By HOLLY BRUBACHMAY
IT'S a lifetime's work to dismantle the illusions surrounding our parents, but in Francine du Plessix Gray's case, that may not be long enough. Her stepfather and her mother, Alexander and Tatiana Liberman, were not public figures, but they loomed enormous in the New York social landscape of their time. White Russian émigrés who had fled occupied France, they rapidly established themselves in America: he as the art director of Vogue, in time presiding over all the magazines in the Condé Nast empire, and as a painter and sculptor who met with some success; she as a hat designer and hostess.
The author of 10 previous books of fiction and nonfiction, Gray began holding her family up for scrutiny in 1967, with the first of a handful of autobiographical short stories published in The New Yorker (later incorporated into a novel, "Lovers and Tyrants"). People who knew the Libermans claim they were deeply wounded by her unsparing portrayal. In "Them," she returns to the same material, with the addition of biographical information and various hard-won insights into their complex personalities. This time, they come across as somewhat less opaque but frankly no more likable.
Born Tatiana Yakovleva, Gray's mother was assured a place in literary history when Vladimir Mayakovsky fell in love with her and dedicated a number of poems to her, conferring on her an aura of status and glamour she would wear proudly for the rest of her life. They met in Paris, where she was living after her escape from postrevolutionary Russia. "He is the first man who has been able to leave his mark on my soul," she wrote to her mother. Their romance was surely facilitated by the fact that although her formal education was cut short at the age of 12, Tatiana had memorized hundreds of lines of Pushkin, Lermontov, Blok and, conveniently, Mayakovsky. And yet, when forced to choose between her two most cherished ambitions, she renounced her future as a muse and opted for a title, marrying a French viscount by the name of Bertrand du Plessix. Francine, their only child, was born in 1930. Though her parents remained on cordial terms, they were soon leading separate lives.
Enter Alex, whose father, a Jew from Ukraine and a Menshevik, had risen to prominence under the czar as an expert on the lumber industry. His mother -- part Gypsy -- was an aspiring actress and a ruthless manipulator. As a child, Alex traveled with his father in a Russian prince's lavishly appointed private train; for the rest of his life, Alex loved luxury and associated it with security.
In New York, Tatiana and Alex lived well beyond their means, entertaining the people featured in Vogue's pages. Over the years, the guest list for their parties included Claudette Colbert, Salvador Dalí, Marlene Dietrich, Christian Dior, Irene Dunne, Yul Brynner, Greta Garbo, Raymond Loewy, Charles Addams, Coco Chanel, Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Motherwell, Joseph Brodsky, Yves Saint Laurent, Mikhail Baryshnikov. A good time was had by some; others, it seems, were terrorized by their despotic hostess.
This book will do nothing to endear Tatiana to those who never knew her. Here her exotic pronouncements on style, literature and life, which once delighted her friends, fall resoundingly flat: "Fireplace without logs is like man without erection." "Everybody know women's brains are smaller than men's." A prude in her private life, she took pride in shocking her guests, announcing to a dumbfounded Andre Emmerich: "I can tell by the way your wife walk whether she has clitoral or vaginal orgasm."
If Tatiana's wit fails to come across in Gray's description, so, I can attest, does Alex's charm. Straight out of college, I got a job at Vogue in the late 1970's. Alex played the benevolent mentor to my Midwestern innocent eager to experience the world, and ruled over all the magazines with authority and a knack for flattery that kept the company's overwhelmingly female population in his thrall. We called him "the czar of all the Russias." What a dismaying revelation it is to see this urbane arbiter of style as he was in his domestic life, blithely subjugating himself, his ambitions and his desires, to a woman whose megalomania eventually consumed him -- and her daughter -- in the bargain.
Even by the more laissez-faire standards of their generation, Tatiana and Alex proved appallingly deficient as parents, and "Them" is rife with examples of their obliterating narcissism. Having concealed from Francine the fact of her father's death on a mission for the Free French in 1940, the Libermans prevailed upon family friends to break the news one night, more than a year later, while they went out to dinner. After a riding accident at a camp in Colorado the summer Francine was 15, they phoned in their love, leaving her to undergo five rounds of surgery by herself. As an adult, she came across photographs of herself as an awkward teenager posing nude, at her parents' request, for Alex's camera. Gray recounts all this in a voice that is incredulous and curious, and the reader's heart goes out to her.
Having parsed the discrepancies between the devoted parents Tatiana and Alex purported to be and the self-involved, part-time guardians they were in practice, Gray seems oddly unwilling to question their own account of their standing in the world. She dutifully presents Tatiana as a fashion icon, although reliable contemporaries insist that few, if any, took her seriously in this capacity. Indeed, the hats she designed -- garnished with a thermometer or a revolving weather vane -- seem remarkable chiefly for a certain leaden whimsy. Similarly, Gray attempts to ratify Alex's contribution to 20th-century art. Intimating that his paintings were stigmatized by his position at Condé Nast, she fails to take into account the (equally plausible) notion that the recognition he did receive may have been in large part due to his position
In the end, what proves most riveting about Gray's recollections is not the dual portrait of two outsize individuals but the almost incidental delineation of the dynamic between them -- the unspoken contract they entered into as a couple. Alex, a devotee of Arthurian legend, admittedly terrified of being alone, worships at the feet of the brilliant poet's former muse and takes pride in meeting the challenges she poses -- not the least of which is managing her volatile personality. He gets her approval; she gets his protection. A tyrant who feigns helplessness, she calls him "Superman" for his ability to negotiate daily life on her behalf. Both continued to insist that theirs was an epic love story, even as her demands grew increasingly shrill and his attempts to satisfy them increasingly desperate, as she retreated into alcohol and Demerol and he took refuge in his studio.
And then the denouement: Tatiana dies in 1991 and Alex promptly takes up with Melinda Pechangco, her live-in Filipino nurse, whom he marries the following year. Melinda dotes on him; he does as she commands. All traces of Tatiana are expunged, and the jet-set inner circle is supplanted by Melinda's girlfriends playing mah-jongg. The rigorous harmony of the surroundings that had served as the stage set for Alex's life -- a closed universe of white furniture and modern art -- is disrupted by a plastic recliner, a crystal chandelier, lace doilies and antimacassars. Wintering at their apartment in Miami, he accompanies Melinda to shopping malls and watches TV game shows. In New York, they ride in white stretch limousines. Seemingly overnight, Alex becomes unrecognizable, and Gray, for all her mixed feelings about her mother, interprets this as a betrayal of Tatiana's memory. Having finally come to terms with the dismal truth that Alex and Tatiana were too fixated on each other to focus on her own well-being, Gray now finds herself confronted with the prospect that their single-minded attachment may have derived not from a legendary romance, as Alex always contended, but from something infinitely more commonplace: his need to be dominated by a woman. Even after all this unflinching excavation, there are still some things it would hurt too much to know.