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Portrait of a Renaissance Man : Authors: Artist, photographer, editor. Now, with his new book, Alexander Liberman proves that at 83, he's still reinventing himself.

November 29, 1995|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Alexander Liberman is seated in a white director's chair in his 5,000-square-foot studio, surrounded by some 200 oversized canvases, his latest watercolors, mostly spare paintings of circles in reds, blues, grays, blurred and refined.

He is 83 and talking about his remarkable life, rather, his many lives, as artist, sculptor, photographer, writer, and editorial conscience and overlord of Conde Nast magazines for more than 30 years years. And, of course, of Tatiana, his great love and late wife of five decades who designed hats for Saks Fifth Avenue and oversaw their high-society and highly cultured clique of friends.

"You see this is a snapshot that records a group of friends," he says, pausing as he leafs through his just-published book of 160 "snapshots" he has taken since childhood. "But Leland Hayward, the producer, was a very close friend of ours. Bill Paley was less of a friend but Babe was a great friend of mine. Tatiana, look at her here, she had such great style. And Slim Keith, she was to me the great American beauty."

He is narrating "Then: Photographs 1924-1995" (Random House) in that authoritative voice that bespeaks "czarist Russia, England boarding school and Cole Porter's New York," as former Vogue Editor Grace Mirabella once described it.

But then Alex the Cat--the man who has done everything, supported everybody and, despite having part of his stomach removed at age 48, made it all seem effortless--announces that he has moved into yet another life.

He now occupies a Miami penthouse with his third wife, Melinda Pachangco. A few years after Tatiana's 1991 death and his triple bypass surgery, Liberman married Pachangco, Tatiana's longtime nurse, and relinquished his duties at Conde Nast. It was then that he began spending most of the year in South Florida. His life there is very regimented, in many ways typical of many other retirees. Each day he paints in the bedroom; he has his siesta after lunch. And then, with Melinda behind the wheel, they drive to a mall and briskly walk two to three miles.

The image of the elegant Mr. Liberman, always perfectly attired in classic suits and trademark blue knit tie, traversing Dadeland, past the food courts and the sneaker stores, is slightly appalling.

But not really.

"I find it fascinating," he says. "I find the clothes that Melinda looks at on the racks an education about American life. I also love to see all the young beauties."

Liberman has always embraced change on his own terms. In fact, he has probably seen and supervised more change than anyone except Guttenberg. At Conde Nast, he was renowned for mixing high- and low-fashion journalism--the clean, pure style of photographer Irving Penn and the edgy look of Helmut Newton, whose photos Liberman would lay out to appear as if they had been ripped off a page.

Si Newhouse, chairman of Conde Nast, once said that Liberman was indispensable because he refused to lock in to one point of view.

"He is not predisposed to like or not like things," Newhouse said when interviewed for a 1993 biography on Liberman. "He deals with magazines as live practical problems that change and have to change over the years. . . ."

*

Born in revolutionary Moscow in 1912, Liberman was sent off at age 8 to an English boarding school by his well-connected businessman father, with the approval of Lenin and Trotsky. Four years later the family moved to Paris, where his mother fell in love with a successful Russian emigre painter named Alexander Iacovleva, whose niece, 15-year-old Tatiana, would become Alex's playmate.

During the Depression, their families would lose their fortunes; Alex and Tatiana would each marry another, divorce, become friends again, make their way together in 1941 to New York and a year later marry.

Once in America, with his mother, Tatiana, and her daughter to support, Liberman found a $50-a-week job at Conde Nast. (In Paris, he had been managing editor of Vu, a journal that introduced France to photojournalism.) He quickly ascended--within a year to art director of Vogue, a year later to chief art director overseeing 13 magazines and finally to editorial director.

By 1946, he had financial security, a whirlwind social life, a high-stakes career and a well-developed ulcer. But he was not fulfilling his dream to paint.

"I think I was like Gen. [Colin] Powell. You know he said you have to have a certain fire. I don't think I had that fire for art. It was a smoldering fire not a raging one, and I found, being a refugee, being ill, I wanted something of a life. I didn't want to die for art."

His interest in abstract Expressionism ultimately led him to visit and photograph artists' studios all over Europe and eventually collect the pictures for a book that was published in 1988.

"I wanted to see what would my life have been if I had been a full-time artist," he says. "I was extremely depressed. With one or two exceptions, the artists were all impoverished."

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