Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2100
Clearly this saga of two larger-than-life characters and a daughter’s unfulfilled need for their attention makes for an engrossing, thought-provoking read. Rather than merely chronicle long-forgotten ancestors, the narrative of Them dramatizes lives transformed by revolution, war, and rapid social change. As demonstrated in works as disparate as At Home with the Marquis De Sade: A Life (1998) and Divine Disobedience: Profiles in Catholic Radicalism (1970), author Francine du Plessix Gray is a thorough researcher and master storyteller who excels in capturing the uniqueness of her subjects as well as environmental factors shaping their personalities.
Focusing on European émigrés who made lasting marks on the clothing and publishing industries during the mid-twentieth century, she brings to life an almost forgotten cultural landscape. Tatiana Iacovleva du Plessix Liberman never lost her essential Russian-ness. Growing up in a family of artists and intellectuals left destitute by the Bolshevik Revolution, she recited poetry on street corners in her early teens in return for edible handouts from Red Army soldiers. She contracted tuberculosis during the famine year of 1922 and three years later at age nineteen moved to Paris to live with Uncle Sasho (a charismatic artist and explorer), Aunt Sandra (a gifted opera singer), and a loving but strict grandmother, Sofia Petrovna Iacovleva, called Babushka. After a steamy romance with famed Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who considered her his muse and eventually committed suicide, she married a less exotic suitor, Bertrand du Plessix, and gave birth to her only child nine months and two days later. After catching her husband with another woman, she took up with a Russian émigré six years her junior, Alexandre Liberman.
Alex, just five in 1917, retained vivid memories of street demonstrations, red flags, and likenesses of the czar burning in effigy. His father, Simon, though not a Bolshevik, was a trusted functionary in Vladimir Lenin’s regime. In charge of harvesting the state’s timber, he traveled abroad on trade missions and received permission to enroll Alex in an English boarding school (where he picked up a slight accent that he retained all of his life). After Simon fell out of favor following Lenin’s death, the family moved to France. Alex became the first Jew to attend Les Roches, a private school where he excelled at rugby.
His mother, Henrietta, was emotionally immature and embarrassingly licentious well into her middle age. Stressed over impending exams and Henrietta’s nagging, Alex almost died of bleeding ulcers; for the rest of life he could only eat bland food. During the harrowing months following the fall of France in 1940, Alex, Tatiana, and Francine were in frequent danger before fleeing to the United States. The two-week voyage took place in January, 1941, in the dead of winter. Meeting the Carvalho Araujo was Tatiana’s biological father, Alexis Evgenevich Iacovleff, who had divorced her mother when Tatiana was nine. Once an inveterate gambler and vagabond, he had remarried, taken the name Al Jackson, and settled into a routine production job at Kodak in Rochester, New York. Unbeknown to Francine, her mother had decided to send her off with this complete stranger until she and Alex got settled in New York City.
Meanwhile, Tatiana found employment at Saks Fifth Avenue. Before long she was presiding over a millinery salon in the fashionable department store. Dubbed “Countess Tatiana” (she always had a weakness for titles), she deliberately refrained from learning proper English because, as her boss Adam Gimbel claimed, her exotic speech would sell more hats. Her keen sales sense stemmed in part from the certitude of her opinions. She would tell most customers, “Thee sees hat...
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for you” rather than let them select. Underneath a veneer of bravado and garrulousness lurked shyness and insecurity. She never once, for instance, asked Gimbel for a raise.
Alex had no such reticence. Having worked at the French periodical Vu, he found a job in Vogue’s art department and soon was designing its covers, sometimes displaying Tatiana’s hats. In rapid order he took charge of Vogue and eventually mogul Condé Nast’s entire publishing empire. Nicknamed the Silver Fox, he was particularly adept at ingratiation but could be deliberately cruel to underlings. One victim was Diana Vreeland, once his rival at Harper’s Bazaar. Parenthetically, Alex’s professional career does not figure into the narrative as much as one might expect, given its historic importance, but others have covered that ground in books Gray cites in her endnotes.
A 70th Street brownstone became home to the Libermans beginning in December of 1942, finally offering a semblance of permanence. Alex, though unfailingly deferential to Tatiana, ran the household. Servants performed the mundane tasks. Francine’s favorite was cook Mabel Moses, who taught her a love of black music by whisking her off to the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. Unable to converse meaningfully with Tatiana, Francine made Alex her confidant. He clearly enjoyed that role, just as he relished, Gray recalled, “being both my mother’s Superman and the absolute slave of her whims.” Every few months Tatiana would exclaim, “Didn’t we have the luck of the devil finding him?”
Francine often sat silently as her mother stared into a dressing table mirror, scrutinizing herself and applying makeup with great deliberation. In fact, that is how she designed her millinery creations (thirty for the spring season, thirty for the fall). Alex went through a similar grooming ritual with his mustache, which the author regarded as “a dual token of his asexuality and his often Byzantine slyness.” Alex bragged about being monogamous despite temptations readily available to one so powerful. One suspects he may not have been as asexual as his stepdaughter imagined, just as it stretches credulity to imagine Tatiana a virgin on her wedding night, as she claimed.
Francine’s first serious trauma resulted from her not being told of her father’s death; Tatiana eventually delegated that task to someone else. Being exiled to Rochester upon arrival in the United States was another jolt. When Tatiana and Alex got married in 1942, they neglected to invite the twelve-year-old Francine to the ceremony. On weekends and holidays they preferred the company of friends to time alone with her. More days than not, they left her in the care of baby-sitters while pursuing their social climbing. Saturdays were usually given over to marathon high-stake bridge, canasta, and backgammon games. Christmastime meant a party for a hundred guests and hand-wrapping presents for each.
On rare occasions the threesome patronized the Horn and Hardart automat, where Francine loved selecting food items displayed behind glass in chrome coin-operated machines. When she broke her leg in Colorado, her mother and stepfather called twice a week but did not visit her in the hospital. When Francine was sixteen, Tatiana encouraged her to date a twenty-eight-year-old drunken Russian aristocrat (again displaying her weakness for titles) and insisted on selecting Francine’s first formal dress. “I pliantly acquiesce[d],” the author explained about the hated gown, “for her love has been so hard-won that the smallest confrontation could destroy it.” Oblivious to her daughter’s embarrassment, Tatiana compared a friend’s raincoat to a contraceptive. In 1976 Gray got a measure of revenge by publishing a fictionalized memoir called Lovers and Tyrants. “How could you?” her mother exclaimed, then added, “Tell the truth this way?” Becoming a successful writer liberated Francine from her parents’ emotional grip, although researching Them brought back vivid memories, including one when she was fifteen near their summer cottage in Stony Brook, Long Island.So the three of us trooped toward the bulrushes, and Alex loaded his film as I took off my bathing suit, feeling, at that particular moment vaguely offended. Was this right? Was it honorable of any mom and dad to photograph their daughter stark naked on the beach? What would Aunt Nada and Uncle Pat think of this? What if someone outside the family were to see these shots? . . . Once my clothes were off and Alex started shooting, my parents grew particularly solicitous and tender. “Are you all right, are you comfortable?” Alex asked. “You look ravishing,” Mother exclaimed.
The author never reflected on the incident until she stumbled upon the nude photos a half-century later. Even then, she could only speculate about her parents’ motivation. While they were connoisseurs of pornography, their behavior was more chaste than smarmy, as if they were aesthetically admiring a prized possession. They offered to disrobe themselves if that would make Francine more comfortable. She demurred; after all, it was one of those rare moments when she had their undivided attention. In fact, the emotion she felt upon baring all was more pride than embarrassment. Francine felt a similar elation dancing for Alex’s father, Simon, a disciple of Nikolai Berdyaev, who believed in a benevolent Divine Will and the ideal of an egalitarian society. On Thursday afternoons they would converse and then play Russian folk music on the Victrola. Francine would transform herself into a “fiery gypsy,” twirling a scarf and whirling around the study while Simon stomped his feet and shouted, “Faster! Faster!”
As they grew older, Tatiana and Alex displayed accentuated character flaws. Callously dumped by Saks after custom-made hats became less profitable, Tatiana became dependent on drugs, especially Demerol, and drank so heavily that she created scenes. Alex would bring home dirty movies, and Tatiana would announce that they were retiring to watch the “ah-ah girls,” a reference to the panting porn stars.
Once his position at Condé Nast Publications was secure, Alex put most of his creative energies into being an artist and sculptor and had no scruples about using his clout to publicize and market his work. Both Tatiana and Alex commonly cut off friends for whom the couple no longer had use; still it was a shock when after his wife’s death, Alex “excised my family out of his life,” Gray writes, with “surgical meanness.” For years she believed her stepfather to be the nicest man she had ever met. She had experienced guilt feelings that loving her stepfather was a mark of disloyalty to her real father. Alex, however, turned from a doting to an indifferent grandfather, no longer wanted Francine’s friends around, and sold the brownstone and valuables without consulting her. He married Filipino nurse Melinda Pechangco, who stroked his vanity until his self-absorption reached new heights. An Annie Leibovitz photo of them kissing appeared in a 1993 issue of Vanity Fair, one of many illustrations interspersed throughout the book that illuminate the Libermans’ glamorous lifstyle as well as the ravages of old age.
While Gray’s parents were described by some reviewers to be dreadful monsters, her book conveys some excitement at being the daughter of people whose acquaintances included artist Salvador Dalí, designer Christian Dior, and actress Claudette Colbert, plus a plentiful supply of friends, relatives, surrogate parents, and servants who fawned over her. She lived with Justin and Patricia Greene while attending a private school near Greenwich Village. In contrast to her parents, the Greenes were a model, she notes dryly, for “life-as-it-should-be” (at least in the eyes of a neglected kid).
It is a tribute to Gray’s talents that minor characters vividly spring to life. The Marlene Dietrich vignettes are gems. Once the actress leaned over while cooking, and Francine noticed that she had nothing on under a cotton shirt but a tampon string dangling between her famous legs. Sometimes Dietrich attended parties looking like a dominatrix in a nursemaid’s uniform she normally wore while with her grandchildren in Central Park. Gray’s announced intention in writing of her parents was to strike a balance between ruthless severity and compassionate tenderness, traits, she concluded, that “were at the heart of my mother’s own character.” She hoped to excise painful personal memories and record for posterity not just Tatiana’s appalling side but her admirable hospitality toward both scions of fashion and needy Russian-born hangers-on. Addressing her deceased mother, she intoned: “Despite your cowardice, your deceitfulness, your arrogance, what force and shrewdness and power of survival you passed on to me!”
Chief among the memoir’s many merits is its unhesitating self-criticism. A Publishers Weekly reviewer praised it as “an instructive model on how to write a difficult book honestly.” If the author resented not being the center of her parents’ universe, she provides ample proof that in their own peculiar way they adored her. Once a woman slapped young Francine, and Tatiana hit her back, saying, “No one slaps my daughter’s face!” “What a good time we had together,” Gray quips, “whenever they gave me time!”
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 29
Booklist 101, no. 16 (April 15, 2005): 1426.
Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 4 (February 15, 2005): 209-210.
The New York Times 154 (May 10, 2005): E6.
The New York Times Book Review 154 (May 29, 2005): 8.
People 63 (May 30, 2005): 45.
Publishers Weekly 252, no. 10 (March 7, 2005): 58.
Time 165 (May 23, 2005): 75.