Them: A Memoir of Parents


Tatiana du Plessix, the wife of a French diplomat, was a beautiful, sophisticated "white Russian" who had been the muse of the famous Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Alexander Liberman, the ambitious son of a prominent Russian Jew, was a gifted magazine editor and aspiring artist. As part of the progressive artistic Russian émigré community living in Paris in the 1930s, the two were destined to meet. They began a passionate affair, and the year after Paris was occupied in World War II they fled to New York with...

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Them: A Memoir of Parents

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Tatiana du Plessix, the wife of a French diplomat, was a beautiful, sophisticated "white Russian" who had been the muse of the famous Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Alexander Liberman, the ambitious son of a prominent Russian Jew, was a gifted magazine editor and aspiring artist. As part of the progressive artistic Russian émigré community living in Paris in the 1930s, the two were destined to meet. They began a passionate affair, and the year after Paris was occupied in World War II they fled to New York with Tatiana's young daughter, Francine.

There they determinedly rose to the top of high society, holding court to a Who's Who list of the midcentury's intellectuals and entertainers. Flamboyant and outrageous, bold and brilliant, they were irresistible to friends like Marlene Dietrich, Salvador Dalí, and the publishing tycoon Condé Nast. But to those who knew them well they were also highly neurotic, narcissistic, and glacially self-promoting, prone to cut out of their lives, with surgical precision, close friends who were no longer of use to them.

Tatiana became an icon of New York fashion, and the hats she designed for Saks Fifth Avenue were de rigueur for stylish women everywhere. Alexander Liberman, who devotedly raised Francine as his own child from the time she was nine, eventually came to preside over the entire Condé Nast empire. The glamorous life they shared was both creative and destructive and was marked by an exceptional bond forged out of their highly charged love and raging self-centeredness. Their obsessive adulation of success and elegance was elevated to a kind of worship, and the high drama that characterized their lives followed them to their deaths. Tatiana, increasingly consumed with nostalgia for a long-lost Russia, spent her last years addicted to painkillers. Shortly after her death, Alexander, then age eighty, shocked all who knew him by marrying her nurse.

Them: A Portrait of Parents is a beautifully written homage to the extraordinary lives of two fascinating, irrepressible people who were larger than life emblems of a bygone age. Written with honesty and grace by the person who knew them best, this generational saga is a survivor's story. Tatiana and Alexander survived the Russian Revolution, the fall of France, and New York's factory of fame. Their daughter, Francine, survived them.


Winner of the 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award for Memoir

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Francine du Plessix Gray has chronicled the lives of Simone Weil, Marquis de Sade, and others, but she has never written extensively about two extraordinary people she knew quite well: her own parents. Her mother, Tatiana du Plessix, was a gorgeous, sophisticated White Russian fashion icon who had been linked romantically to famed poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Alexander Liberman, Gray's stepfather, was a gifted magazine editor, designer, and artist who eventually presided over the entire Condé Nast empire. Both had been married before they began their passionate affair, Tatiana to a prominent French diplomat. After Hitler seized Paris, they fled to America with young Francine. Them presents both Alexander and Tatiana as brilliant and bold but also as neurotic, narcissistic, and ruthlessly ambitious. The author refuses to airbrush her parental portraits, but her insights about them are gently reflective, even forgiving. A unique memoir about two originals.
Michiko Kakutani
… in these pages [Gray] uses all her writerly gifts - her skills of observation, emotional recall and, yes, detachment - to give the reader an intense and remarkably powerful portrait of her mother and stepfather, and to do so with love, judgmental candor and at least a measure of forgiveness.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
"My mother enjoyed claiming direct descent from Genghis Khan," Gray explains as she opens this complex and rewarding family memoir. That claim gave her mother "both the aristocratic pedigree and the freedom to be a barbarian." Tatiana Yakovleva du Plessix Liberman was 19 and hungry in 1925 when she left the Soviet Union for France. Tatiana and Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky soon fell passionately in love, but the ever-practical woman married aristocratic Frenchman Bertrand du Plessix instead. They had one child, Francine, before du Plessix was killed in early WWII combat. Tatiana then became involved with Alexander Liberman, a British- and French-educated artistic Jewish-Russian migr . Alex, Tatiana and Francine fled to New York in 1941 and started a new life--Tatiana designing hats for Bendel's before a career with Saks, Alex scaling the fashion journalism ladder at Cond Nast. New Yorker contributor Gray tells the story of this talented, self-absorbed couple from their roots to their graves. The final chapters--with the death of Demerol-addicted Tatiana and Alex's remarriage to an adoring nurse--are unbearably tragic, and the inside story of the Liberman m nage is more addictive than any Vanity Fair exclusive. Gray is such a fine writer, her family story reads like a novel of early 20th-century bohemianism gone corporate. Rich with history of early to mid-20th-century design and publishing, this memoir stands as an instructive model of how to write a difficult story honestly. Gray's parents were not nice people, but she loved them, and readers, by the end, understand why. Photos. Agents, Georges and Anne Borchardt. (May 5) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Du Plessix Gray introduces us to her brilliant, high-style, neurotic parents, Tatiana du Plessix and Conde Nast heavyweight Alexander Lieberman. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Gray is an engaging writer with a natural eye for the parts of her parents' lives that are most interesting to readers. It certainly helps that they were active and fascinating people. Her mother, Tatiana, was a hat designer in Paris and for Saks Fifth Avenue; her stepfather, Alexander Liberman, was an artist who came to run the giant Cond Nast publishing house. Both being social animals, their tale brings with it appearances by the rich and famous of the mid-20th century; the couple's often cruel behavior as they strove to advance in this world is interesting if unpleasant. Both individuals were Russian emigres. Tatiana came from an artistic family whose influence ranged from her native country to France and, through her painter uncle, across the world. She became heavily involved with a leading Soviet poet, which ensured her own place in Soviet history. Alexander's father was one of Lenin's leading economic advisers, a non-Bolshevik whose abilities gained him trust and support. The book takes in many more relatives and, given their lives, includes courtiers, artists, spies, and heroes. It provides a good look at many different aspects of 20th-century social and political history, which alone makes it worthwhile reading. Black-and-white photos are included.-Ted Westervelt, Library of Congress, Washington, DC Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Distinguished journalist, novelist and biographer du Plessix Gray (Simone Weil, 2001, etc.) turns her descriptive and analytic powers to the legendary lives of her glamorous, Russian-born mother and stepfather. Only child Francine was often sidelined growing up in the towering, narcissistic presence of the former Tatiana Iakovleva of St. Petersburg, who later gained fame as Saks Fifth Avenue's hat designer, and Tatiana's debonair second husband, Alexander Liberman, who rose through the editorial ranks at Conde Nast to become second in command to owner Si Newhouse. Du Plessix Gray writes about her parents with wary diffidence, fulfilling with reluctance her filial duty as biographer while making lively work of it. Most fascinating are the stories of old-world ancestors, aristocratic artists, and intellectuals like Tatiana's father, an engineer who designed theaters for the czar; and her uncle Sasha, dashing explorer, linguist and celebrated artist who brought his niece out of revolutionary Russia to modernist Paris. There, teenager Tatiana apprenticed with a hat-maker while attracting notable suitors such as poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Ever the opportunist, Tatiana made a better match with aristocratic French diplomat Bertrand du Plessix, though they were estranged after Tatiana ruined his career prospects with social faux pas in Warsaw. Bertrand went missing in action while working for the Free French, allowing Tatiana and her lover Liberman, a Russian-Jewish artist schooled in England, to head for New York with young Francine in tow to start a new life. Expanded from a New Yorker article, du Plessix Gray's generous, astute study paints two compelling, Machiavellian personalities. Tatianaand Alex, stars of the emigre community, ascended the New York social ladder by dint of sheer personality and hard work, astutely using and dropping friends as they went. They gave little thought to the psychic health of their pampered young charge, who responds as an adult by running hot and cold by turns while depicting their glamorous, casually destructive life together. Famous names and juicy stories, served up with literary elegance.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143037194
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 6/6/2006
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 544
  • Sales rank: 739,714
  • Product dimensions: 5.56 (w) x 8.46 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Francine du Plessix Gray is a regular contributor to The New Yorker and the author of numerous essays and books, including Simone Weil, At Home with the Marquis de Sade: A Life, Rage and Fire, Lovers and Tyrants, and Soviet Women. She lives with her husband, the painter Cleve Gray.

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