In 1954, when the blockbuster horror movie Them! hit the silver screen, the young Barnard graduate and budding writer Francine du Plessix (not yet married to the artist Cleve Gray) was off in France. Even if she hadn’t been, there was no way such a sophisticated intellectual (with flawless French and Russian) would have deigned to notice such a silly film. But is it wholly accidental that her brilliant, though uncouthly titled, memoir echoes a tale about primordial giant bugs crawling out of the earth? Qui sait?
Gray, who has written fiction (Lovers and Tyrants), as well as a wide-ranging series of books on people as disparate as the Marquis de Sade, Louise Colet, Simone Weil and American Catholic radicals, was born in Paris to Tatiana Yakovleva, later to win renown as Tatiana of Saks, a celebrated milliner, and Bertrand du Plessix, a dashing diplomat. They were gorgeous, glamorous, talented, passionateand a very bad match. Tatiana had just broken off a chaste but tumultuous affair with the fiery Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky (whose magical status was confirmed almost immediately afterwards by his suicide). She found Warsaw, whither du Plessix had been posted, a crashing bore; and with her lust for luxuries she pressured her husband into selling diplomatic favors. He was caught and had to resign; so back they went to Parisand poverty.
Things only worsened when Tatiana caught Bertrand with another woman. They stayed together in an intolerable state of tension that eased only when Bertrand was shot down over the Mediterranean early in World War II. Long before then each had acquired various lovers. The most important of Tatiana’s was Alexandre Liberman, a painter and phenomenal man of parts, a Russian exile like herself and a baptized Jew, who eventually married Tatiana and thereby turned himself into the second half of Them.
Alex and Tatiana were, as the saying goes, joined at the hip. Alex was a practical genius, which he quickly demonstrated by whisking his wife and stepdaughter out of Occupied into Vichy France, and thence through Spain and Portugal to the United Statesin the midst of war. Alex worshiped Tatiana; he protected her from the world, coddled her and went into constant debt to meet her capricious needs. Tatiana made a man (his phrase) of Alex by rescuing his dormant, if not dead, sexualityand he spent nearly 50 years ecstatically thanking her for it. She nursed him through the years when he suffered from near-fatal bleeding ulcers; and in her declining years he returned the favor when she was a bedridden Demerol addict.
At once egomaniacs, control freaks and selfless lovers, they constructed an auto-mythological bubble and lived inside it. They both had notable careers, she as a fashion diva, he as a Condé Nast executive, painter and sculptor. Together they ran a salon teeming with so many rich and famous socialites, artists and personalities in attendance that 17 pages of Gray’s fine-printed index can barely contain them.
And amid this nonstop narcissistic orgy, they still managed to pour out a flood of distracted tenderness on Frosinka, whose survival and successful life (wonderful husband, two fine sons, well-received books) seems to prove that they must have done something right.
Oscar Wilde, who would have loved Tatiana’s peremptory style and caustic wit, famously said, Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow old they judge them; sometimes they forgive them. Well, Gray has loved, judged and forgiven hers; and that triple play makes her book extraordinary. She has, for example, canvassed all sorts of witnesses, both within her spectacularly colorful extended family and from a host of outside friends and enemies, and delivered a mass of often blistering verdicts: The du Plessix were relentless snobs and social climbers, choosing their guests mostly for their star status. They were often cruel and unfeeling (Alex fired underlings with sadistic nonchalance, Tatiana insulted everyone; the pair never sent thank-you notes for gifts). They neglected Francine and sent her away for their own convenience. At one point they let her come down with a major attack of malnutrition without even noticing, much less helping. And she forgave them.
While much of Gray’s story is downright enthralling, especially the wild adventures of Tatiana’s relatives, like her uncle Sasha, an artist, exhibitionist and intrepid explorer of East Asia and the Sahara, the endless parade of celebrities who sweep through the drawing room of the du Plessix home sometimes sound more like figures from a gossip column than a biography. Marlene Dietrich was a close family friend, and once even cooked Christmas dinner for Francine and her boyfriend, while the Libermans (typically) went out on the town by themselveswhence the signed photo, from Marlene to Francine, reproduced in the text. Joseph Brodsky and Mikhail Baryshnikov were frequent guests, as were Irving Penn, Claire Bloom, Philip Roth, Mstislav Rostropovich and Yevgeny Yevtushenko, among others. Everyone in the Liberman circle, it seems, was trilingual or better, extravagantly gifted, creative and sexy. Still, when, one wonders, does storytelling become name-dropping? Perhaps Gray should have posed the question that Virginia Woolf asked of herself, Am I a snob? Snobbery hovers, perhaps unavoidably, over the entire book, coming bluntly out into the open at the end, where, after Tatiana’s death in 1991, Alex marries her former nurse, a kindly but grasping Filipina named Melinda Pechangco, whom the doting Alex calls (groan) babycakes.
Still, there are worse sins than snobbism; and it does not detract much from the overall effect. The scores of elegant pictures that fill the textAlex was a terrific photographerdo little to weaken the impression of the Libermans as world-class show-offs. But then they further enliven Gray’s already lively narrative. The conclusion, with the deaths of Tatiana and Alex (in 1999), is quite moving. Neither one of Them morphed into saints; but mortality, with its aesthetic degradations (Tatiana shrank, Alex ballooned), adds a note of vulnerable ordinariness that nicely rounds out these two supremely soigné lives. The monsters were human, after all.