History Books

Tatiana and Alexander

It has taken a few days away from the outsized characters at the center of Them to consider sitting down to write about the book that frames them. Tatiana Yakovleva Du Plessix Liberman and her third husband, Alexander Liberman, never settle down; they never achieve the stability, as characters, that judging them would require. Now gracious, now heartless, now loving, now indifferent, they seem more like weather patterns than people. That this irresolution is never confusing or annoying signifies, to me, that their creator, Francine du Plessix Gray, has managed to bottle her own ambivalence. She loves them, and she forgives them, but she has drawn portraits that the subjects of her book would probably not care to read.

As you may infer from all those names, Francine was Alexander's stepdaughter. Her father, Bertrand du Plessix, was shot down in 1940 on a flight from Africa to join De Gaulle in London. This is almost certainly the death he would have wished for; his life seems to have been an unsatisfying accommodation of the quotidien. A plausible aristocrat - no one else in his family had used the title "vicomte" very recently - he seems to have been rather like one of Alan Furst's French heroes - sad about war but also brought to life by it. But to posterity, the most remarkable thing about Bertrand is likely to be the fact that his widow concealed news of his death from their daughter for over a year.

Well, it was hardly a regular year. Tatiana and Francine hustled their way out of Occupied France and into the Vichy Zone before joining up with Alexander in the South of France, where the trio waited for visas to be issued at the instance of American friends (made long before the war, in Warsaw and Paris). Once the papers arrived, it was off to New York via Madrid and Lisbon. They made the crossing on a large pleasure yacht that was not designed for crossing the North Atlantic in January - but they made it. Nevertheless, on her very first night in New York (speaking little English), Francine found herself on a train for Rochester, with a grandfather whom she'd only met that day. It would be a year before she lived with her mother on a regular basis, and if for some reason the family had to be split up for some reason - a new house needing painting - then Tatiana went with Alex, and Francine was farmed out to friends and acquaintances.

But who are these parents, you ask? (Tatiana and Alex married in 1942.) Both were born in Russia before the Revolution, and both landed in Paris afterward. Tatiana was rather older than Alex, and the first time she met him she paid him no attention - he was still a boy. Tatiana and Bertrand were already "leading separate lives" from opposite ends of a comfortable flat in the Seizième. Tatiana had been set up as a milliner by her uncle, who had a protracted affair with Alexander's mother, and while the making of hats is not a comfortable pastime - there's a lot of heat and machinery and fine detail - Tatiana seems never to have considered doing anything else with her days. Alexander worked at a number of magazines. His mother wanted him to be an artist, but he seems to have preferred the bustle of journalism, working for Vu until it was purchased by conservative backers.  

Such were the skills that the refugees brought to New York. Their ascents to the tops of their respective professions, hardly foreseeable from Paris, were nothing less than amazing. Tatiana got a job at Henri Bendel right away, but was soon lured to Saks, where she became "Tatiana of Saks" for twenty-three years. Alexander, meanwhile, berthed at Condé Nast, where he was soon art editor of Vogue. But the Liberman's real career was networking. They went out night after night, to hobnob with clients and patrons; when they spent and evening at home, it was usually to bring the party into their living room. Neither was a drinker during these busy years, and both kept up formidable schedules that did not, needless to say, allot much "quality time" to Francine. To some extent for Tatiana, but altogether for Alexander, prompt networking upon arrival in New York was the engine of their ascent, and they never forgot how important it could be, even if they forgot individual people, even "best friends," once they ceased to be useful. Ms Gray seems to have a high opinion of her parents' capabilities, but to me they seem only slightly more than moderately gifted with talent but astonishingly endowed with what used to be called, quite derogatively, "push." Tatiana was grandly beautiful, a blond amazon with a taste for outsized costume jewelry and the raucous mangling of English; Alexander was dapper and courtly. They were handsome to be seen with, and their expertise at ego-massage was fearful. No wonder they did so well.

While Ms Gray writes very convincingly of her affection for her parents, she does not present them as people worth knowing. On the contrary, they're people to dread. They symbolize the emptiness of the café society that glittered so brightly in New York for twenty years after the war. Their lives revolved around hats, layouts, and guest lists: if they were artists, their field was the ephemeral. In Tatiana's case, hard worldliness might be attributed to inconsolable regret for Russia before the Revolution, as well as to a determination not to assimilate to American ways. Alexander seems to have been born for hardness. Interestingly, he was an uncontrollable, almost thuggish boy, reformed only by being sent off to England on a visa approved by none less than Lenin. He remained as opportunistic as any gangster.

And the great romance between Tatiana and Alexander, which in their sophisticated monde many found quite deviant, seems to have been the product of light psychopathology combined with a preference for chastity. If  they were not tempted to be unfaithful, it was a narcissistic convenience, not true love, that kept their mutual attraction vital. Long as Them is, I can think of no truly tender moments between the two. More characteristic is the pleasure that Tatiana took in saying to Francine of Alexander, "Didn't we hve the luck of the devil with Superman!"

What makes Them so compelling is the presence of the writer herself. A bright girl whose craving for affection was understandably ratcheted up by the upsets of 1940-1941, Francine never really trusted Tatiana after the latter arranged for friends to tell her daughter about Bertrand's death. Loving a parent who can't be trusted is one of the most agonizing fates that can befall a child, and Francine appears to have gone on worshiping her mother while keeping the book of judgment freshly up to date. Sensing that only Francine's story could redeem this book from the dust heap of memoirs motivated by filial piety (which infuses the first three chapters with overpowering incense), I leapfrogged from the fourth chapter to the sixteenth, in which the author ingeniously uses the floor-plan of the Liberman's townhouse  on East Seventieth Street to elicit a sequence of anecdotes; in the following chapter, she does the same thing upstairs. These, and the eighteenth chapter, in which Francine finds her career while Tatiana loses hers - and one does feel sorry for this cool-hearted woman upon reading about the heartless way in which she was dumped by Saks - these three chapters are the heart of the book, the pages that you ought to read if you find yourself in the company of the book for a short while. Here, for example, is a scene from Francine's bedroom, where she studies her part in a school play. Observe how well the parts of this passage are bonded, and savor the pungent moral obscurity of growing up in a household battered by ambition and events. (I have omitted the brief synopsis of the story of Antigone.)

In 1948, as a freshman at Bryn Maw, I landed the role of Ismene in a college production of Jean Anouilh's Antigone. ... As I memorize my lines, a proto-Marxist and militantly secular tomboy, I sympathize totally with the docile, panicky Ismene, even enjoying moments of approval for the tyrant Creon. Prosperity and survival above all! The forces of progress must prevail! Antigone, in my eyes, is an unintelligibly archaic creature, morbid and freakish in her addiction to rites that I find antiquated, meaningless. How I disdain Antigone when she tells Ismene, "You've chosen to live, and I to die." How I relish the moments when I chide my sister for venturing on "hopeless quests," for being "much possessed by death.

Only decades later did I grasp the link between Ismene's limp obedience to Creon and my own cowardice toward the rites and rights of a dead one lost in war [Bertrand]. Only recently have I realized that the role of Ismene, "that beauteous measure of the ordinary," as Kierkegaard describes her, was the one my mother and I had played together for some years, And I would continue to play it for decades to come.

The year after my rendering of Ismene, I received an unsettling letter from Uncle André and Aunt Simone Monestier [cousins of Bertrand], with whom I'd visited at length for the two previous summers I'd returned to France. They were informing me that my father's body, which had been buried in Gibraltar, was about to be repatriated, that his remains were due back at the ancestral vault in Brittany the coming July, that the entire du Plessix family was gathering for the final burial; everyone, of course, expected me to come. I recall the exact spot upon which I stood in my New York bedroom as I read this missive, the precise quality of the April light slanting through my window. I remember a sense of being fiercely assaulted by that letter, of being threatened in some very private space of me, hwich I now realize was the site of an inchoate, deeply sunken grief: How dare they ask me to cross the ocean and appear on such-and-such a day for an abstract and tedious family duty! I remember thinking those very words: "tedious," "abstract."

So even though I fully planned to be in France that summer, I wrote back to the Monestiers telling them not to expect me: I crassly lied and said that I could not leave the States that year. "Thank you for letting me know, darling ones," I wrote. "There's no way I can make it. I'm so glad you'll be there" - by which I meant, Thanks for minding my business, just take care of it without me, don't bother me with memory. That is one cycle of emotions I lived through in my room on Seventieth Street. And what incentives my parents and their friends gave me for silencing and burying my grief! What a good time we had together, whenever they gave me time!

Having read these central chapters, of course, you will have to read all the rest. Ms Gray's blend of ingenuousness and experienced wisdom gives much of the book a powerful stereoscopic effect, through which one sees events through two harnessed sensibilities. But is happy to know - as, being a general reader one does happen to know - that Ms Gray spent her adult life in a completely different environment, one grounded in true love, two sons, her husband's art, and her her own substantial literary accomplishments, and situated in the rural center of Litchfield County, Connecticut, far away enough from Seventieth Street. 

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