Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Fashionable parents

My mother enjoyed claiming direct descent from Genghis Khan. Having asserted that one eighth of her blood was Tarter and only seven eighths of it “ordinary Russian,” with a panache that no one else could have pulled off she proceeded to drop a few names in the chronology of our lineage: Kublai Khan, Tamerlane, and then the great Mogul monarch Babur, from whose favorite Kirghiz concubine my great-grandmother was descended, and voila!, our ancestry was established.

That’s where Francine du Plessix Gray opens, Them: A Memoir of Parents, her biography of her mother and stepfather, and that mix of mystery, glamour, falsehood, and determination characterize remain the pair’s signature throughout. Gray’s mother, Tatiana Iacovleva, an immigrant from Russia by way of wartime France, was from the 1940s through the 1960s known as Tatiana of Saks, her hats on all the right heads in that last golden era of women’s hats. Gray’s stepfather, Alex Liberman, was in the same period art director of Vogue, later moving up the Conde Nast chain to editorial director. Between them, they were a force in the mid-century fashion world, exuding confidence and seeming to be a perfect couple, devoted to each other and to their daughter.

Unsurprisingly, Them is about a privileged child growing to realize that Tatiana and Alex weren’t that good at parenting after all. Appearance was everything, and they were far more interested in each other, their careers, and their lavish parties—thrown at a scale beyond their means to a truly Russian degree—than in parenting. Unwilling to consider anyone’s needs but her own, and supported in her self-centeredness by her doting husband, Tatiana refused to handle even the most essential duties of parenting. She even abdicated the responsibility of telling Francine that her father had been killed in the war, forcing the babysitter to do so—and that only after he’d been dead for more than a year.

A memoir of bad parenting by a child of privilege is nothing new. But because Gray is impressively honest and sympathetic, and the milieu in which her parents moved varied and interesting, Them becomes as bewitching as the couple at its center. She’s not after revenge or self-justification, but answers and understanding. Why did she love her parents? Why does she still love them? What made them such fashion—and social—successes, and such failures at family life? In attempting to answer these questions for herself paints her parents so clearly that we are simultaneously appalled and captivated.

As important as Gray’s unflinching honesty is her eye for a good story, and what really makes Them is its profusion of well-told anecdotes and portraits of friends and relatives, famous and obscure. Marlene Dietrich, Tatiana’s best friend in the 1960s, cooks for Francine in a thigh-length t-shirt and not a stitch more, as she inadvertently reveals when reaching for a pot. Then there’s an editor-in-chief at Vogue in the 1950s, who at parties
used to absentmindedly chew canap├ęs through the veils of the little black hats she always wore, creating a gooey mess of tuna fish or chopped liver, her hat gradually descending upon her face until she realized her gaffe and ran into the nearest bathroom, moaning, to clean up.

And the friend of Tatiana from Saks who was given to issuing fashion predictions along these lines: “The toreador look! Small heads are in this fall.” Or the time that
I came home from church with my children and found that [Tatiana] had swept some two inches of snow from my driveway into my living room, entirely covering the floor, and was now busy sweeping it out. “What’s happening?” I cried out. She put her broom down and, hands on hips, turned her most disdainful glance on me. “Didn’t you know that this is the only way to clean rugs? That’s how we did it in Russia.”

which echoes an earlier story of melting snow, from Tatiana’s aunt in pre-revolutionary Russia:
Aunt Sandra’s years as a young opera star in Russia yielded an anecdote that I bade her repeat innumerable times throughout my childhood: “I’d just sung Aida in St. Petersburg, it was after a huge snowstorm,” she’d tell me, “I dressed in a rush to go to a grand bal, and as I waited for my carriage my escort made me laugh so hard that I pee-peed in my pants, the snow underneath me melted, and clouds of steam rose all around me.”

Woven throughout the narrative, these odd, magical-sounding stories flesh out the world inhabited by Tatiana and Alex, bringing it all to vivid life. It's a testament to Gray's skill that, though I didn't like this frequently appalling couple, I was glad I'd spent time with them and learned their stories, and I understood why their daughter loved them and continued to struggle with their memory.

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