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Style and Substance

Francine du Plessix Gray

     ... writer. A regular contributor to The New Yorker for decades, Ms. Gray is author of many noteworthy books. In Them:  A Memoir of Parents, she recalls her parents: mother, Tatiana Iacovleff du Plessix Liberman, fashion icon in New York in the 1950s (“Tatiana of Saks”) and muse to the Russian poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky; step-father, Alexander Liberman who presided over the Condé Nast publishing empire for 4 decades and was a well-known artist; and her blood father, Bertrand du Plessix, a French diplomat who died fighting for the Free French. Ms. Gray’s At Home with the Marquis De Sade, was on the Pulitzer Prize short-list.


Extremists provide amazing narrative thrust for biographies, Francine du Plessix Gray has brilliantly demonstrated in her memoir of her parents, a riveting biography of the Marquis de Sade and examinations of others. But if it's happiness you're after, be sure to have a nurturing, selfless and mystical "Babushka" Russian great-grandmother and a loving husband who approves of what you're doing.

Ms. Gray, saved perhaps by her strong attraction to complexity and what she calls life's nitty-gritty, adroitly corrals multiple themes onto her even grander palette, showcasing the entire 20th century through her parents' lives. First she shatters the blinding light of their shallow world using the prism of experience. Then she puts her own deep acquaintance with philosophy, religion and history to work to reunite these filaments of light, offering illumination -- the essential alchemy, she says, of the writing trade.

What does she see? Today's terrifying regression of society at large as we return to the essential characteristics of the Middle Ages.  

She says we've seen it before. It's what happened to France between the two World Wars in what the French call the entre du guerre period, a terrific kind of moral regression accompanied by smugness of having "won." And we all know where that ended up.

With an ironist's cunning, her reports from within the heart of the fashion world would satisfy most writers. Welding publishing and fashion would intoxicate most of those few remaining. But then Ms. Gray boldly embraces what she calls the emotional nuts and bolts of her memoir of her parents -- the many levels in tensions between mothers and daughters. And her readers also respond strongly to an additional personal theme -- the powerful affect drug dependency has on everyone around. (Her mother was addicted to painkillers and sleeping pills.)

Fiction pales in the face of such lives. Drama enough, you'd think, to be born in France between the two World Wars; or "simply" to be the daughter of a Russian mother, former muse to a famous revolutionary Russian poet, and a dashing French diplomat father who subsequently died fighting for the Free French; or "just" grow up amidst the fashion icons and glitterati of 1950s New York City, step-daughter to the head of all of the vast Condé Nast publishing empire.

But what happens when, in the midst of all this reflection of the complexities of the 20th century, one is completely left out of one's parents' lives?

If you are Francine du Plessix Gray, you end up having what she says was probably as nourishing a childhood as anybody could have. Lots of surrogate parents, siblings and families. You become a serious intellectual, a widely admired reporter, the biographer not only of the Marquis de Sade, but also of your own parents, a successful wife and mother, while embracing the smiling icon of your eternal Babushka.


[This Program was recorded June 15, 2006, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]

Conversation 1

Extremists -- people who have lived extraordinary lives, whose biographies have amazing narrative thrust -- are those she is driven to choose as subjects for her writing, Francine du Plessix Gray tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. Ms. Gray describes many, including her parents.

Conversation 1 RealAudio6:49

Conversation 2

The most satisfying part of writing about her parents, Ms. Gray says, was examining the 20th century through their lives. She tells of her fascination with France in the 1930s, portraying it and her blood father as symbols for the whole collapse of The West before World War Two. Fame is power, she says, then relates the two to her mother’s role as “muse” for the major Russian poet Mayakovsky, whom she compares with Baudelaire and T.S. Eliot. Ms. Gray explores what she believes is the alchemy and essence of the writing trade, categorizing herself as essentially an ironist.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:37

Conversation 3

What she finds striking about the our times, Ms. Gray says, is that it’s a regression to the Middle Ages. She expands on the kind of moral regression experienced in France between the two World Wars, with catastrophic consequences. Ms. Gray shows how she cultivated this somber undertone in contrast to the glittering world of fashion in which her mother and step-father chose to live.  She summarizes “fashion” with I.B. Singer’s, “Today’s news wraps tomorrow’s fish,” then compliments Diana Vreeland, Carmel Snow, Tina Brown and others.

Conversation 1 RealAudio12:41

Conversation 4

Ms. Gray describes her step-father, Alexander Liberman -- long-time Chairman of the vast Condé Nast empire -- both as the source of and subject to the terrors of publishing and special ones inherent in the fashion world, then and now. Ms. Gray redeems him with a poignant story of Liberman’s humiliation in the presence of Edmonde Charles-Roux, a woman genuinely his superior, contrasting her choices and experience in the world of literature and ideas to those of her parents in the rag trade.

Conversation 1 RealAudio9:04

 Conversation 5

Mother-daughter relationships are examined. Having had a difficult mother made her stronger, Ms. Gray says, pleased to have survived her. In addition to the levels of political and fashion history, Ms. Gray describes the emotional nuts and bolts of her memoir of her parents. She describes the refuge she took in complexity and an intellectual world, having been left out of her parents’ glittering one.  Her mother’s dependency problems are a theme with which many of her readers reverberate, Ms. Gray says, then pays homage to her husband and Russian “Babushka” great-grandmother.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:23

Conversation 6

Her parents liked to live for “show” and surface exhibit, says Ms. Gray. She recalls her close friend Richard Avedon’s response when she wondered what it would have been to be Hannah Arendt’s daughter instead of a Russian milliner’s. Celebrating the power of extended families, Ms. Gray concludes with her self-assessment as a Westerner, equally at home in Paris, Moscow and New York.

Conversation 1 RealAudio6:17


Ms. Gray kindly supplied us with a wealth of her written material prior to this Conversation. We joyously thank her for the intellectual feast those books delivered. We also thank The New Yorker magazine for the decades we have been able to open its pages and delight in the pleasure of a Francine du Plessix Gray article before us.

Additional Links:

Them and At Home with the Marquis de Sade are both published by The Penguin Press.

Neal Gabler has thought and written extensively on the ephemera of American culture.

Susan Faludi probes the dangerously corrupted state of American myth in The Terror Dream.

In Genuine Happiness Alan Wallace looks beyond the ephemera of fashion to the realities of happiness.

Executive and former super-model Iman confronts the "politics of beauty."

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