Them: A Memoir of Parents, by Francine du Plessix Gray


May 10, 2005


Golden Couple's Daughter Recalls Life Without Glitter


A Memoir of Parents
By Francine du Plessix Gray
529 pages. Illustrated. Penguin Press. $29.95.

Oscar Wilde famously wrote: ''children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.''

In an arresting new memoir, ''Them,'' Francine du Plessix Gray somehow manages to juggle all three sentiments at once. Her book paints a vivid, often harrowing portrait of her formidable mother and her equally formidable stepfather, and the remarkable trajectory of their lives, which took them from Revolutionary Russia to Vichy France to post-World War II New York.

She unflinchingly recounts both the hardships they sustained in war-torn Europe and the selfishness they displayed in their relentless pursuit of social success in Manhattan. She chronicles their generosity and fickleness, their charm and perfidy and often appalling narcissism. And she charts the emotional costs that their glittering, seigniorial existence exacted from them -- and from their relatives and friends.

Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Liberman with Francine du Plessix, February 1948 (detail) by Irving Penn. Photo by Irving Penn

She was Tatiana du Plessix, the former muse of the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky -- an imperious, larger-than-life woman who liked to claim direct descent from Genghis Khan and whose presence, her daughter writes, ''had the psychic impact of a can of Mace.'' She would come to preside over a soignée hat empire at Saks Fifth Avenue and become one of the smart set's most imperious arbiters.

He was Alexander Liberman, another émigré -- the son of Russia's leading authority on lumber and his brazen, libertine wife. After his father appealed to Lenin for permission to leave the country, Alexander used his impressive array of talents, his mastery of three languages and his not inconsiderable charm to quickly make a name for himself in Paris, becoming the assistant art editor of France's most illustrious magazine at 19. His steady ascent would continue in New York, where he eventually became editorial director of the Condé Nast publishing empire.

What is so astonishing about Ms. Gray's memoir is its completely stereoscopic vision: her ability to wield the cool detachment of a biographer (using skills she honed in earlier books about Simone Weil and the Marquis de Sade) while simultaneously drawing upon a daughter's heated reservoirs of memory and emotion.

As a reporter, she painstakingly reconstructs the vanished worlds that her mother and stepfather traversed, and she talks with former associates who recall the couple's cruel capacity to exploit -- and later dump -- friends who could be socially useful.

At the same time, Ms. Gray is able to write about Alex's ''resourcefulness and prodigality,'' the sense she had as a young girl in occupied France that he would take care of her and her mother. She writes about her mother's bravery and cunning in helping the family elude the Nazis and eventually escape to the United States. She describes the ''wordless reverence'' she felt in looking at her mother sitting at her vanity table as she applied her makeup. And she captures the care that Alex could take in going over her schoolwork, quizzing her about literature and history.

But the young Francine's yearning for attention from her mother and stepfather would be betrayed again and again. Once in America, Alex and Tatiana became so wrapped up in each other and their mutual ambitions that they frequently sent Francine off to live with relatives or friends, leaving her to wonder why she had been exiled from their lives. They were out on the town five nights out of six; ''it is absolutely essential to our careers, darling,'' her mother breathily explained. Even Christmas turned into ''yet one more occasion to heighten their status in society'' with big, glitzy parties that included the likes of Salvador Dalí, Janet Gaynor, Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne, Christian Dior, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. No one seemed to notice that Francine rarely ate breakfast and barely touched the dinners left each night by the housekeeper -- until anemia and malnutrition were diagnosed when she was 11.

There is lots of raw, emotional pain in this volume, but it is filtered through a prism of wistful reminiscence and a longing on Ms. Gray's part to comprehend her parents -- to understand how the very qualities that enabled her mother and stepfather to survive the upheavals of the Russian Revolution and invent a new life for themselves in America were also qualities that made them selfish, willful, hard-hearted and steely in their ambitions. She is clear-sighted about the byzantine emotional arithmetic of her family and the psychological fallout of her parents' penchant for emotional circumlocution.

Although Alex doted on Tatiana, catering to her every whim (including her demand in later years for growing amounts of painkillers), the couple's happiness was based, according to Alex, on the fact that ''they never shared serious talk.'' In fact Ms. Gray reports that Alex once asked a close family friend to act as an intermediary with Tatiana and ask if she would be willing to have another child.

The same shocking lack of emotional connection also informed Francine's relationship with her mother, who had two family friends tell her that her father, Bertrand du Plessix, had been killed in action during the war -- more than a year after his death. She later told Francine that she did not know how to deliver the news herself.

''The terrifying thing is that from then on Mother was seldom able to recapture my trust,'' Ms. Gray writes. ''And we spent the rest of our lives -- she lived on for another half century -- not ever having any kind of a true emotional encounter again. We would continue to skirt each other, rather, like two wary lionesses, occasionally pawing or nuzzling each other in token of affection but rigorously avoiding any confrontation that would even begin to approach in intensity the one we had shared that summer day in Long Island.''

How does one survive such childhood traumas? How does one come to terms with such distant, self-absorbed and frankly negligent parents? In Ms. Gray's case, she says she turned to a succession of surrogate parent-figures, who provided her with the warmth and support so often lacking at home. She alternated between trying to emulate her mother and stepfather, and trying to rebel against them. And she learned early on to cover over her real feelings ''with a mask of silence.''

''My twinkling surface gaiety made my inner chasm all the more secret, all the more my own, like a cave that only I could enter,'' she writes. ''So I smiled, curtsied, danced, made charming dinner conversation, twinkle, twinkle, little star, praises whirled and sparkled like a rainbow about me, my mother glowed with pride. Meanwhile, there lay inside me a private chamber in which I'd carefully buried my fears, a chamber that no one else could enter.''

No doubt that detachment cultivated in childhood would eventually help Ms. Gray become a writer, and in these pages she uses all her writerly gifts -- her skills of observation, emotional recall and, yes, detachment -- to give the reader an intense and remarkably powerful portrait of her mother and stepfather, and to do so with love, judgmental candor and at least a measure of forgiveness.


By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, May 15, 2005; BW02


A Memoir of Parents

By Francine du Plessix Gray

Penguin Press. 529 pp. $29.95

The story that Francine du Plessix Gray tells in this exceedingly long family history cum biography cum memoir is exceedingly interesting, indeed at times startlingly so. The author's mother, father and stepfather were remarkable people who came from equally remarkable families that were involved in 20th-century European and American history and culture in important, sometimes intimate ways. Add to this Gray herself (a well-regarded novelist, biographer and journalist) and her late husband, Cleve Gray (an important Abstract Expressionist painter), and you have all the ingredients for a high-octane book, one filled with the names of notable and consequential people, one that will send many readers to the index before they turn to the introduction.

Gray's mother, Tatiana Yakovleva, was a member of the czarist Russian aristocracy who survived near-starvation after the Revolution, escaped to France, and in turn escaped to the United States about two steps ahead of the Nazis. Along the way she fell in love with the highly charismatic poet Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky, and he with her, and though their love was never consummated, Tatiana became the inspiration for some of his most important poems and thus a significant if peripheral figure in contemporary Russian literature. Upon decamping to New York, she made her way to the fashionable women's store Henri Bendel, and then to Saks Fifth Avenue, at both of which she became one of the world's most famous designers of women's hats. "Nothing goes to a woman's head like a hat by our own Tatiana," Saks declared in the mid-1950s. "Her magnificent creations are the delight of our most particular customers."

Gray's father, Vicomte Bertrand du Plessix, came from a noble but fallen family, one "wrecked by generations of poverty and pride." Like "my mother dreaming of glory in her own dismal Russian province, he had longed for the brio and glamour of the siren Paris." His career was in the social sciences, but he was also "an accomplished musician; a passionate lover of poetry; a licensed pilot; an expert in Chinese sculpture, Pompeian glass and many other branches of the visual arts." He was a skilled driver and aviator, a "loyal patriot of the world's most anarchic people," an "idealist and a fighter through and through." In the summer of 1940, flying over the Mediterranean en route to join Charles de Gaulle's Free French movement, his plane was "shot down by fascist artillery," and he was killed. He "became one of the first four Frenchmen to be honored with the Croix de la Libération, de Gaulle's highest award."

As for Gray's stepfather, he was Alexander Liberman. "Born in Russia, like my mother, and educated in Great Britain and in France," he "emanated an aura of steely self-discipline." When he and Tatiana fled to New York in 1940 (they did not marry until 1942), he maneuvered his way into the offices of Condé Nast, the publisher of glossy, fashionable magazines, and quickly engineered his way up the ladder, first in the art department of Vogue (before long he was its art director), then in the larger universe of Condé Nast itself, ultimately becoming "editorial director of the entire Condé Nast publishing empire," rising to a salary of a million dollars a year. He had an all-embracing "sense of self-importance, and the accompanying delusions of grandeur," and as he rose ever higher his army of enemies grew ever larger. He had a "byzantine talent for self-promotion," and beneath his "suave, urbane" exterior lay a calculating social and professional climber. He was unfailingly gallant to his stepdaughter, hence the love she maintains for him despite all reasons to feel otherwise. In the tiny but disproportionately visible world of fashion journalism, he was immensely influential, loved, admired, envied and hated in more or less equal measure.

That brief summary only hints at the richness of all three of these lives, not to mention the innumerable other lives to which they were connected or from which they were descended. To mention just one: Tatiana's Uncle Sasha, Alexandre Iacovleff, who in his niece's "inevitably romanticized accounts . . . was a superman who had traveled to the most dangerous places on earth, wrestled with wild beasts in distant deserts, explored caves never before entered by any man." In Sasha's case, the truth does not seem to have fallen far short of the fanciful. He was "a prodigious linguist, an eloquent writer, an exceptionally gifted athlete, and an excellent cook; he designed furniture, was skilled at bookbinding and lacquering techniques, and created theater sets and costumes." In Paris in the late 1920s, by which time Tatiana was a "beautiful teenager," Sasha "set to work healing his niece's insecurities and refining his 'gorgeous savage,' as he called her, into a work of art." How he did so gives some flavor of the life lived by these extraordinarily cultured, sophisticated White Russian émigrés, in Paris and elsewhere:

"Although he was terrified that his beautiful niece might become a courtesan, Sasha relaxed his mother's chaperoning rules, allowing her to go out in the evenings with a few young men he judged suitable. He also perfected his niece's table manners; dragged her to museums to instruct her in the history of art; took her to Gordes, Carcassonne, Chartres, Mont-St.-Michel to give her a sense of European history and architecture; made her read Stendhal, Balzac, Baudelaire, and other French classics; brought her to friends' couture houses to buy whatever modestly priced models' samples were left in the racks; advised her on how to hold her own at dinner-party conversations."

For the rest of her life, Tatiana, "while bemoaning Uncle Sasha's excessive passion for adventure and risk, . . . remained awed by his courage and his stoicism, elaborated on his prodigal generosity, kindness and elegance. . . . He has remained our family's most romantic and legendary figure, its principal model of valor and stoicism. He took risks that most of us would never have dared to take on; he lived adventure for us." An Uncle Sasha is given to precious few families, yet in the three families that combined to produce and rear Francine du Plessix Gray, larger-than-life men and women, some like Sasha of genuinely heroic proportions, abound.

Only a few pages into Them: A Memoir of Parents , today's American reader becomes acutely aware of two other aspects of all these people's lives, the author's included. One is the White Russian character and heritage, involving intense longing for a lost Russia -- for more of the same, expressed far more eloquently, read Vladimir Nabokov's incomparable memoir, Speak, Memory , with its rueful thoughts "of all I had missed in my country, of the things I would not have omitted to note and treasure, had I suspected before that my life was to veer in such a violent way" -- and the society that once existed there. Some of this is nostalgia for aristocracy, privilege and the servile peasantry, but there is also a longing for a world of culture, erudition, sophistication, cosmopolitanism.

That last word points to the second important aspect of these people's lives: They were, and are, citizens not of a particular nation but of the world. The center of the world for many of them for many years has been New York, where the White Russian presence in publishing and the arts has been formidable, but they are at home in many great cities elsewhere -- Paris and London most especially -- and they are fluent in three, four, five or more languages. They put us provincial Americans to shame, with our indifference to other languages and other cultures, our smug assumption that we don't have to talk to the world on its terms because it will talk to us on ours. Though reading Them gave me much pleasure, it also left me with no small sense of shame at my own complicity in this inexcusable provincialism.

Pleasurable though the book indeed is, I have reservations about it on two counts. The first is its sheer length. Had it been tightened by at least a hundred pages, it would be a better book. It is too repetitious. To cite two relatively trivial examples, as quoted above, Uncle Sasha's "stoicism" is cited twice in one paragraph, and we are told twice, albeit not in precisely the same words, that "food retains a lifelong importance for survivors of famines." The preliminary material about the backgrounds of the author's three families occupies nearly one-half of the book, leaving the reader to wait 230 pages before the book's real business -- Tatiana and Alexander in New York -- gets under way. That could have been trimmed of numerous bits and pieces of mildly interesting but essentially extraneous detail, which would have heightened, rather than diminished, the book's overall effect.

A second difficulty is that though Gray chides her mother for her "innate narcissism," she displays more than a bit of the same herself. Toward the book's end she describes her mother's reaction to a passage in her novel Lovers and Tyrants that was transparently -- and, for Tatiana, painfully -- autobiographical. "How could you?" Tatiana asked her daughter. "Tell the truth this way?" Gray says that she "gently" replied, "I needed to tell it in order to heal myself." It is difficult to imagine a more self-centered motive for writing -- the novel as self-administered therapy, no matter the pain caused to others -- and one senses too much of the same at work in Them , particularly in the last hundred or so pages, when what is described as A Memoir of Parents becomes, in effect, the author's memoir of herself. Writing a memoir/biography of one's parents is a difficult task, for some element of first-person narrative is inescapable, but toward the end, Francine du Plessix Gray gives us more than is necessary of herself, diverting the spotlight away from the two people on whom it rightly belongs. ·



A writer's intimate portrait of her parents

By Lori Rotskoff, a cultural historian of family life and the author of "Love on the Rocks: Men, Women, and Alcohol in Post-World War II America."
Published May 15, 2005

Them: A Memoir of Parents
By Francine du Plessix Gray
Penguin, 544 pages, $29.95

In 1940, after a harrowing journey through Nazi-occupied France, Tatiana du Plessix boarded a ship in Lisbon bound for New York City, accompanied by her 9-year-old daughter, Francine, and her soon-to-be-husband, Alexander Liberman. It was a second exile for both elders. Fifteen years before, Tatiana had left her native country in the wake of the Russian Revolution, settling within the cosmopolitan emigre community in Paris. She began a legendary affair with Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovksy during one of his visits to Paris, but after he returned to the Soviet Union their relationship ended in heartbreaking fashion as the Stalinists tightened their reign, preventing Mayakovsky from leaving the country again. Tatiana then married aristocratic French diplomat and military Lt. Bertrand du Plessix. The couple had a daughter, Francine, before Tatiana became involved with Liberman, a Russian Jew whose refined manners made him a captivating extra-marital suitor. After Bertrand du Plessix was killed when his plane was shot down in an early battle of World War II, the fledgling family of three secured passage to the U.S.

In her expansive, compelling book "Them: A Memoir of Parents," Francine du Plessix Gray reconstructs her family history over most of the 20th Century. At the heart of this complex saga stand the imposing figures of Tatiana and Alex, whose difficult childhoods and early romantic attachments are limned in prelude to a portrait of the grandiose, narcissistic adults they became. Drawing on a rich record of letters and photographs, Gray explores the tormented past that burdened her parents as they embarked on their auspicious new life in America. Her parents' only child, Gray unearths and retells their painful story--one inseparable from great catastrophes in modern history--because, ultimately, it is her story too.


Lured to the centers of fashion, art and commerce, Alex and Tatiana Liberman scaled the upper echelons of New York society with a frenzied determination, currying favor with artists, business tycoons and other celebrities. Tatiana enjoyed dazzling success as a hat designer for Saks Fifth Avenue, with her millinery featured on the pages of Vogue, the magazine where Alex launched his own career at the publishing conglomerate Conde Nast. The worlds of couture and high-profile journalism created a fitting arena for a couple obsessed with image, artifice, status and power.

But the Libermans' megalomania often rendered them oblivious to their child's psychic and physical needs. As soon as they arrived in Manhattan, Francine was dispatched to Rochester, N.Y., like "a lost parcel of sorts," to live with her maternal grandfather and his second wife, whom Francine had never met. Although her parents reclaimed her six months later, this initial abandonment replayed itself on a smaller scale in the family's Upper East Side brownstone, where life always revolved around Them. Tatiana's schedule--facilitated by bedtime tranquilizers and late-morning doses of speed--entailed sleeping past breakfast, working all day and socializing late into the night. This left young Francine to fend for her own meals. At the Liberman home, a housekeeper prepared the evening's supper and left it warm on the stove. Displeased with dining alone, Francine began a nightly protest of discarding her portion and nibbling on crackers and canned fruit. Nobody noticed. Weakened by malnutrition that caused fainting spells at school, Francine finally saw a doctor, who insisted that someone supervise her dinner. The solution: The maid was hired for an additional three-hour shift.

Francine endured parental absence even when suffering severe injuries. One summer at a camp in Colorado, she fell off a horse and shattered her collarbone, requiring multiple surgeries and a hospital stay of two weeks. Her parents "phoned every few days . . . to send their love" but never visited, leaving Francine to weep "out of solitude and distinct physical pain." Yet she never felt "a shred of blame." It was not until many years later that Gray even thought it strange that her parents felt no need to be with her. "For back then, age fifteen, I was already so used to fending on my own that the thought did not once occur."

This formidable memoir revisits the terrain of a painful past from the perspective of an adult whose authorial time travels yield a profound, hard-won self-awareness. But "Them" is not merely an evocative childhood memoir; it is an elegant act of literary commemoration and conciliation that exemplifies, as well as describes, the tempered love and respect of a daughter conditioned to adulate her narcissistic parents. In her introduction, Gray encapsulates the tone and content of her book: "[L]ike any proper biographer, I strove for a compassionate severity, for that balance of ruthlessness and tenderness that were at the heart of my mother's own character and that she might have been the first to respect." Seeking and finding permission in Tatiana's own demanding disposition, Gray is free to delve into the family's darker side. She has her mother's blessing.

Tatiana was not without admirable traits. She offered a role model of strength and resilience, of fortitude and resourcefulness that allowed her to survive dangers wrought by war and political oppression. Seeing her mother as a survivor of her own life--and of the epochal events that shaped it--lets the writer forgive what she will not forget. More commonplace memories round out the picture, such as the occasional times when mother and daughter went out to lunch, slathering their hamburgers "with all the wonderful American junk--pickles, ketchup--that still symbolized the paradise of our adopted country." Laced with Tatiana's wit and affection, these meals nourished Francine with lasting emotional sustenance.

Occasionally, Gray seems at pains to justify Tatiana's self-absorption: As a little girl, Francine watched her mother primp in her boudoir and blow occasional kisses through the mirror. Too preoccupied to engage her daughter in conversation, Tatiana groomed Francine into an adoring spectator. Retrospectively, when Gray ponders whether maternal silence was less harmful than effusive baby talk, one catches a glimpse of the child still within, dampening desires that her mother could not fulfill.

Recollections of life with Alex are equally vivid. In a striking reversal of gender roles prevalent in the 1940s and 1950s, Tatiana paid almost no attention to home affairs. It was Alex who called the plumber, fixed breakfast, scheduled dentist appointments and inquired after Francine's schooling--and the girl, still grieving for her biological father, responded with trust and gratitude. The ruthless side of Alex's Jekyll-and-Hyde persona centers on his Machiavellian career, in which he shamelessly exploited those who could advance his status while discarding others who outgrew their usefulness. But no matter how much power Alex gained at work, at home Tatiana wore the pants. Gray probes under the surface of their highly charged marriage with insight only she can provide: Apparently, Alex enjoyed being an "absolute slave" of Tatiana's whims and exulted in his domestic efficiency.

The book's final chapters follow the Libermans through Tatiana's forced retirement from Saks and her slow eddy down a spiral of alcoholism and drug addiction until her death in 1991. Gray's discussion of the way Alex denied and enabled his wife's narcotic habit is a fascinating study in high society co-dependency. Outliving his wife by eight years, Alex married the Filipino nurse who had cared for Tatiana--and the series of deceptions and disloyalties that followed do not make for happy reading.

From 1960 through the early 1990s, a time when Tatiana essentially ceased a creative life, Francine established a harmonious marriage to painter Cleve Gray, actively protested the Vietnam War, became a writer of wide acclaim and attentively raised two sons, offering them the companionship she seldom received as a child. Reflecting on her choice of writing as a profession, Gray notes that her books, written in English--a language her mother never could or would master--carved out "a private world that [Tatiana] could not invade and incorporate into her great kingdom."

Readers inclined to discover whether a family memoir can "offer us a greater measure of retrospective clarity, of self-knowledge, than any other literary form," will find ample evidence in Gray's intricate parental portrait. But most of what we know about the author is reflected in the gilded mirrors held up by her parents. True to its title, this book is essentially about Them. How could it be otherwise?

Here is a daughter's unflinching account of her parents' and her own survival. And with that worthy, even necessary task behind her, one hopes that readers will be treated to a sequel--one with a wife, mother, grandmother, or writer at the center--thriving in places beyond her parents' ken: a book about Her.




Two tales of one city divided by class

By Kate Bolick  |  May 15, 2005

Them: A Memoir of Parents
By Francine du Plessix Gray
The Penguin Press, 530 pp., $29.95

Welfare Brat
By Mary Childers
Bloomsbury, 272 pp., $23.95

Tales of immigrant life and social betterment have long been the stuff of memoir. But memoirists, necessarily focused on their own backyards, generally aren't positioned to report on both ends of the social spectrum at once. Considered together as two halves of one aspect of the American experience, the publication this month of two books that happen to hail from opposite sides of the same track provides what one book alone would not: an "Upstairs, Downstairs"-style look at the vagaries of the American dream.

As might be expected, Francine du Plessix Gray's ''Them: A Memoir of Parents" -- where all the protagonists are uncommonly beautiful, and everywhere whispers the rustle of dollars -- is already proving to be the memoir of the season, while Mary Childers's ''Welfare Brat" is not. One might suspect this is because glamorous, ambitious snobs are more fun to read about than people who subsist on government-issued cheese -- but the truth is, Gray's is an excellent book.

''Them" is blessed with the memoir's equivalent of good bones: epic scope and historic scale. The book's transcontinental, trans-generational arcs spring bravely from the Russian Revolution to Vichy France only to land -- gracefully, and on well-shod feet -- amid the dinner parties and summer homes of New York's mid-century fashion elite. But the tale is in the telling, and Gray's acumen, honesty, and elegant prose -- today in her mid-70s, she has long been an accomplished novelist and biographer -- are equal to the task of portraying her exceptionally complicated parents, while her exhaustive research and uncluttered perspective allow her to illuminate their relationship to their times in a way most memoirists cannot. The gorgeous and talented Tatiana Yakovleva du Plessix and the equally talented and rapacious Alexander Liberman, one of New York's first power couples, would certainly expect as much.

Russian émigrés both, the two met in Paris in the late 1930s and together, trading on her beauty and his connections, fled war-torn Europe in 1940, not long after Tatiana's husband (and Francine's father), a French Air Force pilot, was killed. As their small child was shunted between friends and relatives, the lovers set about infiltrating New York society; within no time, she was none other than Tatiana of Saks, the era's most influential hat designer, and he was the art director of Vogue. The demands of socializing on the fashion circuit meant Francine was left alone most nights, but somehow she muddled through this neglect, seeking refuge in the company of cultured and generous family friends, excelling at Spence and Bryn Mawr.

But by the time she'd reached her mid-20s, the life her parents had created looked to Francine like so much emptiness. Indulging in the ultimate next-generation privilege she turned her back on their America, married a painter, moved to the country, and became a writer, in her own way presaging history's next tide. For by the 1960s the nation too was reinventing itself and rejecting the Libermans' world. In 1965, 23 years after she'd started designing hats for Saks, and one year after Lyndon B. Johnson declared his war on poverty, Tatiana was let go. Americans had things other than hats on their minds.

This was a development that, Mary Childers is well aware, changed her life. Growing up poor in the 1950s and '60s, she didn't have the luxury of downward mobility. One of seven children raised by a single mother in a ravaged section of the Bronx, she actually had nowhere to go but up. Very early on, she discerned as much, and shaped her late childhood and adolescence entirely around one goal: to leave the house by age 16, not pregnant and married like her older sister, but to go to college. Had she been born even 10 years earlier, she might not have become the PhD-holding higher-education consultant she is today, or have the insights and historical context needed to produce such a smart, important analysis of her own experience.

The Libermans' department stores and fashion magazines were a teenage Childers's instruction manuals. Working two jobs on top of her studies, and monastically going without things like proper food and bus rides, she was able to buy the twin sets and tweed skirts that allowed her to pass as a middle-class girl on her strolls down Madison Avenue. But social aspiration, she quickly discovered, is alienating.

Likewise, she learned, abstractions such as hope and beauty are different for the poor than for the rich. In Childers's world, there's a thin line between hope and delusion, and beauty can be a liability -- it's the pretty girls who get pregnant too young and repeat the mistakes of their mothers. When walking down unsafe streets, or riding the train late at night, Childers enjoyed ''controlling the exact degree of my ugliness. When kids on the train mock my appearance . . . I feel perversely triumphant."

As Childers's concludes, ''All lives are launched or derailed by circumstances, as well as by temperamental inclination . . . Nonetheless, economic and social class fundamentally influence the ways we cultivate our moments of inspiration and aspiration," and her book is proof enough. But taken alongside Gray's, her insistence that we can ''refuse to accept family habits and inherited disadvantages as if they are destiny" takes on a double meaning. In the end, the American dream is best realized when reinscribed.

Kate Bolick is the deputy features editor of The New York Sun.  



Living lives of glamour in the midst of chaos

By Heller McAlpin
Heller McAlpin is a regular contributor to Book Review and other publications.

May 22, 2005

Them: A Memoir of Parents
Francine du Plessix Gray
Penguin Press: 530 pp., $29.95

One can imagine what Francine du Plessix Gray's image-conscious parents would think of her 11th book, a spellbinding, warts-and-all double portrait of them. The author's mother was Tatiana Yakovleva du Plessix Liberman, the imperious fashion icon and Saks Fifth Avenue milliner whose gaze "had the psychic impact of a can of Mace." Her stepfather was the influential art and editorial director of the Condé Nast magazine empire, Alexander Liberman, the "suave, peerlessly trilingual" painter, sculptor and "legendary publishing wizard."

Fortunately for the Libermans, Gray waited until both were dead to begin "Them," a dazzling account of their lives, written with love but also with critical scrutiny that unravels "the webs of deceits … they spun about their true selves." With a masterful balance of "ruthlessness and tenderness," research and reminiscence, grievance and gratitude, her book is a sterling example of the personal memoir exalted to cultural history.

Tatiana and Alex, as Gray portrays them, were less than ideal nurturers, but her recognition of their other gifts saves them from bitter carping. Just look at the material they've given her. One of New York's first power couples, their inner circle included Marlene Dietrich, Salvador Dalí and Irving Penn. They survived two of the 20th century's major upheavals: the Russian Revolution and the German occupation of Paris. These were the serially unlucky, caught repeatedly in history's sticky web.

Gray captures it vividly, from 15-year-old Tatiana reciting Russian poetry on St. Petersburg street corners for Red Army soldiers in exchange for hunks of dry bread during the famine of 1921 to a nightmarish 1941 train ride from Madrid to Lisbon, fleeing panic-stricken Europe. She evokes her mother's commanding "maximalism," bedecked in massive costume jewelry and spouting fashion edicts in heavily accented rudimentary English ("Meeeenk is for football"), and her stepfather's ruthless social climbing and drive toward monumentalism, even in his art.

In a book stuffed with colorful stories, one of the most remarkable is the long-suppressed tale of Tatiana's passionate (yet carefully unconsummated) relationship with the Russian Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, which Gray calls "the central tragedy" of her mother's life. They met in Paris in 1928. Gray characterizes the two powerful presences as fellow narcissists and exhibitionists who shared a passion for poetry. Tatiana became Mayakovsky's last muse, inspiring two of his best lyric poems.

The Mayakovsky story is documented with the help of a packet of letters — as carefully preserved as Tatiana's premarital virginity — that the author finally wrested from her stepfather on his deathbed in 1999, eight years after her mother's death. Gray learns how close Tatiana came to following Mayakovsky to Soviet Russia to marry. Had she done so, her mother probably would have become "one of the twenty million persons lost in Stalin's purges." She describes how the repressive regime already was persecuting Mayakovsky when he committed suicide in April 1930.

Luckily for Gray, Tatiana gave up waiting for Mayakovsky and impetuously married the author's father, Vicomte Bertrand du Plessix, a French diplomat and pilot. Francine was born nine months later, in September 1930. Within three years, her parents were leading separate lives from their shared Paris apartment. Anti-Semitic yet fervently patriotic, Lt. Du Plessix was flying to join Charles De Gaulle when he was shot down over Gibraltar in 1940, an early casualty of the French Resistance. His death was kept from his adoring daughter for more than a year, to her lasting resentment.

The second hero of Gray's childhood was her mother's lover and eventual second husband, Alexander Liberman. Born in Kiev in 1912, Liberman was the son of a flamboyant actress, Genrieta Mironovna, who was half Gypsy, half Romanian Jew, and Semyon Lieberman, a Russian Jew who became a highly successful authority on lumber, serving first the White Russian regime then the Soviets before being expelled from the Soviet Union in 1926. As was typical among the Russian intelligentsia, Semyon, who would later drop the "e" in the family name, had sent his son to be educated in England and France.

Liberman played a central part in Tatiana's escape with her daughter from occupied France, then became Francine's primary caregiver and disciplinarian, relieving Tatiana of this and most other burdens — "a principal dynamic of our family life for the following half century."

Gray, who is clearly no stranger to psychotherapy, analyzes her parents with a practiced if sometimes reductive hand. She traces Liberman's fondness for stark white décor back to his anachronistic all-white nursery in St. Petersburg; his orderliness and sartorial conservatism — he wore an unvarying uniform of dark suits and knit ties — to the Calvinist French boarding school he attended in his teens; his muted libido to his embarrassment with "the hoydenish aura of his brazen mother." She stereotypically attributes Liberman's least appealing qualities, which she describes as disloyalty, deviousness and volatility, to his Gypsy provenance.

Liberman's mother took the stage name Henriette Pascar in Paris, where she also took dozens of lovers. By her son's estimate, she had 17 abortions and seven plastic surgeries in her life. For three years in the 1920s, one of her lovers was Tatiana's uncle, the dashing artist and explorer Alexandre (Sasha) Iacovleff. It was at Iacovleff's studio that 14-year-old Alex first met Tatiana; the majestic blond, six years his senior, barely noticed him.

Reading Gray's memoir, one is struck by the almost incestuous tightness of the Russian refugees' world. Liberman's first two jobs in France in the 1930s, in graphic arts, came through two of his mother's lovers. Fellow Russian émigré Iva Patcevitch was instrumental in providing him entree to Condé Nast, which hired him for Vogue's art department in 1941.

The Libermans were not altogether spared from seeing themselves written about by their fashion-model-beautiful but determinedly intellectual daughter, who veered from their stylish world when she married painter Cleve Gray and moved to Connecticut in the 1950s. Her autobiographical first novel, "Lovers and Tyrants," depicts an aloof mother and an erratically attentive French father. As she notes when discussing her parents' reaction to the 1976 bestseller — pride mixed with "terror and vexation" — her writing not only captured their generally wandering attention but "conferred the only measure of power I'd ever had over them."

It is interesting to see a more mature, unfettered writer return to material she first presented under the protective guise of fiction. Although her mother's lover is whitewashed from the fictional account of their escape from the Nazis, what remains consistent between the two books is the author's heartbreaking sense of herself as an inconvenient package bundled off to other caregivers and desperately currying her parents' favor.

The second half of "Them," which chronicles the Libermans' success in America along with Tatiana's alcohol and drug use and Alex's "brutal rules of social pragmatism," is hard put to compete with the old-world chapters, although it is still a fascinating read. Gray's writing is less sharp as the narrative hits home, weighted down somewhat by personal animus and several clunky transitions, such as "Back to my house tour…. "

"Them" makes it clear that Gray came to accept her mother's flawed but "deep, timid love." Curiously, she is less forgiving of Alex's shortcomings. She smarts like a jilted lover when recalling how Alex, newly widowed, married his Filipino nurse and "fired his original family" in a denouement that reads like a Paul Theroux story. Fortunately, she keeps bitterness in check by infusing her book with awareness of the responsibility of her undertaking: "I'm the sole custodian of their memory…. How painful and bittersweet to be finally alone, in charge."

Writing about the summer after Paris fell, Gray describes herself as "a tough, resilient, endlessly optimistic child" — an impression borne out by many charming photographs scattered throughout the book. Her radiance brightens even the darkest aspects of this riveting, remarkable synthesis of calamities both personal and historical.



The other side of glamour
Daughter examines her larger-than-life parents

Reviewed by Christopher Bernard

Sunday, May 8, 2005


A Memoir of Parents

By Francine du Plessix Gray


It's a cursed blessing, and a blessed curse, to have strong parents; so novelist and biographer Francine du Plessix Gray makes it appear in "Them," her beautifully written, often painfully and bravely honest memoir of her own glamorous, generous, devious, treacherous, spectacularly successful, self- deceiving and self-aggrandizing parents.

"My mother enjoyed claiming direct descent from Genghis Khan," Gray opens the book. Like mother, like daughter, one might say. There's a fierceness, a moral audacity, even ruthless implacability that ties these generations together.

Tatiana Yacovleff du Plessix Liberman was the most famous hat designer in postwar America, a doyenne of European modes of elegance and fashion in the all-powerful New York fashion scene of the time, known for a generation as "Tatiana of Saks" during the last period when the hat was still an essential item of couture, as well as the last time that class snobbery and elegance -- basic components of Tatiana's personality and self-image -- ruled fashion.

Alexandre Liberman, Gray's stepfather, son of a Russian Jew and a Gypsy, who with Tatiana brought up Gray since childhood, worked his way up from the art department at Vogue magazine in 1941 to the editorial helm of the Condé Nast publishing empire, becoming one of the most powerful influences on the American audience for fashion in the middle decades of the 20th century.

Their story, at first a fairy tale of the success of two midcentury immigrants to America, only later demonstrates the typical pitfalls of such success, the irresistible betrayals, the minor catastrophes, the drugged giddiness at the center of fate's duplicitous generosity.

Both Tatiana and "Alex," as gray calls him, were Russian emigres, escapees first from the revolution to Western Europe, and later from the collapse of Western Europe during World War II to America. Tatiana, born of minor Russian nobility, suffered from the destruction of her social class by the Bolsheviks, the abandonment of her family by her father and her own abandonment by her coolly self-protective mother, who packed her off to Paris, arriving "a gorgeous, unwashed savage," to live with relatives in the 1920s. Curiously, it was during her stay in Paris that Tatiana met the visiting poet laureate of the revolution, Vladimir Mayakovsky, who promptly fell in love with the "savage." She became one of his great muses, the inspiration of several of his finest later poems, a role she is remembered for to this day in Russia, a country with a deeply rooted recognition of the value of its poets and their muses.

Later, after his unavoidable return to Russia, Mayakovsky's despair over the revolution's multiplying failures, and his own blocked and endangered literary career, led to the poet's suicide. This was the great grief of Tatiana's life, one that threw a shadow over the legendary marital passion between her and Alex that would follow in the decades to come, a legend that not only fed the domestic happiness but helped nourish the professional careers of both as well.

In almost equal measure, Gray loves and agonizes over her remarkable, difficult, "terrifying" mother, a woman of "scathing brilliance ... appalling rudeness and ... occasional tenderness," with "her rage to live and her extravagant ... kindness and her absolute uniqueness." And that passionate love warms this tender, sometimes bitter and accusing, yet ultimately humane and forgiving book.

But Gray's attitude toward Alex, is more conflicted. She never, it seems, quite forgives him for trying to replace her father, Bertrand du Plessix, one-time French diplomat, later an army officer killed in the opening weeks of World War II, who hovers over the book like a cloud, endlessly morphing into alternately feared and wished-for shapes. Equally, she faults him for failing to be the idealized Bertrand: an impossible position for any man.

Yet her descriptions of Alex's life and career, as fairly as Gray tries to be without pulling her punches, nevertheless present him as an unfathomable combination of almost compulsively manipulative charm, survival instinct, status hunger, narcissism, envy, resentment, egomania, greed for attention and, in Gray's constant, almost insistently deflating formulation, asexuality. After revealing his betrayals and treacheries over his final decades, in both his personal and professional life, Gray justifies the undercurrent of hostility in her prose whenever addressing him. It might have been more effective if she had better controlled her tone, as her hostility does not appear justified, or even understandable, until the final chapters, when the "facts" fall together in a grievous and eloquent accusation.

In the end, despite her grievances, Gray pays her parents (all three of them) the greatest tribute of all: The honesty of her love wins out, and she bestows upon them the light and warmth of her patient, unflagging attention and the grace and penetration of her words. To say nothing of her "nobility," as Alex might even have called it, though he might have found her judgments of him not entirely just or complete. In so far as Gray, as she appears in this book, is partly their creation, their daughter demonstrates the good that was in them.

At the grave of her mother, Gray speaks to them: "Thank you, my loves, I tell them, I'll never cease to thank you" -- for life, no doubt, for love, for the demand to live and love and create. Nor, she might well add, as we all might add about our own parents, for spurring her to question, and accuse, and study endlessly, and, achingly, wonder.

Christopher Bernard's first novel, "A Spy in the Ruins," will be published by Regent Press next month.



Friday, May 20, 2005

Book Review
"Them": Daughter's astute eye captures remarkable pair

By Mary Ann Gwinn
Seattle Times book editor

"Them: A Memoir of Parents"
by Francine du Plessix Gray
Penguin Press, 529 pp., $29.95

Everybody who reads broadly has their "least favorite" kinds of books. Mine are memoirs written by authors without the skill or insight to elevate their tale beyond that of one person's story. Literature is about everyone's story, and too many memoirs are about the big M-E.

So I resisted "Them: A Memoir of Parents," novelist Francine du Plessix Gray's memoir of her oh-so-elegant mother, Tatiana du Plessix Liberman, and her stepfather, Alexander Liberman.

Granted, the Libermans were great material: The two defined the term "Beautiful People" during and after World War II. Tatiana made fabulous hats for the rich and idle; Alexander climbed to the top of New York publishing and fashion, eventually becoming editorial director for the entire Condé Nast publishing empire.

These were the people whose faces in the beauty-shop copy of Vogue I studied as a child, looking for the answer to the timeless question: What have these people got that my people don't?

I succumbed, and my voyeurism proved its own reward. Gray's way with words, her insight into the human condition and her almost eerie sense of objectivity about her upbringing have converged to create an enthralling story of the primal bond between a child and her parents. And what parents — the Libermans are two of the most fascinating characters you'll ever encounter in the pages of a memoir, or for that matter, any book.

The early pages of "Them" fly by on the wings of history. Tatiana and Alex's families barely survived the fall of czarist Russia and fled to Paris, living the émigré life there between the wars.

Tatiana's first husband and Gray's father, Bertrand du Plessix, was a risk-addicted French aristocrat who flew for the Free French and was shot down in the early days of the war.

After Bertrand's death, Alex and Tatiana fulfilled a previous attraction and paired off. Family money paid for an escape to America, and the couple's ambitions vaulted them from their beginnings in a pinched New York flat to a place at the center of New York's glittering social set.

In New York, the Libermans revealed a darker side. In the hands of a less astute or committed chronicler, the Libermans would have been A-list prospects for a "Mommie Dearest" treatment.

Early on, their incessant partygoing left the young Francine without any supervision. She skipped dinner, her parents slept through breakfast and Frances began to faint at school. The family doctor diagnosed malnutrition. The uptown apartment they moved to became more salon than a home, "a showroom of sorts such as couturiers or car dealers have, both glacially impersonal and somewhat kitschy. It was a place for ogling and evaluating the products at hand, be they beauteous guests, their hideous or divine clothes, their adequate or tragic men, or my own boyfriends."

What fired the Libermans' ambition? Certainly, surviving a revolution — the young Tatiana earned bread for her starving family by reciting poetry on street corners to Red Army soldiers back from the war.

Maybe it was escaping the Germans hours before they marched into Paris — in one unforgettable scene Tatiana and Francine jam into a train privy and spend the night there, the only space left to stand on the last train out of Paris.

Maybe buried hurts played a role — Tatiana hid her doomed liaison with the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, her one true love, from her daughter for the duration of her life.

Alexander Liberman assumed the mantle of attentive stepfather, filling in for Tatiana, who "expected all mountains to come to her and declared herself incapable of calling a plumber or rearing her child." But his warmth could turn to ice: He cut off friends no longer of use and shut out Francine after Tatiana's death.

Francine played bystander to a passionate and complicated relationship, a vantage point that seems to have honed her ability to evaluate human character to a very fine edge. She has learned to balance the bitter with the sweet, as when her normally neglectful mother shielded her like a lioness from the German occupiers.

There's something oddly comforting about this well-told tale about two flawed human beings and the child who survived them. One learns — again — that the parent-child bond can endure almost any crisis. And who can say that Gray would have become the writer she is today without the watchfulness she cultivated to survive, not to mention her access to such grand material?

Decades later, Gray found the childhood drawings of dresses and evening gowns and peignoirs she made in imitation of her designer mother. She writes: "And it is evident that they were created with one single purpose in mind: finally to glean her love by saying, 'I'm joining you, I'll do what you do when I grow up! Now will you pay attention to me?' "

If by some trick of time and fate, Alexander and Tatiana could now read this splendid book, their daughter would surely capture their attention — at last.



Power-couple parents

Stephanie Zacharek is a staff writer for Salon.com.

May 8, 2005

THEM: A Memoir of Parents, by Francine du Plessix Gray. The Penguin Press, 529 pp., $29.95.

So many writers forget that our own parents are rarely as interesting to others as we think they are. But every once in a while, the matchup of child-writer and parent-subject works - on the page, if not so happily in real life. In "Them: A Memoir of Parents," Francine du Plessix Gray examines in loving but unsentimental detail the lives of her mother, renowned hat designer and socialite Tatiana du Plessix, and her stepfather, artist and Condé Nast bigwig Alexander Liberman. Tatiana and Alexander are fascinating characters, but so what? Gray's unapologetically subjective candor and lithe prose are what make their story - which, of course, is also hers - so lively and so devastating. "Them" is one of the finest memoirs of recent years.

Tall, imperious and coolly beautiful, Tatiana Yakovleva was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, 11 years before the Russian Revolution, enduring destitution and famine before leaving for Paris in 1925. She had no shortage of suitors: She was a muse to the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, whom she considered her great love. Recognizing that her affair with Mayakovsky was doomed, Tatiana married a glamorous French diplomat, Bertrand du Plessix. Four months later, Mayakovsky committed suicide; Tatiana spoke of him rarely, but she never really got over his death.

Bertrand du Plessix fought and was killed in the French Resistance. But even before her husband's death, Tatiana had begun a passionate affair with Liberman, a young painter, also a Russian and living in Paris. Alex adored Tatiana and devoted his life to caring for her and pleasing her. And, Gray explains, from the time she was 9 years old, he "assumed paternal and maternal roles," and "with unfailing patience and tenderness dealt with my teachers and braces and report cards, heard out my heartaches, and imposed curfew hours and taboos on teen behavior."

Alex, Tatiana and Francine escaped to New York in 1941, where Tatiana and Alex, both tenacious and ambitious, worked hard to build a dazzling life for themselves. But "Them," as the title pointedly suggests, isn't the story of a solid, happy family unit, but of a child who was almost always on the outside, wistfully looking in: Tatiana and Alex were neurotic, driven, self-centered people who rarely put their daughter's emotional welfare before their own.

Francine adored her mother but always from a chilling distance. And while Alex could be charming and affectionate and provided every material necessity for Francine while she was growing up, in the final years of his life (he died in 1999, having outlived Tatiana by eight years), he revealed a coldness that turns the book's finale into a coda of almost operatic heartbreak.

With parents like that, the great temptation for any writer would be to portray them as monsters. And on some level, Alex and Tatiana were monstrous. But what makes "Them" so lively and so moving is that Gray refuses to lay blame at her parents' feet. This is a piercing book: Gray doesn't shy away from some of the more difficult details of her upbringing, most notably Tatiana's selfish inability to tell Francine that her father was dead - young Francine, in her early years in America, continued to hold out hope that he was still alive. (Tatiana finally enlisted family friends to break the news.)

But Gray is, blessedly, far less interested in exploring the ways in which her parents may have damaged her than she is in seeing them as people first and foremost, which is the hardest task for a child. And while writing the book must have been therapeutic for Gray, it's not therapy: Gray writes to illuminate and to celebrate her subjects, not to settle old scores.

"Them" is a story of love between a child and her parents, but like all true love stories, it's also something of an open-ended mystery: How can we ever gauge the love our parents feel for us without ever having lived inside their skin? Gray accepts the limits of her parents' love, but she also rejoices in the evidence of its depth. At one point she refers to her mother's "deep, timid love" for her, which suggests a ruefully sophisticated and touching understanding of a very complicated filial bond.

For us, none of those revelations would amount to anything if Gray weren't also such a forthright and eloquent writer. We never get the sense she's shielding us from her self-pity; she doesn't seem to feel self-pity at all. "Them" is filled with sentences like: "For although the delusions and deceptions attending the events of 1940 would have awesome repercussions for me in later years, I recall those tragic summer months as some of the most blissful ones of my life."

Gray always keeps us looking forward, wanting to know more about her two remarkable subjects. And when we've turned the last page, by which time we know all about Alex and Tatiana's flaws and even their cruelty, we feel a conflicted mix of compassion for them and disappointment in them, the same things we often feel about our own parents when they fail us. That's Gray's gift to Alex and Tatiana: She makes us love them, even though we don't have to.







They didn't mean to, but they did

May 8, 2005



By Francine du Plessix Gray
Penguin Press.

Dear Mom and Dad:

Thank you for the normal childhood. You might wonder why I'm thanking you now. Well, I've been reading a lot of memoirs, like Francine du Plessix Gray's fascinatingly complex Them and they've made me grateful.

An unhappy childhood does come in handy when you're writing a memoir. Just ask Frank McCourt, who penned the bestseller Angela's Ashes about his impoverished Irish upbringing, or Jeannette Walls, who in The Glass Castle revealed that her family lacked indoor plumbing.

My stories about playing fetch with our cocker spaniel in the backyard can't compete with theirs, or with the memories du Plessix Gray, a New Yorker writer, shares of her glamorous mother, hat designer Tatiana du Plessix, and her dashing stepfather, Alexander Liberman, the longtime editorial director of the Conde Nast magazine empire.

Still, would I want to compete? Our family portrait was taken at Sears rather than shot by Irving Penn (that's one of the many personal photos du Plessix Gray generously includes), but at least we're smiling in it.

Du Plessix Gray, on the other hand, has so much to tell that she sometimes reaches information overload. There's a thin line between rich and dense, and she crosses it frequently. She opens with a dream of her mother, which is as interesting as other people's dreams are, i.e., not at all. Then she takes a long view of her ancestral past back to Genghis Khan.

The pace picks up considerably once she climbs farther up the family tree to reach people she knew, and especially once a 10-year-old du Plessix arrives in New York from Paris with the two Russian emigres in 1941. The next year the threesome moved into a brownstone on Manhattan's Upper East Side, which would serve as home base for almost 50 years].

Mom, Dad, our ranch house may not have seen lunch guests like Salvador Dali and Claudette Colbert, but it was comfortable. The Libermans' country home in Connecticut made the cover of House & Garden magazine, but its white plastic furniture (next-door neighbor Philip Roth compared it to an operating room) looks none too inviting, despite Tatiana's reported insistence that "Plastic ees forever."

The author's mother regularly made such categorical pronouncements, especially at the pair's well-attended parties, where "no crowd was ever too vast, no table ever too full." Du Plessix Gray offers a sampling: " 'Dostoevsky ees nothing but journalist'; 'Everybody know women's brains are smaller than men's.' ... 'Your hair awful thees natural color, return to platinum'; 'You found dress at Bloomingdale's? Bloomingdale's ees for sheets.'" Upon spying her daughter's friend's plastic raincoat, Tatiana shouted, "Eet look like contraceptive!' "

Du Plessix Gray inherited her mother's facility with words; she writes in easy prose lightly touched with metaphor. (Although some language is inappropriate -- an editor should have excised her use of the word "Negro.")

The title pair ran hot and cold, with once constant companions abruptly banished. Liberman was equally ruthless in business. "'Alex never fought for anyone,'" a colleague recalls. In his later years, Liberman grew nostalgic not about his deceased wife or lost friends, but about his fall from New York's power elite: "'I miss my table at the Four Seasons,' he said to me wistfully."

Nor were they touchy-feely with the author. Rather than tell a young du Plessix Gray that her biological father, a Frenchman, had been shot down over the Mediterranean in World War II, her mother convinced a friend to relate the news of his death -- more than a year after the fact. (Later Liberman would enlist the same friend to ask his wife to conceive a child with him.) They neglected to inform du Plessix Gray when they eventually married -- she stumbled onto the congratulatory telegrams.

Such remoteness may not win them points with parenting experts, but they did raise a skilled memoirist by keeping their distance. Du Plessix Gray is able to appraise them coolly. In an even-handed tone she explores why these people acted the way they did without whining or idealizing them.

While du Plessix Gray often affects the stance of a biographer -- and occasionally a Freudian analyst -- rather than a memoirist, she also comes across as genuinely affectionate. She seems to have taken to heart the poem by the late Philip Larkin, Britain's poet laureate, that begins:

They f - - - you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

No offense, Mom and Dad, but that's true for everyone, no matter what kind of childhood. Du Plessix Gray is smart enough not just to recognize it, but also to use it.

So, thanks again. I'll loan you my copy of Them, because I think you'll enjoy it. And I'm sure you're relieved to learn that with my dully normal childhood, there's no chance of my writing a memoir of my own.


Natalie Danford is co-editor of the Best New American Voices series.


Snap Judgment: Books

Newsweek International

June 20, 2005

Them by Francine du Plessix Gray

Gray's memoir is a fascinating stew: part cultural history (Russian emigres in 1920s Paris; glam postwar Manhattan), part celebrity album (Marlene Dietrich cooking in nothing but a man's shirt), part "Mommie Dearest." At 11, Francine was diagnosed with malnutrition—not because of the war but because her social-climbing mother, Tatiana, and stepfather, Conde Nast guru Alexander Liberman, went out every night and had no idea she never ate dinner. At heart, "Them" is a gracefully written psychological struggle to come to terms with two opposing notions: that her parents loved her and that their profound self-involvement was nothing short of brutal.

Cathleen McGuigan



May 29, 2005

'Them': The Power Couple


A Memoir of Parents.
By Francine du Plessix Gray.
530 pp. The Penguin Press. $29.95.





A Bittersweet Memoir

By: E.L. Lefferts



July 1, 2005, 12:01PM

Parental puzzles

Them is a star-studded memoir of family dysfunction


THEM: A Memoir of Parents.
By Francine du Plessix Gray.
Penguin Press, 544 pp. $29.95.





Aug. 11, 2005

The parent trap


Them: A Memoir of Parents
By Francine du Plessix Gray
544pp., $29.95


Read these articles, here