A Hard Act to Follow

The hardcover dust jacket of Them: A Memoir of Parents features a glamorous couple dancing, an arresting photograph taken in soft focus but reproduced with a brutal metallic gloss. The tall beauty with the aloof smirk and the slight resemblance to a female impersonator is Tatiana Iacovleff du Plessix Liberman, AKA Tatiana of Saks, America’s most famous milliner. The man holding her in a gesture at once submissive and proprietary, his back to the photographer, is Alexander Liberman, editor of Vogue, protégé of Condé Nast, groomer of Diana Vreeland and Anna Wintour, and first-class trimmer-in more ways than one. For much of the latter half of the twentieth century, Tatiana and Alex stood atop the world of international fashion, two of the strongest and most exotic personalities in a milieu defined by such personalities.

Their whirlwind life of ambition and celebrity is taken up by Tatiana’s daughter, Francine du Plessix Gray, herself a celebrity of no mean proportions, a longtime New Yorker writer and author of numerous books. Gray made her name as a journalist in the Nixon era, with portraits of the Berrigan brothers, Sun Myung Moon, and Charles Olson, among many others. If her parents brought one Europe to America-a Europe of sumptuousness and panache-Gray graced Commonweal and other publications with reports from another: the dark continent of Klaus Barbie, Simone Weil, Marguerite Duras, and (in her role as Vichy collaborator) Coco Chanel.

Gray’s parents were double refugees, having first fled Russia and the Bolshevik Revolution, then Paris at the outbreak of World War II. In Russia, Tatiana had been the platonic lover of Vladimir Mayakovsky, premier poet of the revolution. When Mayakovsky proved unwilling to leave Russia, Tatiana cut her losses by marrying Bertrand du Plessix, a minor French nobleman and an aviator, and removing herself to Paris, where Francine (born in Warsaw in 1930) spent her early childhood. The marriage was friendly but cold, and both Gray’s parents were soon involved with other partners. In Tatiana’s case the love interest seemed most unlikely: Alexander Liberman, playboy son of a wealthy Russian industrialist and a temperamental opposite of both du Plessix and Mayakovsky. For the young Francine, her three fathers would form a trinity of Old World culture: Russian poet of witness, Catholic aristocrat, and Jewish capitalist.

Gray drops a lot of names, but up to a point she may be excused: she and her parents lived in a village. Her memoir conveys just how small was the world of refugee aristocracy, where high culture and haute couture converged, including the family trees of influence that defined fashion royalty in New York. Often it was a world of sheer silliness-the silliness of old Europe, with its titles and its love affairs, displaced to America. The tragic quality of this world existed alongside its comedy.

And it revolved around the people who could put food on the table. Gray’s first clear memory of Liberman is of a fried-egg breakfast he organized for her in the midst of the French debacle of 1940. “This man will provide for me,” she thought at the time. By then, Bertrand du Plessix had already died, one of the first heroes of the war against Germany, shot down over the English Channel. Francine changed allegiances with the suppleness she recognized in herself as a refugee girl. “As children,” she writes, “we are all born collaborationists; we do everything in our power to enchant and charm the enemy, to save our skins, to survive.”

A year later, mother, stepfather, and daughter were living in New York. Grateful for the good things life on a new continent would bring her, Gray remained nonetheless morally aloof. Her true heritage was grief, and the war. Like many children of refugees, she was cut off from her parents’ inner life. And an inner life was the last thing her family could be expected to share with her in the open; Tatiana especially, like most twentieth-century Russians, had been traumatized many times over. One of Gray’s acts of redress in her memoir is her tacit acknowledgment that the world she sent up so well in her 1985 masterpiece, October Blood, was made by people who had put their lives together again like a wardrobe. From now on, Francine would exchange her place in two land-rooted medieval cultures for a reasonable approximation of a Jewish soul. In very Jewish fashion, it was a loving world, if a neurotic one, imbued with both a sense of mission and a sense of fantasy.

This is not to say that Gray is sentimental about her adoptive world. She does not pull punches about her resentments. But on the whole, her parents get off lightly; the battles she picks with their ghosts are almost always wise ones. This is most evident in her portrait of her mother. Gray was dragooned early into Liberman’s “protect-Tatiana-from-reality strategy,” a strategy combining overt submission and covert manipulation. As Tatiana aged and Liberman’s domination of her became more blatant, Gray felt protective of her mother; but she remained her stepfather’s daughter. Her portrait of Liberman is far more detailed than that of Tatiana, a discrepancy that reflects both the author’s different investment in the two, and the differences in their personalities. With Tatiana, however hard it might be to take, what you saw was what you got. With Liberman, it was anything but.

Gray reserves a large dose of bile for Liberman’s behavior after Tatiana’s death, when he cut off relations not only with Gray but with her husband and sons as well. Liberman was capable of remarkable coldness; colleagues at Vogue would be stunned by the ease with which he dropped them when power structures shifted at the magazine. Gray blames his fickleness on a gypsy grandparent. “Gypsies are serious business,” Gray writes, “a race of people who have always prided themselves on being a law unto themselves, who refuse to marry or bond in manners habitual to Westerners, who turn caprice, volatility, and shifting allegiances into norms of behavior, who do not accept guilt or regret as valid emotions.” In other words, they are rootless cosmopolitans. One can hear her choosing “gypsy” to direct her anger away from another less acceptable label.

However inadmissible her language may be, Gray’s sentiments are poignant. In her last years, Tatiana suffered a long, horrible physical decline, refusing to eat and becoming addicted to painkillers. Her illness exaggerated the family narrative of father and daughter as conspirators, turning the mother into a child. After Tatiana died, Gray cherished a fantasy in which she became the closest companion of Liberman’s old age. Instead, Liberman married Melinda Pechangco, Tatiana’s trusty nurse, and adopted her Filipino family. Though Gray doesn’t go there, the reader is apt to suspect Liberman’s sexual ambiguity as a motive for his abandonment of her. Gray has already observed that Tatiana liked to surround herself with gay men. If it is true that Liberman’s tender friendship with Gray represented the purest shading of his erotic tangle with Tatiana (with whom he shared a taste for sadomasochistic pornography, Gray tells us several times in passing), it is no wonder that he ceased to squire Gray after Tatiana’s death, and took up with a mother figure pure and simple.

Gifted with glamour that could have made her another Marisa Berenson, Francine du Plessix Gray chose to become a writer instead. How cruel, then, that her reputation has often returned her to the role of starlet that she rejected, treating her rather as a European widget on the machine of high-minded midlist and magazine prose. In his harsh fictional caricature of Gray as “Katrina van Tassel Grant,” poseuse extraordinaire of I Married a Communist, Philip Roth (real-life ex-husband of Gray’s best friend, Claire Bloom) assailed Gray’s “moral ambition.” Roth meant it as a gibe. Yet by European standards, Gray’s moral ambition is discreet and judicious; and applied to Tatiana and Alex’s privileged, high-profile, and difficult life, it functions admirably, allowing her to tell their stories in a manner engaging to the rest of us.

Gray’s achievement in Them is to do justice to her parents’ marriage as an entity unto itself. If this is a lifelong task for most of us, it is even harder for stepchildren. Gray takes on the task with a minimum of self-pity and an endearing “gift for happiness,” focusing on the many good moments-a barbecue, a wedding, a publication-that added up to an epic marriage, and a life that turned out to offer its share of contentment to Gray as well. Gray remains her stepfather’s daughter and his heir as well in her celebration of survival. We can thank her, and in so doing we must thank Alexander Liberman. “I was the little kid to whom you’d given a life to live,” she writes, “and I’d run with it, run as hard as I could.”

Published in the 2007-04-20 issue: 
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Tanya Avakian, a librarian, lives in Delaware.

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