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The private side of quite public lives

Francine du Plessix Gray writes about her stepfather, Alexander Liberman, and mom, Tatiana du Plessix.

June 24, 2005|Irene Lacher | Special to The Times

In a sense, everything in Francine du Plessix Gray's life led to this moment -- the great catharsis, the spreading of one's life cards on the table, some of them hideous.

One card: the childhood that was sometimes hellish but almost always terribly glamorous -- the parents, highly cultured, White Russian emigres who dazzled New York society at mid-century, leaving behind their neglected daughter to court malnutrition until she collapsed at her tony girls' school.

Another card: the horrendous night a family friend broke the news to young Gray that her biological father, a French freedom fighter, had been killed by the Nazis a year earlier. That night, her parents went out to dinner.

Their unmasking comes with the tasty invitation to join in on one of America's great spectator sports, the schadenfreude of watching the spectacular decline of the mighty, in this case the late Alexander Liberman, Conde Nast's former Machiavellian editorial director, and his tactimpaired, hat designer wife, Tatiana du Plessix, a.k.a. Tatiana of Saks. Gray's story undresses their old age: hers, riddled with Demerol addiction, his, virtually abandoning his family after her death.

"Our worst flaws and our grandest qualities, so I've observed, tend to be intensified by the weight of time," Gray writes with some understatement in "Them: A Memoir of Parents," her pointedly titled book about her mother and stepfather.

So now it's done and the great irony is that Gray's parents would probably have loved the critics' ovations for her minute dissection of her family's history, personal lives, professional sins and operatic flaws. Nearly all the reviews used the word "riveting" (including The Times: "a riveting, remarkable synthesis of calamities both personal and historical"). The last time Gray took her parents to task in print, in her 1976 roman a clef "Lovers and Tyrants," the couple found its success irresistible and threw her a party.

Gray waited until her parents passed away to pull back the thin veil of fiction. "Writers are hunters," says Gray, a noted biographer and longtime New Yorker writer. "They can be brutes too. And parents are our readiest prey."

But now the proverbial tables have turned and Gray has come under scrutiny for laying her parents' narcissistic crimes bare for inspection, for exposing them so savagely. The attention irks her, particularly the arrows of critics struck by the fact that she would dwell on the pain lo these many years later.

"You don't have to be a member of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute to figure out that when you title a memoir of your parents 'Them,' you're performing an act of distancing," wrote Robert Gottlieb in the New York Observer. "And that if you dedicate the book 'To Them With Love and Longing,' you're revealing a powerful ambivalence. How many of us at Francine du Plessix Gray's age (almost 75) are still 'longing' for our parents, however much we may have loved them?"

The review by the former New Yorker editor clearly grates on Gray, prompting her to fight critique with critique. "It's fascinating," she says dryly. "He's projecting his own analysis -- which has been quite long -- on me. 'Do you think that she would have gotten over exorcising her parents?' That is so innocent and ignorant of all Freudian theory because catharsis goes on until the day you die."

The Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley accused Gray of narcissism, noting her account of a discussion with her mother in which she explained why she wrote "Lovers and Tyrants." " 'I needed to tell it in order to heal myself,' " Gray writes in "Them."

"It is difficult to imagine a more self-centered motive for writing," Yardley wrote. Gray dismisses Yardley's charge as "ridiculous" and denies that she wrote "Them" to heal herself. "I write about them to commemorate them and to spin a good yarn," she says. "I've had plenty of therapy. I've had plenty of bad knocks in my life. My husband died three months ago and I know a lot about pain and grief. I grieved for my father for decades, my whole life. Grief is interminable. The biggest myth about grief is that time heals all. Grief, if anything, gets worse and worse."

The Connecticut-based author is fielding questions at a generic hotel bar in Pasadena during a recent spin through town. A biographer of such diverse notables as the Marquis de Sade and Simone Weil, Gray is statuesque and simply dressed in a soft black pantsuit, her chin-length hair, undyed and unfettered in a seeming continuing rebuff against the world of fashion that her parents found so compelling.

Her mother took a circuitous route to the world of high style after surviving near starvation in post-revolutionary Russia as well as the Nazi invasion of France. She met Liberman in the 1920s at the Paris studio of her Uncle Sasha, a prominent portraitist and adventurer. But she fell deeply in love with the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, and served as his muse.

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