpected in what you could do was good training for my writing.
The best bit of advice I ever received was from my grandfather when I was little. He said: “Don’t whine, don’t complain and don’t ask for anything because it will not be given to you. Fend for yourself.” That sort of stoic, almost brutal upbringing really served me well in life and helped me through exile, divorce and the death of my daughter – all the moments I have needed to be strong. I wish I could have passed that message onto my grandkids. They feel entitled to happiness, but I don’t understand how anyone could feel that way. We live in a world where happiness happens sometimes, but it’s not a permanent state of mind.
I don’t download music because I’m not a musical person or into new songs. I only listen to classical music; I often tune into “Mozart in the Morning” on the radio at 9am. I play classical music in the car and at home, but I work in silence because I find music very distracting. It pulls my attention in other directions.
When I need to feel inspired, I gossip. My son, daughter-in-law and colleague gather around the table for lunch and share stories, many of which are from the Isabel Allende Foundation. The last book I wrote, The Wind Knows My Name, is one such story – a little blind girl who was separated from her mother at the border. I also get inspiration from good fiction that can lead me to a time, place or event that I might go on to research.
An indulgence I would never forgo is orange peel covered in dark chocolate. Because I like it so much, my fans are always sending it to me. I only eat a small piece a day but it’s my luxury – other people like a glass of wine but I don’t drink much. I’d rather open a box of chocolates than a bottle.
The place that means a lot to me is Samuel P Taylor State Park, where I scattered my daughter’s ashes. It’s about 40 minutes from my home in California, and I go there at least once a week to walk and quietly meditate. The park has tall redwoods that form a sort of dome right over the spot where Paula’s ashes are. When the light comes through the trees, it’s as if you’re standing in a green cathedral. I’m not a religious person so for me it’s a place that replaces church.
The best book I’ve read in the past year is Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus. It’s funny and engaging. It’s really about discrimination against women and how they have to make 10 times the effort of any man to get half the recognition. I bought at least 10 copies to give to all my friends – I tend to do that a lot for books I like. My second home is a store called Book Passage, where I have an account. bookpassage.com
I have a collection of artworks made by my best friend Pía Leiva. She embroiders what look like Russian icons onto pieces of fabric with little beads; it’s a work of love. I am blessed that she has given me four, although she offered to make me another one and I declined because I don’t normally collect anything. I have started from scratch three times in my life, leaving everything behind, so I don’t get attached to stuff except for a few photographs. As soon as I get two of the same thing, I throw it away.