Francine du Plessix Gray Biography

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Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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Francine du Plessix Gray was born in Poland while her father was serving there as a diplomat; she spent her young years in Paris. The daughter of a Frenchman, Bertrand du Plessix, and an expatriate Russian, Tatiana Iacovleff du Plessix Liberman, Francine’s youth was shaped by mixed cultures and multiple languages. She came to the United States in 1941, when her father died fighting in the Resistance as France was overrun by Germany in World War II. A year or so afterward, she became the stepdaughter of magazine editor Alexander Liberman upon her mother’s remarriage; in 1952, she became a naturalized citizen.{$S[A]Du Plessix, Francine[DuPlessix, Francine];Gray, Francine du Plessix}{$S[A]Plessix Gray, Francine du;Gray, Francine du Plessix}

Du Plessix learned English and learned to love her new language as a scholarship student at the Spence School, an exclusive girls’ school in New York City. From 1948 to 1950, she attended Bryn Mawr College and then studied in the summers of 1951 and 1952 at Black Mountain College; she received a bachelor of arts degree from Barnard College in 1952. Her writing career began in newspaper and magazine journalism after she completed her undergraduate program. She worked as a reporter for United Press International in New York for two years and then held different posts at various magazines; she was, for example, an editorial assistant for Realities in Paris and a book editor for Art in America in New York. Beginning in 1968 she was a staff writer for The New Yorker. Additionally, she has contributed fiction, nonfiction, and reviews to Saturday Review, The New York Review of Books, Ramparts, The New Republic, Vanity Fair, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Mademoiselle, and other periodicals. She married the painter Cleve Gray in 1957; they had two sons.

Two elements are intertwined in much of the writing of Gray: her own remarkable personal history and her passionate ideological convictions. Her first book, Divine Disobedience, is a critical but sympathetic study of Catholicism’s contemporary radical reformers that examines the religion she herself has continued to practice; her first novel, Lovers and Tyrants, is autobiographical in nature, following the life of a young woman who is a projection of the author. The heroine, Stephanie, grows up in Paris surrounded by nurturing Russian women yet regimented by an eccentric governess. Like her creator, she eventually comes to the United States, attends privileged colleges, and marries an artist. In a similar vein, many of Gray’s nonfiction works also oscillate between the French and Russian poles of her family background, focused and sharpened by her interest in women of character or influence in the political and aesthetic worlds. Thus she made a study of the difficult lives of beleaguered Soviet women not long before the collapse of the Communist state.

Gray later turned to a more specialized and scholarly examinations of individuals. In Rage and Fire, she focuses on a single Frenchwoman’s influence on the great novelist Gustave Flaubert. In At Home with the Marquis de Sade, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Gray examines the Marquis de Sade through his relationship with his wife, Renée Pélagie de Montreuil. In Simone Weil, she provides a revealing biography of the very elusive and complex philosopher.

In addition to her writing, Gray is interested in painting and contemporary intellectual issues. She pursued painting seriously for some time after her marriage, working extensively with still lifes produced in multiple interpretations on one canvas. Realizing that her artistic focus was on interpretation rather than representation, however, she returned to writing and literature. Her novels frequently work out a debate over philosophical and aesthetic questions that can be daunting to the unprepared casual reader because of their densely allusive texture. The fictional characters she creates are broadly educated, artistically innovative, and deeply emotional, and they strive to fulfill the large innate potential with which their creator endows them, just as she herself has strived to fulfill her own potential. The intellectual powers revealed in her books have been recognized by many awards and university appointments; she also served as a judge for the 1974 National Book Award in philosophy and religion.

Gray has been honored with the Putnam Creative Writing Award (from Barnard College), 1952; the National Catholic Book Award (from the Catholic Press Association), 1971, for Divine Disobedience: Profiles in Catholic Radicalism; the Front Page Award (from the Newswomen’s Club of New York), 1972, for Hawaii: The Sugar-Coated Fortress; and the National Magazine Award, 1984, for articles on Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie contributed to Vanity Fair. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1991-1992. Additionally, she has received honorary degrees from City University of New York, Oberlin College, the University of Santa Clara, St. Mary’s College, and the University of Hartford. She is a member of American PEN, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Authors Guild, and other professional associations. As an academic, she has held distinguished visiting appointments at City College in New York (1975), Yale University (1981), Columbia University (1983), Princeton University (1986), and Brown University (1997).