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 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...
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