Them: A Memoir of Parents

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9780143037194: Them: A Memoir of Parents

Tatiana du Plessix, the wife of a French diplomat, was a beautiful, sophisticated "white Russian" who had been the muse of the famous Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Alexander Liberman, the ambitious son of a prominent Russian Jew, was a gifted magazine editor and aspiring artist. As part of the progressive artistic Russian émigré community living in Paris in the 1930s, the two were destined to meet. They began a passionate affair, and the year after Paris was occupied in World War II they fled to New York with Tatiana's young daughter, Francine.

There they determinedly rose to the top of high society, holding court to a Who's Who list of the midcentury's intellectuals and entertainers. Flamboyant and outrageous, bold and brilliant, they were irresistible to friends like Marlene Dietrich, Salvador Dalí, and the publishing tycoon Condé Nast. But to those who knew them well they were also highly neurotic, narcissistic, and glacially self-promoting, prone to cut out of their lives, with surgical precision, close friends who were no longer of use to them.

Tatiana became an icon of New York fashion, and the hats she designed for Saks Fifth Avenue were de rigueur for stylish women everywhere. Alexander Liberman, who devotedly raised Francine as his own child from the time she was nine, eventually came to preside over the entire Condé Nast empire. The glamorous life they shared was both creative and destructive and was marked by an exceptional bond forged out of their highly charged love and raging self-centeredness. Their obsessive adulation of success and elegance was elevated to a kind of worship, and the high drama that characterized their lives followed them to their deaths. Tatiana, increasingly consumed with nostalgia for a long-lost Russia, spent her last years addicted to painkillers. Shortly after her death, Alexander, then age eighty, shocked all who knew him by marrying her nurse.

Them: A Portrait of Parents is a beautifully written homage to the extraordinary lives of two fascinating, irrepressible people who were larger than life emblems of a bygone age. Written with honesty and grace by the person who knew them best, this generational saga is a survivor's story. Tatiana and Alexander survived the Russian Revolution, the fall of France, and New York's factory of fame. Their daughter, Francine, survived them.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

Francine du Plessix Gray is a regular contributor to The New Yorker and the author of numerous essays and books, including Simone Weil, At Home with the Marquis de Sade: A Life, Rage and Fire, Lovers and Tyrants, and Soviet Women. She lives with her husband, the painter Cleve Gray.

From The Washington Post:

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.

Copyright 2005, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.

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Book Description Penguin Books, United States, 2006. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. Tatiana du Plessix, the wife of a French diplomat, was a beautiful, sophisticated white Russian who had been the muse of the famous Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Alexander Liberman, the ambitious son of a prominent Russian Jew, was a gifted magazine editor and aspiring artist. As part of the progressive artistic Russian emigre community living in Paris in the 1930s, the two were destined to meet. They began a passionate affair, and the year after Paris was occupied in World War II they fled to New York with Tatiana s young daughter, Francine.There they determinedly rose to the top of high society, holding court to a Who s Who list of the midcentury s intellectuals and entertainers. Flamboyant and outrageous, bold and brilliant, they were irresistible to friends like Marlene Dietrich, Salvador Dali, and the publishing tycoon Conde Nast. But to those who knew them well they were also highly neurotic, narcissistic, and glacially self-promoting, prone to cut out of their lives, with surgical precision, close friends who were no longer of use to them. Tatiana became an icon of New York fashion, and the hats she designed for Saks Fifth Avenue were de rigueur for stylish women everywhere. Alexander Liberman, who devotedly raised Francine as his own child from the time she was nine, eventually came to preside over the entire Conde Nast empire. The glamorous life they shared was both creative and destructive and was marked by an exceptional bond forged out of their highly charged love and raging self-centeredness. Their obsessive adulation of success and elegance was elevated to a kind of worship, and the high drama that characterized their lives followed them to their deaths. Tatiana, increasingly consumed with nostalgia for a long-lost Russia, spent her last years addicted to painkillers. Shortly after her death, Alexander, then age eighty, shocked all who knew him by marrying her nurse. Them: A Portrait of Parents is a beautifully written homage to the extraordinary lives of two fascinating, irrepressible people who were larger than life emblems of a bygone age. Written with honesty and grace by the person who knew them best, this generational saga is a survivor s story. Tatiana and Alexander survived the Russian Revolution, the fall of France, and New York s factory of fame. Their daughter, Francine, survived them. Bookseller Inventory # AAS9780143037194

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Book Description Penguin Books, United States, 2006. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. Tatiana du Plessix, the wife of a French diplomat, was a beautiful, sophisticated white Russian who had been the muse of the famous Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Alexander Liberman, the ambitious son of a prominent Russian Jew, was a gifted magazine editor and aspiring artist. As part of the progressive artistic Russian emigre community living in Paris in the 1930s, the two were destined to meet. They began a passionate affair, and the year after Paris was occupied in World War II they fled to New York with Tatiana s young daughter, Francine.There they determinedly rose to the top of high society, holding court to a Who s Who list of the midcentury s intellectuals and entertainers. Flamboyant and outrageous, bold and brilliant, they were irresistible to friends like Marlene Dietrich, Salvador Dali, and the publishing tycoon Conde Nast. But to those who knew them well they were also highly neurotic, narcissistic, and glacially self-promoting, prone to cut out of their lives, with surgical precision, close friends who were no longer of use to them. Tatiana became an icon of New York fashion, and the hats she designed for Saks Fifth Avenue were de rigueur for stylish women everywhere. Alexander Liberman, who devotedly raised Francine as his own child from the time she was nine, eventually came to preside over the entire Conde Nast empire. The glamorous life they shared was both creative and destructive and was marked by an exceptional bond forged out of their highly charged love and raging self-centeredness. Their obsessive adulation of success and elegance was elevated to a kind of worship, and the high drama that characterized their lives followed them to their deaths. Tatiana, increasingly consumed with nostalgia for a long-lost Russia, spent her last years addicted to painkillers. Shortly after her death, Alexander, then age eighty, shocked all who knew him by marrying her nurse. Them: A Portrait of Parents is a beautifully written homage to the extraordinary lives of two fascinating, irrepressible people who were larger than life emblems of a bygone age. Written with honesty and grace by the person who knew them best, this generational saga is a survivor s story. Tatiana and Alexander survived the Russian Revolution, the fall of France, and New York s factory of fame. Their daughter, Francine, survived them. Bookseller Inventory # AAS9780143037194

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