A daughter's homage to the extraordinary lives of two fascinating, irrepressible people who were larger than life emblems of a bygone age. Tatiana du Plessix, Russian wife of a French diplomat, and Alexander Liberman, a gifted magazine editor and aspiring artist, lived as part of the artistic Russian émigré community in Paris in the 1930s. The two began a passionate affair and fled to New York with Tatiana's young daughter, Francine. There they rose to the top of high society, holding court to the midcentury's intellectuals and entertainers, friends like Marlene Dietrich, Salvador Dalí, and the publishing tycoon Condé Nast. Tatiana became an icon of New York fashion, and the hats she designed for Saks Fifth Avenue were de rigueur for stylish women everywhere. Liberman eventually came to preside over the 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.--From publisher description.
"Them" isn't particularly preoccupied with drama or revelation, indeed, sometimes it seems that the author barely participated in the family dynamic that she describes. It's not that du Plessix Gray didn't have enough material for a tell-all: the author's parents' lives were defined by emotional restraint the desire to impress others. "Them" is a much more difficult endeavor than a straight tell-all account of a messy family life, it's a meticulous description and dissection of her parents drives, neuroses and personalities. In the book's opening pages, the author suggests that she'd been waiting her entire life – until after her mother and stepfather had passed away – to start writing "Them," but even with a few decades to prepare, composing it must have taken considerable bravery. While her mother and her stepfather were, in some respects, ill-equipped to raise her, the account that du Plessix Gray gives of her parents contains a minimum of regret, recrimination, or bitterness, even forgiving, more or less, her stepfather's too-hasty remarriage to her mother's nurse. She readily admits that both her mother and stepfather were immensely talented and passionate, but also portrays them as calculating, money-hungry and egocentric. "Them" provides a remarkably detailed, well-rounded, and perceptive portrait of both her parents as individuals, spouses, and, finally, as parents. How many of us, authors or not, will ever see our own parents with such remarkable clarity and remove?
One of the blurbs on the back of my copy of "Them" commends it for succeeding both as a personal narrative and as a cultural history. This is an apt description, as "Them" describes a wealthy, educated, refined and, above all, exclusive slice of postwar New York life that fetishized European art and culture. Alex Liberman's Continental manners seems to have charmed just about everyone he came in contact with, even those who considered him a manipulative social climber, and du Plessix Gray's mother's refusal to improve her heavily-accented English probably helped her succeed as an upscale fashion retailer. The United States seems to be a more confident and unabashedly nationalistic place now; I'm not sure if I can name any part of American society that aspires to Frenchness the same way the Libermans and their confederates did. Times have changed, but, in a way, I'm glad that du Plessix Gray's memoir has preserved her parents fleeting, but admirably stylish, cultural moment for us. Recommended.
Like many books I've come upon by chance, this one had a Russian literature connection that I found enthralling. Her mother, nee Tatiana Iacovleva, was Vladimir Mayakovsky's love, maybe even his only true love. She, an exile living in Paris, was not the PC muse expected for the Soviet poet. He wrote love poems explicitly addressed to her and used lines from one of these poems in his suicide note. Her relationship to him, in itself, was fascinating and unexpected. Most biographies I have read of Mayakovsky rarely go beyond implying that she was a dalliance, a bourgeoise, not worthy of the great poet, but here Tatiana Iacovleva is center stage. She came from a distinguished and artistic family and that history is intriguing as well. In New York she became "Tatiana of Saks", a hat designer with well-heeled, famous clients. Her second marriage (following the heroic death of du Plessix Gray's French father during WWII) to another Russian exile, Alex Liberman, the art director for Conde Nast publications, put Francine du Plessix in the orbit of New York's fashion and art world for most of her life.
Francine masters the art of being both an astute spectator and a naive participant in the events and lives she describes. I am amazed by how little rancor she lets come out in the retelling of the sometimes horrendous neglect or thoughtlessness of her parents, though she does admit her outrage after the fact. Yet, she has the grace to see that these people, despite all their faults (and their were many) were damaged people as well, who, nevertheless, managed to create a world of beauty and yes, love.