Everybody who reads broadly has their "least favorite" kinds of books. Mine are memoirs written by authors without the skill or insight to elevate...
“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.
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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.
Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or firstname.lastname@example.org. She has been the Seattle Times book editor since 1998.