If you suffer from a nasty magazine addiction as we do, you will understand our initial attraction to Francine du Plessix Gray’s memoir, Them: her stepfather was Alexander Liberman, the magazine genius who served as editorial director of Conde Nast for decades. Being pretty much devoid of panache ourselves, we are alternately intrigued and repulsed by people who devote significant time and energy to crafting fashionable, larger-than-life selves. What is it like to take style so seriously? Scarier, what are these people of the perfect haircuts and obsession with coverlines like in their downtime—say, with their children?
Francine du Plessix Gray was born in Paris between the wars to a Russian emigrant, Tatiana Yakovleva du Plessix; both of them were whisked away to New York during World War Two by Tatiana’s lover, Alexander Liberman (Francine’s father having died at war—not that anyone bothered to tell Francine). Intensely charismatic, madly in love, the kind of people who take pains to be stylish even while living in borderline poverty, Tatiana and Alex were devoted to each other and their careers—Tatiana designed hats for Bendel’s and then Saks, while Alex charmed his way from the art department to a position of power at Conde Nast. Though little Francine seems sometimes to have been viewed as a charming accessory, there was not much room for her in Tatiana and Alex’s life glamorous new New York life.
Admirably, Gray describes the pain and psychic tangles this caused her in an almost clinical way, without resorting to maudlin self-pity. Her analysis of their family dynamic tends toward a rigid Freudianism that seems as much a period detail as their Automat suppers and Tatiana's booming hat business, but it is no less interesting for that-in fact, this extreme case might make the reader think of his own family in a new light. The book isn't all family drama, either, providing glimpses of the fashion, publishing, and art scene in postwar Manhattan as well as fascinating chapters on Francine and Tatiana’s Russian forebears and on Tatiana’s romance with Mayakovsky (a must-read, as far as we are concerned, for anyone interested in the Russian poet and his life). The eccentric brilliance of the Russian emigres depicted here calls to mind Nabokov's Ada (and Nabokov himself).
Them is as engaging and emotionally involving as any novel; if you grew up in the suburbs with a doting mom and a goofy dad, it might even make you glad you did. Francine du Plessix Gray reads Wednesday night at 6:30 at the Borders at Park and 57th Street.