- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 16, 2005

THEM: A MEMOIR OF PARENTS

By Francine du Plessix Gray

Penguin, $29.95, 529 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY BART MCDOWELL



Years ago in Brezhnev’s Moscow, I was taken into custody by a young KGB agent. Nothing personal. I was merely a foreigner with a hotel room that commanded a view within rifle range of Red Square. The KGB man’s mission was to be my babysitter, making sure that I would not assassinate members of the Politburo during a long parade.

He succeeded and I murdered no one that day. But in the course of our long, wary conversation, I asked my keeper what he liked to read and what author was his favorite. “Mayakovsky,” he said instantly. This was the same revolutionary poet of whom Joseph Stalin proclaimed, “Indifference to his memory … is a crime.”

Now, in the pages of this fascinating book, we meet the great love and muse of Vladimir Mayakovsky. We also find a riddle. Did this poet — who called himself the “drum-beater of the Revolution” — kill himself out of disillusion with the communist state, as many have claimed? or was his suicide due to heartbreak when his sweetheart and muse married another man?

The sweetheart and muse in question was Tatiana Yakovleva du Plessix, a fashion model with the looks of Greta Garbo, the verve of Auntie Mame and the magnetism of Rasputin. She was the mother of the author of this book who styles her work “a memoir of parents” — three parents, actually, for Tatiana was married twice, first to the French diplomat and minor nobleman, Vicomte Bertrand du Plessix (the author’s father) and after his death, to Alexander Liberman, who eventually became editorial director of the Conde Nast publications in the United States. Liberman was also an artist and sculptor, whose work is on permanent display in Washington.

Mrs. Gray is an accomplished novelist and writer of nonfiction for The New Yorker. With this book, she tells a story of unusual adventure during — as in that famous Chinese curse — interesting times. Here is the fall of czarist Russia, the diaspora of Russians to France, and their struggles to survive. Then, for many, there came a second exile when France was overrun by Nazi Germans. And, finally, there is the success story for those who made it to America.

Throughout, this memoir’s pages are populated like a big Russian novel by vivid, quirky and sometimes famous characters. They come with names transliterated across languages in several confusing ways, some with a patronymic, others with an alias or a nom de plume. But keeping them straight is worth the ride.

Tatiana’s maternal grandfather was a classical dancer and director of the Marinsky Imperial Ballet. Other relatives included architects, lawyers, officials, artists. From her father’s family Tatiana claimed descent from Genghis Khan and thus “an aristocratic pedigree with the freedom to be a barbarian.” Tatiana’s family lost everything during the Bolshevik Revolution, and for a time the teenage Tatiana helped her mother and sister survive, standing on street corners to recite poetry — Pushkin, Blok, Lermontov and prophetically Mayakovsky — so Red Army soldiers would give her bread. In 1922, the family fled to Paris. Their luck got better.

Tatiana’s aunt Alexandra revived her singing career and made her debut with the Paris Opera. Great-uncle Sasha, who had spent years studying art in Asia, got a seventh-floor walk-up apartment where he could live and work, and convinced a restaurant to give him six meals a week in exchange for frescoes he painted on its walls. Soon Sasha was painting portraits of influential people and acquired some glamorous mistresses.

One was ballerina Anna Pavlova. Another was a flamboyant theatrical entrepreneur named Henriette Pascar, who had a teeage age son named Alexander Libermann, the same person, as the author notes, “who some twelve years later, would become my mother’s lover and eventually my stepfather.” It was all in the family. Eventually Sasha, art student, fresco painter and lover, became a famous explorer, combining his art with high adventure. He even contributed to National Geographic.

And it was Sasha who introduced his grandniece Tatiana to society. He convinced a former mistress, a hat designer, to take Tatiana as an apprentice. Soon the young woman was designing hats inspired by the paintings great-uncle Sasha had taught her to love. And soon, too, the beautiful Tatiana was hobnobbing with the likes of the composer Serge Prokofiev, the painter Marc Chagall, and Elsa Triolet, a writer and later wife of the poet Louis Aragon, in the emigre set. She became a fashion model, posing in jewels and furs. Pursued by many stylish suitors, she retained the “anarchic extravagance of her Soviet youth.” Once, upon entering a restaurant, she saw a group of friends and “simply jumped onto a table and leaped from table to table until she reached her friends.”

Tatiana remained nostalgic for the Russia she had known. Then, in 1928, she met a traveler from Russia, the big, brusque poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. She already knew his poetry and could quote it by the hour. And what is more seductive to a poet than his own words? Mayakovsky became “the love of her life,” as Tatiana’s daughter calls him. Today it may be difficult to understand such a romance. An “absolute gentleman,” in Tatiana’s phrase, he was “extraordinarily careful about my virginity.”

As in the age of chivalry, the relationship seems to have been quite chaste. But no less stormy. The poet prooposed marriage within a fortnight of their meeting. But she made no commitment. The Soviet government often sent Mayakovsky to Paris. Together or apart, their courtship continued. He dedicated poems to her. He sent roses, letters, telegrams. Their correspondence reveals much about Russia in the years while Stalin was consolidating his power. Later, Mayakovsky was forbidden foreign travel. Tatiana, who wanted a home and children, turned her back on the past.

So in December of 1929, after a swift courtship, Tatiana married the handsome, titled young diplomat Betrand du Plessix. Bitterly, Mayakovsky declared that “we are not French viscounts — we work hard.” He began to drink heavily and referred to himself as “a latrine-cleaner.” In April of 1930, he shot himself to death. His suicide note included lines from a poem written for Tatiana.

Some nine months and a few days after her marriage, Tatiana gave birth to Francine, the author of this memoir. The marriage was disappointing. The viscount lost his diplomatic job, and Tatiana returned to Paris as World War II began. And it was at this point that Alexander Liberman, the son of the theatrical producer who had been her Uncle Sasha’s lover, returned. A Russian Jew with some gypsy blood, Liberman, now a promising artist and designer, became Tatiana’s lover.

Alex Liberman had spent a privileged childhood in Moscow, where his father worked for Lenin’s exporting ventures and where his mother was a major decision-maker at the Moscow Art Theater. In the early 1920s, he accompanied his father to England. And when his father lost favor with Soviet rulers, the family took refuge in Paris. Alexander grew up with an international education and a mastery of three languages. Quite naturally, he gravitated to a job with a French illustrated magazine.

In 1940, as German armies sliced through France, Tatiana and Alexander escaped to the unoccupied South. Francine’s father, Bertrand du Plessix joined the Free French air force, and lost his life when his plane was shot down. The young Francine was not told that her father was dead, only that “he was on a secret mission.” After some wild adventures — fighting their way through a mob to catch the train to Lisbon — the family finally reached New York.

What a success story it was. “Tatiana of Saks,” as she was styled, designed high fashion hats, and set the fashion for the country. Alex, starting at Conde Nast laying out pages, rose swiftly to the top. Together, the Libermans became one of the early power couples. They collected people, always high achievers, always glamorous. Tatiana’s closest friend, Marlene Dietrich, cooked a meal in their kitchen, wearing a man’s borrowed shirt — and, as Francine noticed, no underpants. Christian Dior, Salvador Dali, Great Garbo — they all turned up at the Liberman’s house. Lord Snowdon, as photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones, worked for Alex and called him “as arduous a self-promotor as you can meet.” The good Lord knows.

This is a talented daughter’s very honest memoir. Emotional isolation. Neglect in immaterial ways, and “like most mothers and daughters, we lived in terror of each other.” The daughter survived to tell the story of her mother’s decline into drug dependency and finally death. Then her stepfather withdrew into a caricature of the life he had known. He married his Filipino nurse, broke contact with Francine and her children and died distantly.

Bart McDowell is a former editor of National Geographic.

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