If there is anything we are fonder of than stories of obscure figures climbing to great heights of glamour, it is stories of the unhappiness behind that glamour. This is precisely the story Francine du Plessix Gray sets out to tell in her absorbing new memoir, Them. Gray’s mother, Tatiana, was a statuesque blonde who arrived in Paris in the ‘20s and immediately conquered the thriving community of White Russian émigrés. She began an affair with the Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky and then married a minor French aristocrat, Bertrand du Plessix, who died in the resistance during the Second World War. Tatiana then fled with her paramour, Alexander Lieberman, to New York, where she became the legendary hat designer, “Tatiana of Saks,” and he became the art director, and eventually editorial director, of Condé Nast, pioneering the new aesthetic of Vogue, discovering promising young photographers like Irving Penn, and earning a reputation as an artist in his own right. Within a few years, the Liebermans were moving in rarefied circles, socializing with Salvador Dalí, Clement Greenberg, Christian Dior, and Marlene Dietrich. In their brownstone on the Upper East Side, they brought together highbrow artists and fashion people, creating a brand new nexus of style through sheer, European charisma, a definite idea of taste that ranged from paintings to hats.
Not everyone, however, found the Liebermans glamorous. Philip Roth commented that the couple’s sleek white modern living room, which was splashed across the cover of House & Garden, reminded him “of an operating room in Mt. Sinai Hospital.” With this, he captured something impersonal and uninviting about glamour itself. Glamour is all about the shining, immaculate surface: It repels insight. And Gray’s book is fundamentally unsatisfying because it cannot get beneath her parents’ impressive surface.
The grown-up children of famously glamorous parents become both fervent witnesses and fervent admirers—both the most intimate victims of their parents’ mythology and its most tortured critics. If the world is so impressed with one’s parents, how can a child not be? Them has the dazed quality of someone who has woken up from a dream, a quality it shares with other memoirs by children of famous, artistic people, like Angelica Bell’s account of growing up in Bloomsbury, Deceived With Kindness. Gray cannot seem to decide: Were her parents thrilling or narcissistic? Did she have an unusually charmed childhood or a sad one?
The underside of the Leibermans’ glamour was their extreme selfishness. When they arrived in New York in 1941, after fleeing Vichy France via Lisbon, they sent the 11-year-old Francine away to live on various friends’ and relatives’ couches. The young Francine felt so insecure in her new life that she cultivated a “twinkling surface gaiety” and learned how to make charming dinner conversation. When the family finally moved into an apartment in the East Seventies, they forgot to feed Francine breakfast or supervise her dinner until she fainted several times at her Upper East Side school, Spence, from malnutrition.
But Gray nonetheless remains enraptured of her parents’ glamour. Her mother is fragrant. Their house is exquisite. Their parties legendary. Their presence unspeakably charismatic. She writes that Alex had “exceptionally well groomed hair,” and was “suave, urbane,” and she writes about the “the majesty” of Tatiana’s presence, and how she looked “like a page out of Vogue.” But surely if you live with someone, that glamour is complicated and dulled. Glamour involves illusion: It is the made-up face, the carefully photographed interior. It is not life as it is lived.
Most memoirs are fueled by intimacy, by the writer’s uncomfortable proximity to her subject matter, but Them is more a product of elegant reserve. One feels at times that Gray is writing about fascinating acquaintances. She seems to know very little about them, and it is not hard to see why: This was a family in which any form of direct communication was reviled. When Alex wants to suggest to Tatiana that they have another child, he has to get a friend to approach her on his behalf. Tatiana eventually enlists two of her own friends to tell the 11-year-old Francine that her real father was killed in the French resistance a year earlier. Gray reports that whenever Alex tried to talk to Tatiana about anything remotely personal, she would say, “So you want to have another of your Jewish conversations?”
Gray explains that she wants to be a “proper biographer.” And in some way the saddest thing about this book is the remoteness the biographer feels from her subjects: the bewilderment, the diligent, almost academic piecing together of her own past. She interviews innumerable friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. She visits archives and analyzes letters. She is trying, through the biographer’s craft, to accumulate some understanding of people she should already have known: still very much the child of a family that is not an “us” but a “them.”
Toward the end of the Liebermans’ lives the glamour recedes into seediness. When Tatiana leaves “Tatiana of Saks” and becomes addicted to Demerol, Alex is unable to intervene. Later, after Tatiana dies, when Alex is slowly pushed out of Condé Nast, he marries Tatiana’s nurse and begins, according to Anna Wintour, to see mostly “garage mechanics.” In adulthood, Gray goes on to build a more grounded, reclusive life; she moves to the country with a solid painter and forges more fulsome relationships with her sons, and yet her acknowledgements page reads like the guest list from one of her parents’ fabled Christmas parties: Richard Avedon, Tina Brown, Diane von Furstenberg. And this raises the central question of the book: Does the Liebermans’ daughter who runs off with a “country gentleman,” want to think critically about their glamour, or does she want to celebrate and reproduce it?
Memoirs of extreme wealth or glamour can be interesting in their foreignness: Take Katherine Graham’s admission that when she got to college she didn’t know that one had to wash one’s clothes because it had always been done for her. Likewise, Gray’s explanation that Marlene Dietrich had to explain menstruation to her is piquant in its exoticism. And yet some of what we come to expect in the memoir, the heat, the sharpness, the felt experience, is missing in Gray’s monumental tome. The best memoirs are made vivid with revenge or anger or pain. The sheer narcissism of the investigation, the insistent demand for attention, gives urgency to ordinary memories. In Them Gray does achieve the biographer’s balance she was striving for, but her admirable fairness is somehow a detriment to the book’s interest. One wishes, in the end, for less understanding and more insight, more distilled emotion. One wishes, after 544 pages, for less Tatiana and Alexander, and more Francine.