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. And that if you dedicate that 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? How many of us, for that matter, think of them as Them?
But then how many of us have had a Tatiana Yakovleva du Plessix Liberman for a mother and an Alexander Liberman for a (step)father? With luck, none of us.
Them: A Memoir of Parents (The Penguin Press, 529 pages, $29.95) is a riveting, passionate and deeply confused book. Almost 30 years have gone by since the publication of Lovers and Tyrants, the author’s best-selling novel that covered much of the same emotional territory, yet nothing has been resolved. Here again we are being told the story of a girl with a supremely narcissistic mother whom the child yearns to be loved by. The chief difference between the two books is that in the treatment of their heroine’s early years, the father-mostly offstage in the novel-is now front and center. The author’s anger at him appears to be a relatively late development.
Ms. du Plessix Gray is at her narrative best when evoking Tatiana’s and Alex’s pre-Francine years. Ladies first:
HER: Tatiana came from a highly cultured, high-achieving family (even apart from her insistence that she was a direct descendent of Genghis Khan). Her maternal grandfather, for instance, had a considerable career as a dancer and administrator at the Maryinsky ballet. As Francine wryly remarks, “one of our best-documented progenitors, he characterizes many of our family traits, most particularly in his affinity for striking poses.” On her paternal side there were her elegant gambler father, an aunt with a significant career as a contralto and an uncle-Alexandre, or “Sasha”-who was a “legendary” explorer and an eminent artist and man-about-town in émigré Paris (he had a three-year affair with Anna Pavlova). When Tatiana was 19, suffering from tuberculosis, she succeeded in getting to Paris, the dream of all cultivated Russians. Her outstanding beauty helped her become a model, and soon she was taken in hand by Uncle Sasha, who educated her, smoothed out her (very) rough edges and led her to her eventual career in fashion as a very upscale hat designer.
There were various men interested in Tatiana, of course, but no one struck a chord until, in 1928, the great Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky turned up in Paris, and history was made. Or almost made. Yes, they adored each other (although apparently they never slept together); yes, he wrote several of his most famous poems to her; yes, when he had to return to Russia he swore he was coming back to marry her and sent her outpourings of love. (“My lovely, beloved Tanik don’t forget me. I love you so much, and I’m so longing to see you. I kiss all of you, your Vol.”) Instead of coming back, he killed himself. Meanwhile, Tatiana had been covering her bets. Within months of Mayakovsky’s departure, she had agreed to marry Vicomte Bertrand du Plessix, Francine’s father. (There was gossip suggesting that her real father was Mayakovsky, but the dates make that impossible; besides, as Tatiana often said, he was an “absolute gentleman.”) Du Plessix was intelligent, attractive, and he had a title-very important to her. She was later to acknowledge: “No, I didn’t love him.”
HIM: Alex Liberman wasn’t descended from Genghis Khan (unless Genghis Khan was Jewish), but his mother had Gypsy as well as Romanian-Jewish blood and a good deal of the famously anarchic Gypsy spirit. She became a student revolutionary in Odessa, eventually moving on to a career as actress, successful creator of a children’s theater under the Bolsheviks and sexual adventuress. “Anyone not acquainted with Henriette Pascar’s background,” writes Francine, “might classify her erotic behavior-the one-night stands and numerous affairs indulged in every year with dozens of lovers-as a case of simple nymphomania.” But no: “Like all gypsies, Henriette had her own codes, her own prerogatives, and above all her own sexual ethos.”
In 1912, she married Semyon (later Simon) Lieberman (later Liberman), who was also a dedicated revolutionary, and produced (three months after the marriage) their one child, Alex. The brilliant Semyon became Russia’s leading expert on timber, not only carrying out commissions for the czar but managing the estates of the czar’s brother, uncle and other immensely wealthy aristocrats (one of them owned 2.7 million acres). Alex’s lifelong “penchant for luxury,” Francine suggests, began when, as a little boy, he accompanied his father on extended tours of these estates in opulent private trains.
Semyon Liberman was so important to his country’s economy that after the Revolution, despite his affiliation with the late, despised czar, he effortlessly became essential to the Soviets-a close associate, even a friend, of Lenin (he had direct access to Lenin’s private phone line at the Kremlin). Indeed, in 1921,when Alex was 9 and in physical and psychological difficulties, it was Lenin, according to the minutes of the five-man Politburo then controlling the state, who O.K.’d his leaving the country for treatment abroad. Francine speculates that “the fact that it had taken the Politburo to decide his fate may well have helped to give Alex that sense of self-importance, and the accompanying delusions of grandeur, which were to mark his character.”
Alex was taken first to England and deposited in a series of schools there, separated from his parents and-according to the 1993 biography, Alex, by Dodie Kazanjian and Calvin Tomkins-writing them “heartbroken letters, which often went unanswered. ‘I cried very much yesterday, thinking of you. My darlings, why is it that you don’t write me?'” Once he had internalized English comportment, however, his natural snobbery asserted itself: Henriette took him to a hotel in London for a weekend, “and he found her so garishly dressed that he told her point-blank: ‘I can’t have dinner with you looking like that.'”
By the mid-20’s, the Libermans were living apart. Semyon was in Russia and Henriette took Alex to Paris, succeeding, through connections, in placing him in the most exclusive school in France. Although when filling out the application form she had carefully specified Alex’s religion as “Protestant,” he was actually the first Jew ever to be admitted to Les Roches.
Alex’s Jewishness was a vexed issue. Francine tells us, “Without ever denying or belittling his Jewish identity, Alex always emphasized that his intellectual heritage, his entire culture, ‘was exclusively based on a Protestant, Calvinist ethic.'” Yet 100 or so pages later, she’s reporting a scene in a French railroad carriage during which Alex is rude to a man who is clearly Jewish and Tatiana turns on him, shouting, “I’ve always known you were anti-Semitic! And you suffer from the worst kind of anti-Semitism, Jewish anti-Semitism! … There’s nothing worse than Jewish anti-Semitism, especially at this time of history!” (It’s 1940.) On the other hand, years later when Alex asked a friend to approach Tatiana about having a baby (he found it impossible to broach the matter to her directly), Tatiana-never considered an anti-Semitic-replied, “And why should I have another child? To bring another Jew into the world?” To complicate the Jewish issue still further, Francine’s biological father, the Vicomte, was rabidly anti-Semitic, as was his entire royalist-Catholic family-“Jews are intelligent but detestable”-whereas the man Francine married, Cleve Gray, was Jewish.
Alex was a great success at Les Roches. Then, encouraged by his mother and one of her lovers (who happened to be Tatiana’s Uncle Sasha), he took up the life of an artist, while earning his living in the world of commercial art. By the time he was 19, he was assistant art editor for France’s most prestigious illustrated magazine, Vu, whose editor, Lucien Vogel, happened to be yet another of Henriette’s lovers. Alex was launched in his career and, through Uncle Sasha, would eventually discover Tatiana, the woman who was to be his destiny.
THEM: Before there could be a Them, there were two half-Thems-Tatiana’s and Alex’s first brief sorties into marriage. Alex, who was conspicuously backwards sexually, fell in love with and married an older girl, a fashion model and star skier, who tried to “make a man out of him,” stripping their bed every night and turning it into “a sports arena.” It didn’t work. Already suffering from ulcers, he now had a breakdown and spent three months in a sanatorium. He and Hilda tried to patch up the marriage-he kept her well supplied with jigsaw puzzles-but, as he liked to tell it, Hilda disappeared for good “the morning after she had finished the largest puzzle in France.” The decks were cleared for Tatiana.
She, meanwhile, had married du Plessix in 1929 and accompanied him to Warsaw, where he held a minor diplomatic post. Tatiana was, to put it mildly, the opposite of diplomatic, and she was spendthrift as well. What Francine calls her mother’s “proclivity for high living” led Bertrand to partake in some shady dealings, nor did it help that she announced loudly at an official dinner, ” Je déteste les Polonais.” Bertrand was dismissed from his post, and he and Tatiana were shortly back in Paris, where her hat-making business helped support them.
By the mid-30’s the marriage had gone permanently bad, although appearances were maintained. Little Francine adored her father and happily recounts various of her adventures with him: He’d become a first-rate pilot, and he took her up stunt-flying; he’d become a serious adulterer, and he took her to call on his current mistress. (Oh, those French!) At the collapse of France in June 1940, Bertrand joined the Free French air force and in July was shot down over the Mediterranean. But by that time, Tatiana’s relationship with Alex had sparked and flamed. They had been thrown together in the summer of 1938, and by November he was writing to her, “You know how to love me as no woman has ever loved me, and thanks to you a man was born …. To love you has become a prayer, a benediction sent by heaven …. I only know life through our glances, our bodies, our thoughts, I have loved you I love you and shall continue to love you until the day when death will part us.” And he did.
When the Germans arrived in Paris, the Jewish Alex was already on the run, and Tatiana, Francine in tow, became part of the dramatic exodus to the south, eventually meeting up with Alex in the unoccupied zone. There were dangers, there were deprivations, yet, Francine tells us, “I recall those tragic summer months as some of the most blissful ones of my life.” One reason for this was clearly the presence of Alex, whom she adored from the start. (About her father, she was only told that he was away on “a secret mission.”) Alex’s ingenuity-his nonpareil émigré talent for surviving-plus help from their connections in America (both of his parents were already there) made their escape to America possible. They found their way to Madrid (where Alex secured tickets for a desperately crowded train to Lisbon from the concierge at the Ritz) and at last boarded a “pleasure yacht” making its maiden voyage to New York. On hand to meet them at the dock, on Jan. 8, 1941, were Alex’s father, Simon, and-amazingly-Tatiana’s father, Alexei Iacovleff, now known as Al Jackson, whom she hadn’t seen in 26 years.
FRANCINE: She’s now 10 years old. What do They do with her? They pack her off with Grandpa Al: “Some eight hours after arriving in the United States I found myself in the third-class carriage of a night train bound for Rochester, New York, being taken by a total stranger, my grandfather, to a city I’d never heard of until that very afternoon.” It’s more convenient that way-for Them.
Today, 64 years later, Francine has it both ways. On the one hand, “I was again being looked on as a lost parcel of sorts … SOS, burdensome child here, needs to be forwarded somewhere, who’ll take care of her?” On the other, “Looking at it in retrospect, from Mother and Alex’s point of view it all seems perfectly lucid … to consider my psychic needs might still have seemed like an extravagance.” But the attempt to rationalize their behavior is unconvincing; abandoned children have every right to be angry.
Rochester turns out to be pervasively gloomy but bearable. Grandpa, a defeated man, does nothing after coming home from his dull factory job but listen to his radio. (The high point of his week is the Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour.) Francine doesn’t object to her daily domestic chores or to sleeping on the living room sofa. Besides, she has English to learn-she hadn’t known a word of it-and learns it by listening to the soaps: Our Gal Sunday, Life Can Be Beautiful, Young Doctor Malone. (“What will Nancy do? Will she tell Dr. Malone about her suspicions?”) All very well, but “As soon as I put my head on the pillow, a flood of tears overcame me. Why, why had they sent me away?” And, of course, there was her building anxiety about her father. Where was he? Why didn’t he write? “The possibility of my father’s survival, over the months, was growing increasingly tenuous and more improbable and was demanding an increasingly arduous act of faith.”
After a couple of months Francine is summoned back to New York, “labeled and tagged, like a package, with the help of the Travelers Aid Society.” But Tatiana and Alex still can’t absorb her into their lives-they park her with some friends in Greenwich Village who arrange a scholarship for her at the Spence school and who can “help me with my homework, do all kinds of things for me that she, Mother, was incapable of doing.” And how was Mother faring in their first months of exile? “Without me she and Alex were prospering.”
Francine is finally allowed to move in with her mother, but no one has yet told her that her father is dead. Tatiana and Alex know it has to be done, but they just … can’t. Various friends refuse to do it for them, and eventually the job falls to the remarkable Gitta Sereny, an 18-year-old Hungarian girl who’s been helping out with Francine (and who was to become one of Europe’s best-known and fiercest journalists). Over a year after Bertrand du Plessix’s death, Gitta gently but firmly tells Francine the truth, and she accepts it relatively calmly. But “I recollect as if it had occurred yesterday the storm of tears that overcame me and that also overwhelmed Mother as she ran to me the following morning and wrapped me in her arms. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ I remember sobbing, repeating the word ‘ you,’ ‘why didn’t you, you, you tell me?'” Tatiana, weeping: “‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t know how.’ … We sobbed like equals that morning, like the two lost children we both were.”
Sorry, Francine, but you weren’t two lost children: You were one lost child and she was a pathetic excuse for a mother. Yet even as Francine is finding a way to condone her mother’s behavior, she’s letting you in on how she really felt: “The terrifying thing is that from then on Mother was seldom able to recapture my trust. And we spent the rest of our lives-she lived on for another half century-not ever having any kind of a true emotional encounter again.”
Sometime later, Francine comes home from school and learns from a pile of opened telegrams of congratulation that Tatiana and Alex had got married that day. “I was stunned, hurt, enraged … once more they’d excluded me … but in my habitually diplomatic way I concealed my feelings.” When she writes about “Mother’s and Alex’s cowardice” and “those years when I still remained, emotionally, their slave,” we feel we’re overhearing the work she did in analysis with “Dr. Norvell Lamarr, of blessed memory.” Them is only the last of her struggles to resolve her fury at her mother, and she still can’t bring herself to express it full out.
HER: Tatiana quickly found her place as a fashionable hat designer at Saks Fifth Avenue. She was “Tatiana of Saks,” whose clients included stars like Claudette Colbert, Marlene Dietrich, Irene Dunne and Edith Piaf, and rich women like Mrs. E.F. Hutton, Mrs. Pierre Du Pont, Mrs. Walter Annenberg and Estée Lauder. And even before the Libermans had any real money, she was establishing herself as a unique kind of hostess-generous and gregarious in that all-embracing Russian way; superb in her clusters of huge costume jewelry; and most of all, tactless and almost perversely outspoken. Among her many pronouncements: “Fireplace without logs is like man without erection.” “Meeeenk is for football.” “Diamonds are for suburbs.” To one astonished guest, “I can tell by the way your wife walk whether she has clitoral or vaginal orgasm.” To Francine’s Bryn Mawr roommate, who was wearing a plastic raincoat: “Take off raincoat! Eet look like contraceptive!”
As for her snobbery, it was unmediated and forthrightly declared-“Snobs are always right”-and was always about success: “One does not argue with winners.” In the mid-70’s, by which time Francine, The Child, had morphed into Francine du Plessix Gray, The Best-Selling Writer, the family’s beloved cook could say to her, “Thank God you’ve become a writer …. The Madam, she never even looked at you before you wrote that book.”
Tatiana made no effort to modify her Russian accent, rarely read anything in English, specialized in making lavish gifts. Everyone came to her parties, from Dietrich to Dalí to Dior. (In the fashion world, only Balenciaga spurned her. Francine seems to enjoy noting that he “thought the Libermans were arriviste rabble and was seen solely in the company of Alex’s archrival, Diana Vreeland.”)
Here’s what Tatiana didn’t do. Until Francine’s graduation day, she never set foot at Spence. In 50 years, she never once bothered to visit Alex’s office at Condé Nast. (“Why go, I know just what ees like. Ees like one beeg ice cube.”) She demanded-and received-adoration and subservience from both husband and daughter. Francine recalls how, from her earliest childhood, she would enter her mother’s bathroom “for my almost daily crouch (arms about my legs, head on my knees to make myself as unobtrusive as possible), every few minutes she blows me a kiss with her fingers and then returns full attention to the image in the mirror, to the buffing and polishing of that marvelous face.” Yes, Francine understands her mother’s narcissism-“Mirrors were the central metaphor of her life.” Yet she can’t help being hypnotized by her glamour.
And she can’t help mythologizing her. In the introduction, she presents Tatiana as “my flamboyant Russian-born mother-who was one of the foremost fashion icons of her generation, whose life had to do with the art of putting on a spectacular show and of casting her spell on as many people as possible.” She deplores the mythology and at the same time clings to it. “She strode into a room, shawls spectacularly draped about her shoulders, like a tribal war goddess and moved through life with a speed and fierceness that recalled the howling wind of the steppes. Tatiana was one of the most dazzling self-inventions of her time, a force of nature all right, and those of us who loved her may well remain under her spell until the day we die.” Sadly, it looks as if that will indeed be Francine’s fate.
HIM: If Francine’s take on her mother is complicated, her view of her stepfather is straightforward. She’s (properly) grateful to him for the unending care and affection he gave her. And she’s shocked and repelled by what’s she’s learned about him as a fair-weather friend and a Machiavellian corporate player.
To begin with the good: “Over the years [Alex] listened with intense interest to any issue I brought up … I increasingly looked on him as a confidant as well as a role model and offered him a kind of blind trust.” He’s the only emotional lifeline she has. And he’s the one who provides practical support. “From our first months together in the 1940s, it is Alex who had assumed paternal and maternal roles, who with unfailing patience and tenderness dealt with my teachers and braces and report cards, heard out my heartaches, and imposed curfew hours and taboos on teen behavior.” It was even he who, when she was 19 or so, had the job of advising her (“with a tinge of embarrassment in his voice”) about contraception. “There are condoms, certain rubber objects, which men can put on their … dum-dums, you know … “; “There are diaphragms, which women can use and which I believe are quite comfortable. There is the possibility of the man withdrawing before orgasm … a time-honored tactic!” Best of all, “there is abstinence!” “I already have a diaphragm,” Francine shoots back.
Her dependency on him continues into her 20’s, when she’s leading a troubled life in Paris. She writes to him (the letters are quoted in Alex): “Each word from you clarifies my life and calms my spirit,” and “One page a month from you packs in more affection than ten letters a month from any other father,” and “I have come to some kind of breaking point which is very hard to live through sanely, and I need your voice.” Alex’s serious, intelligent, unremitting concern for Francine is his great redeeming virtue.
As for the rest, the picture she paints is almost unrelievedly damning, except, of course, for her appreciation of his large talents, both as an impresario of magazines and, eventually, as an artist in his own right. If you’ve read the generally apologetic Alex, you already know how he dealt with his old benefactor from Paris, Lucien Vogel, another refugee now at Condé Nast. Vogel just didn’t fit in at Vogue. Alex, the authors tell us, “would never have said or done anything to undercut his friend, but the time was coming when he would be obliged, as he later described it, to ‘cast him off.’ For a refugee and a survivor, such divestitures were sometimes unavoidable.”(That’s what they must have been saying back at Donner Pass.)
Some opinions of Alex, as collated by Francine:
Former travel editor Despina Messinesi: “He had a great gift for jumping into the lap of power.” (Rosamond Bernier: “Alex instantly jumped into the lap of anyone who enabled him to increase his power.”)
His great friend and protégé Irving Penn: “He wasn’t a person of true relationships …. People were useful to him or they were not …. I was useful.”
Lord Snowdon: “He was as arduous a self-promoter as you can meet, very slippery, like an eel, always wheeling and dealing for himself.”
Pierre Bergé: “He was a totally false, utterly unoriginal man …. He never had an idea of his own. He swiped ideas from everyone else.”
Former Condé Nast chief financial officer David Salem: “He rarely displayed any true conviction or loyalty of any kind.”
Tina Brown: “Just as Salieri was jealous of Mozart, Alex was often envious of people of true talent …. When he sensed that someone had risen too high in the esteem of Si Newhouse, for instance, he’d say to me, ‘So-and-so is second-rate, I must go and plant the poison.'”
Anna Wintour: “Alex was very much Si’s courtier.”
He engineered countless firings, with predictable results. I myself can testify to Diana Vreeland’s loathing of him. Leo Lerman, fired from Vanity Fair, was deeply hurt, referring to him as “that housemaid’s delight.” Grace Mirabella, fired from Vogue: “I was stunned, Alex was my closest friend.”
It would be too painful to recount all the stories of friends he turned on or abandoned. One will suffice: The man who made his career at Condé Nast, Iva (Pat) Patcévitch, was as close a family friend as an outsider can be-you can tell how Francine adored him-and his wife, Nada, was more than a friend to Tatiana; they were “like sisters.” The moment Pat left Nada for Marlene Dietrich, Marlene became Tatiana’s closest friend. “I noticed that from the time Nada was officially separated from Pat, my parents never once returned her calls.” Francine stays loyal to her, however, and reports her saying, “How are they? I often think of them, of my so-called sister.” Then, as Pat’s star waned at Condé Nast and Alex’s rose, the inevitable happened. One night in 1967, Sam Newhouse, Si’s father, asked Alex whether Pat was doing a good job. “I couldn’t lie,” Alex explained. Almost 25 years later, on his way to dying, Pat whispers to Francine, “How is my brother Alex?”
Among Alex’s most perceptive critics was his mother, Henriette, who in one of her passionate and tactless letters, quoted in Alex, pronounced sentence on the life the Libermans lived: “You have become a slave to a certain ‘milieu.’ In my view, there is nothing live, original, or human in it …. I have not seen at your house one single live person. For me you are a living human being who ‘mummifies’ himself among the dead.”
My sole encounter with Alex, which took place while I was at The New Yorker-the meeting, as I remember it, was suggested by Si-left me feeling that I was being measured for a shroud.
THEM: Their marriage went on as it had begun, with Alex worshiping and Tatiana happy to be worshiped. She was capricious, outrageous and infinitely demanding. Soon after they arrived in America, Alex-“clearly terrified, his mustache trembling”-offers her a little black jewelry box. Opening it, she cries ” Mais c’est minable!” (“It’s pathetic.”) According to Francine, it was a very pretty if conventional aquamarine brooch set in gold filigree. Tatiana snapped the box shut and hurled it across the room at Alex. “How could you not know that this is just the kind of object I detest?” “I thought it was beautiful,” he says. “You can’t possibly think it’s beautiful,” she cries. “It looks, it looks … Indian, that’s what it looks like!” and she rushes upstairs. When Francine (age 11) tries to comfort him, he whispers, “These moods don’t last long with her.”
Another snapshot: When Alex is advising Francine about contraception, he volunteers that “Your mother has often refused herself, made herself unavailable, and this is an absolutely central part of her great magic.”
During the long period of Tatiana’s final illness, Alex is on hand to administer her Demerol shots night and day. She grew “more devious, more intractably selfish, more self-absorbed …. Both his prostate cancer and his heart attack had seemed to fill her with jealousy and anger.” (Tatiana: “He’s not at all as sick as I. I’m the one who’s really sick.”) She used the blackmail of starving herself to hold his attention. “In the space of eighteen months, Alex hired and fired thirty-four cooks in a vain attempt to get her to eat.”
The end was protracted and ugly, Alex finally fleeing from her hospital room. After more than 50 years, it was over. Who knows what Alex was really feeling? One clue: A day or so after the funeral, Francine tells us, Alex decides to go out to dinner. “But is that wise, darling?” she asks. “Are you well enough?” And then, “In a burst of fury, with a kind of meanness I’d never yet witnessed in him-Dr. Jekyll suddenly turned into Mr. Hyde”-Alex snaps, “I’m going out tonight, and from now on don’t ever delve into my affairs …. And please clear out Mother’s closet as fast as possible. I want everything out in the next three days!”
FRANCINE: Long before Tatiana’s death, each of them had pronounced an epitaph on the marriage. Alex: “Your mother’s always right.” Tatiana: “Didn’t we have the luck of the devil finding him.” Their daughter’s take is more equivocal: “Like the gang in the Kremlin, the Libermans exuded an absolute assurance that in every possible area of their life … they had made the most perfect choices, had created the greatest achievable harmony.” Francine is aware of the discrepancy between the fantasy and the reality. At Tatiana’s parties, she tells us, Alex “hovered at the edge of the room like a high-class maître d’, looking affable and yet utterly detached.” In fact, Francine realized that he’d always “loathed” Tatiana’s parties, “[t]hat he considered himself to be a man with no friends. That most other humans bored him to death …. That he looked on hospitality as merely serviceable, as another boring expedient that humored Mother and helped him to climb the power ladder.” A few hours after Mother’s death, Alex barks at Francine, “No more inviting people to my house, ever again!” The worm had turned, but only after the bird had flown.
Before the bird had flown, however, no husband could have been more ostentatiously uxorious: “Flirtatious but utterly chaste, he became noted for brandishing his adoration of my mother and his unswerving fidelity to her.” Was he ever tempted? That question leads to what is perhaps the oddest passage in Francine’s book, on the nature of Alex’s sexuality. She goes out of her way to emphasize his “curious lack of sexual presence,” quoting people who knew him well on his “aura of a flirtatious eunuch,” on his “terribly limited libido.” (Asked whether he could have been homosexual, a very old friend, Nicolas de Guinzbourg, commented, “He wouldn’t dare.”) To Francine herself, “He was the most sexually neutral man I have ever known.” She realizes that as a teenager she might have been “disembodying him as a way of positing a barrier, of avoiding any possible attraction between us,” yet her interest in his sex life and his focus on “personal cosmetic concerns”-his obsession, for instance, with “controlling facial hair”-seems excessive. Strangest of all is her description of his “cool, impersonal, ascetic” bathroom, “in which I never observed any object in the least associated with sexuality or sexual enticement-except just once, when I was in my late teens and saw, pathetically curled up in a neat heap, a little yellowish condom, clearly unused.” What can it mean that she has felt it incumbent on herself to share that little condom with the world?
Emotional truths start breaking through in the final pages of Them, those dealing with the period after Tatiana’s death. Alex leaves the house that the family lived in for 50 years and moves into an apartment in the building where Si Newhouse lives. (“I couldn’t repress a smile.”) Although in her will, Tatiana had left Francine her precious letters from Mayakovsky, Alex doesn’t turn them over to her for eight years, at which point she just takes them: “Only then … did I understand why my possessive, jealous stepfather, who had worked hard to create the legend that he was the center of Tatiana’s universe, was determined to deny the poet’s letters to their rightful heir, the adopted daughter he had supposedly cherished.” Alex also “failed to offer me so much as one memento from Seventieth Street … only later did I feel rage at this omission.”
One suspects that the real blow came a year and a half after Tatiana’s death, when Alex married his Filipino nurse of many years, Melinda, about whom Francine says all the right things: “Melinda’s devotion to Alex was heroic.” “Melinda did her own act with admirable dignity and dedication and tenderness.” Yet her tone suggests something different: “Alex was now totally under Melinda’s sway … constantly adjusting his opinions to hers, and the two were now holding hands and calling each other “Babycakes.”
Francine and her family-Cleve, the beloved grandsons-are not wanted at the wedding. Alex: “I have no family.” (Eventually, they’re permitted to come.) But Alex does have a family now, a new one: “Melinda placed a baby carriage in the entrance hall of her New York apartment, a permanent reminder to Alex that it was all those little nieces and nephews of hers who were now his family, his babies.” And-its significance disguised by its being tucked away in a parenthesis-“They were to be well remembered in his will.”
At the end, Francine claims resolution. When she sees Alex just before his death, “We offered each other the sweetest gift any parent and child can exchange-that of total conciliation.” The writing gets fancy here, and the sentiments noble. I have my doubts, though. This is not a book born of resolution and “conciliation.” But its not a simple act of assassination, either. The author is too intelligent and decent a person to perpetrate a Parents, Dearest; her revenge, if it is revenge, is more subtle than that. When her mother died, something akin to a sense of gratitude emerged: “Dear God, I’ve survived her.” With both of them gone, she can say, “Now that you are in my custody, fierce parents, you have become my own docile little children.” Having the last word is the best revenge.
Even so, having almost reached the age of 75, Francine du Plessix Gray is still suffering from the pain of her upbringing. The dedication says more, perhaps, than she meant it to. Yes, she looks back on Tatiana and Alex with love, because however monstrous they may have been, she can’t help loving them; and, yes, she looks back with longing, because-despite all the evidence, despite the lateness of the hour, despite her self-exorcisms through fiction and analysis and a fruitful life honorably led-she’s still longing for Them to turn into parents.
Robert Gottlieb writes for The Observer, The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books; he is the former editor in chief of Knopf and The New Yorker.