Honor Thy Father
There's no such thing as a perfectly truthful memoir. Anyway, who would want one? Much of the interest in reading personal history is decoding what's real about a remembered life from the author's baggage of partial understanding or simmering resentment or wishful thinking.
Francine du Plessix Gray's fascinating new memoir "Them" -- about her beautiful mother, the Russian-born fashion icon Tatiana Yakovleva du Plessix, and her supremely elegant stepfather, Alexander Liberman, the artist and legendary editorial director of all the Conde Nast magazines -- was provoking plenty of controversy over Memorial Day weekend at dinner parties in Southampton and the fashionable bits of Connecticut. Some people see it as stunningly, painfully honest. Others -- including a lot of her parents' friends -- see it as "Francine's betrayal." Still others see it as both.
Not that the Libermans, before they died (she in 1991, he in 1999), wouldn't have seen it coming. When I worked under Alex's editorial directorship at Vanity Fair from 1984 to 1992, his allusions to his highbrow stepdaughter ("Ah! Francine!") always had the proud, wistful air of pent-up damage control. He and Tatiana never entirely got over Francine's first autobiographical parent-skewering, her debut novel "Lovers and Tyrants," to which they responded as all wounded subjects should: They hosted the book party.
It's hard to imagine any of Alex's partisans having trouble with the first half of "Them." It's full of rich Nabokovian tales: the couple's Russian survival saga; Tatiana's role as muse to the celebrated Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovski; the love affair between Alex and Tatiana and their life in Paris in the pre-war emigre community; and Alex's dogged resourcefulness in saving the family from the Nazis, shoving them through resistant crowds onto the Lisbon train that would take them to freedom.
Francine brings those adventures to life with an intensity that ultimately eclipses whether the Libermans were the fickle, ruthless social climbers she depicts. But that's the part that annoys the Friends of Alex. They feel she is too eager to nail her stepfather's self-promotion and artistic compromises, given that Alex stepped off the boat as a penniless Russian Jew, and all Tatiana could offer was an eccentric talent for making flamboyant hats. Alex talked his way into a lowly position in the Conde Nast art department, then, as the two of them networked high society, he swiftly reinvented himself as Mr. Euroculture in magazineland and got to the top of the glossy tree. Yes, he pushed and connived as Francine describes; yes, he evaded the sacrifices of a serious artist. But in that formerly despised ghetto of women's magazines he also enhanced popular appreciation of painters, performers, photographers and designers as had no one else in publishing, before or since. It couldn't have been much fun being the Libermans' clever, often neglected daughter, and it wasn't. But there is something recalcitrantly Old World, and itself snobbish, in Francine's failure to see, even now, the vulgar manipulations of the Libermans' climb as a passion to surmount an oppressive past that, to her, is distant enough to treasure.
In his early seventies when I met him, Alex's clamberings were behind him. What struck me then was how he was interested only in the present. He thought nostalgia a waste of time. If you wanted to hear about the old days hanging out with Salvador Dali and Marlene Dietrich and visiting Braque and Giacometti for his photographic masterpiece "The Artist in His Studio," you had to drag it out of him. He preferred to talk about the new issue of Details or some fascinatingly awful snap in the National Enquirer.
The paradox was that while he lived entirely in the now, the grandeur of his instincts was steeped in the texture of his past. He changed the ways magazines looked by juxtaposing tabloid liveliness with aristocratic quality. Once, after we battled over my desire to contain a Vanity Fair feature on the photographic master Jacques Henri Lartigue within four pages instead of the 10 he thought it deserved, he capitulated with "Well! Perhaps these sacred monsters have had their day!" I was wrong, of course -- as I realized as soon as his erect ballet master's back had disappeared from the art department. Fake capitulation was one of Alex's devices for getting his way. Wasting space on a promiscuous splash of glorious pictures was one of the first lessons he taught me about glossy magazines.
Francine stresses his duplicity, the sellouts and betrayals at work in the pursuit of success. I prefer to think of his passion for great pages, his thrilling contempt for mediocrity, his rusty laugh. For me, Alex's treachery was part of his charm. What devious professional solution lay behind the Nivenesque mustache each morning?
In Francine's telling his place as an artist was always flawed by his lack of seriousness, his reluctance to forsake the glamorous magazines that sustained the Libermans' social supremacy. But perhaps it was more than money or power that kept him enthralled to Conde Nast. As an artist, Alex was good, hovering just under the first rank with his geometric paintings of the '50s, but he had been in enough great artists' studios to know when it was worth giving up everything for the art. That buried self-knowledge doesn't mean he wasn't serious. It might even mean the opposite.
The awful part of the Libermans' story is the decaying scene of their declining years when Alex deployed most of his energies protecting the secret of Tatiana's drug dependency and trying to keep a grip on the ebbing network of sycophants who propped up their crumbling menage.
It's all true, from what I saw myself, which makes it doubly painful to read. I never had any great affection for Tatiana, who struck me, when I met her in 1984, as a tyrannical drag queen. But if Alex's home life by this time was a seedy subterfuge, it only makes me love him more for what I saw at work -- which was, among other things, a magnificent triumph over his home life's demands.
For Francine, Alex's greatest betrayal was his overly swift remarriage after Tatiana's death to his adoring Filipino nurse, Melinda, with whom he happily ditched all semblance of his former aesthetic life to live like a retired drug dealer, lounging in a Miami apartment watching QVC or walking the malls. I saw this as a typically pragmatic Alex solution -- and a grand "up yours!" to the cultural elite who he felt had always slighted his art. He was tired of all his high-minded friends -- including Francine -- and who can blame him? He didn't want to be a burden. He signed up a new wife who could see him out. It was typical somehow of his resourcefulness. My guess is that if he were still around he would be smiling his enigmatic smile and throwing Francine another party.