Synopses & Reviews
Tatiana du Plessix, the wife of a French diplomat, was a beautiful, sophisticated "white Russian" who had been the muse of the famous Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Alexander Liberman, the ambitious son of a prominent Russian Jew, was a gifted magazine editor and aspiring artist. As part of the progressive artistic Russian émigré community living in Paris in the 1930s, the two were destined to meet. They began a passionate affair, and the year after Paris was occupied in World War II they fled to New York with Tatiana's young daughter, Francine.
There they determinedly rose to the top of high society, holding court to a Who's Who list of the midcentury's intellectuals and entertainers. Flamboyant and outrageous, bold and brilliant, they were irresistible to friends like Marlene Dietrich, Salvador Dalí, and the publishing tycoon Condé Nast. But to those who knew them well they were also highly neurotic, narcissistic, and glacially self-promoting, prone to cut out of their lives, with surgical precision, close friends who were no longer of use to them.
Tatiana became an icon of New York fashion, and the hats she designed for Saks Fifth Avenue were de rigueur for stylish women everywhere. Alexander Liberman, who devotedly raised Francine as his own child from the time she was nine, eventually came to preside over the entire Condé Nast empire. The glamorous life they shared was both creative and destructive and was marked by an exceptional bond forged out of their highly charged love and raging self-centeredness. Their obsessive adulation of success and elegance was elevated to a kind of worship, and the high drama that characterized their lives followed them to their deaths. Tatiana, increasingly consumed with nostalgia for a long-lost Russia, spent her last years addicted to painkillers. Shortly after her death, Alexander, then age eighty, shocked all who knew him by marrying her nurse.
Them: A Portrait of Parents is a beautifully written homage to the extraordinary lives of two fascinating, irrepressible people who were larger than life emblems of a bygone age. Written with honesty and grace by the person who knew them best, this generational saga is a survivor's story. Tatiana and Alexander survived the Russian Revolution, the fall of France, and New York's factory of fame. Their daughter, Francine, survived them.
"'My mother enjoyed claiming direct descent from Genghis Khan,' Gray explains as she opens this complex and rewarding family memoir. That claim gave her mother 'both the aristocratic pedigree and the freedom to be a barbarian.' Tatiana Yakovleva du Plessix Liberman was 19 and hungry in 1925 when she left the Soviet Union for France. Tatiana and Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky soon fell passionately in love, but the ever-practical woman married aristocratic Frenchman Bertrand du Plessix instead. They had one child, Francine, before du Plessix was killed in early WWII combat. Tatiana then became involved with Alexander Liberman, a British- and French-educated artistic Jewish-Russian migr. Alex, Tatiana and Francine fled to New York in 1941 and started a new life Tatiana designing hats for Bendel's before a career with Saks, Alex scaling the fashion journalism ladder at Cond Nast. New Yorker contributor Gray tells the story of this talented, self-absorbed couple from their roots to their graves. The final chapters with the death of Demerol-addicted Tatiana and Alex's remarriage to an adoring nurse are unbearably tragic, and the inside story of the Liberman mnage is more addictive than any Vanity Fair exclusive. Gray is such a fine writer, her family story reads like a novel of early 20th-century bohemianism gone corporate. Rich with history of early to mid-20th-century design and publishing, this memoir stands as an instructive model of how to write a difficult story honestly. Gray's parents were not nice people, but she loved them, and readers, by the end, understand why. Photos. Agents, Georges and Anne Borchardt. (May 5)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"[I]n these pages [Gray] uses all her writerly gifts her skills of observation, emotional recall and, yes, detachment to give the reader an intense and remarkably powerful portrait of her mother and stepfather, and to do so with love, judgmental candor and at least a measure of forgiveness." Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"Famous names and juicy stories, served up with literary elegance." Kirkus Reviews
"[An] unforgettable memoir of a peerless family [that] reads like a great epic novel." Booklist
"In a genre-bending book, part memoir, part biography, part elegy and part lyrical magic, Francine du Plessix Gray has composed memorable accounts of her famous parents, relatives, friends, husband and her 75-year-old self....[T]he book achieves the rare feat of offering something for everyone." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"[L]ike Star magazine for the literary set. Jampacked with juicy gossip, Francine du Plessix Gray's book about her oh-so-fabulous Russian émigré mother and stepfather is guilty pleasure without the guilt." Houston Chronicle
"A rich pastry of a book, stuffed with information on the immigrant experience, parent-child relations, social climbing, the fashion, retailing, and publishing industries, and the art world." Cleveland Plain Dealer
Astonishing... [Gray] uses all her writerly gifts... to give the reader an intense and remarkably powerful portrait. (Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times) Exquisite... Gray has written that rare memoir never sunk by indulgence. (The Philadelphia Inquirer) A spellbinding, warts-and-all double portrait... a sterling example of the personal memoir exalted to cultural history. (Los Angeles Times)
and#8212;Wall Street Journal and#160;"The sort of reading experience one might expect from a novel of foreign intrigue."
and#8212;SFand#160;Examiner and#160; "Morrison energetically and compellingly traces Linaand#8217;s life from her childhood in Europe through her young adulthood in New York to her tempestuous marriage to the famed composer Serge Prokofiev, her time in the gulag, and her final years in the U.S...Morrison's powerful portrait reveals a haunting story of one womanand#8217;s tragedy and one manand#8217;s flaws."
and#8212;Publishers Weekly "An authority on the life and works of Serge Prokofiev charts the sad biographical arc of his wife, Lina, who spent some devastating years in the Soviet gulag. Morrison, who had access to the family and significant archival collections, has produced a gripping story of a young womanand#8217;s rise into the highest social and musical circles, her marriage to Prokofiev (whose principal affection was for his music, not his family), and their globe-trotting tours and swelling celebrity...Research, compassion and outrage combine in a story both riveting and wrenching."
and#8212;Kirkus Reviews (starred)
"Simon Morrison has written a brilliant and riveting tale of love, intrigue, terror, and betrayal that forces us to confront the paradox of how great art can be made by unspeakably cruel and heartless individuals."
and#8212;Leon Botstein, music director and conductor, American Symphony Orchestra, and president of Bard College
"I knew my mother-in-law in the last fifteen years of her life and understood her as a person whose relationship with Prokofiev was the driving force of her life. She was someone who was unwilling to revisit the painful aspects of her past and yet longed for her story to be heard. This well-written and impeccably researched book is an authoritative and sensitive account of an extraordinary relationship."
"In the hagiographic hall of fame that is the Russian artist's wife and#8212; Sophia Tolstoy, Anna Dostoevsky, Nadezhda Mandelstam, all muses who stood watch while their men created things of genius, and then who jealously guarded the legacy and#8212; Lina Prokofiev is odd woman out. Her story almost cannot be believed, until Simon Morrison gained access to the documents (and the trust of the family) in order to tell it. Biography does not get more important than this."
and#8212;Caryl Emerson,and#160;author of Mikhail Bakhtin and The Life of Musorgsky
"An engrossing tale, beautifully told on the basis of new material that illuminates Prokofiev's life as well as Lina's. An attractive young cosmopolitan singer lands her man, the famous composer, and ends up with him in Moscow and#8212; and then alone in the gulag. Simon Morrison has given us her story, including the parts that were too painful for her to remember."
and#8212;Sheila Fitzpatrick, professor emerita of Soviet history, University of Chicago "In "Lina and Sergeand#8217;and#8217; Princeton musicologist Simon Morrison, best known for his biography, "The Peopleand#8217;s Artist: Prokofievand#8217;s Soviet Years,and#8217;and#8217; creates a fascinating portrait of the self-absorbed couple. Linaand#8217;s dramatic story, new to Western readers, reveals Prokofiev beyond his famously unsentimental exterior. Beginning with Linaand#8217;s arrest, which had "shaken" Prokofiev, Morrison maintains strong narrative tension, following the couple back to their cosmopolitan milieus before the ill-fated relocation." -- Boston Globe
At the height of their fame, Alexander Liberman and Tatiana du Plessix Gray were the grandest power couple in the New York City fashion world, gifted Russian émigrés who consorted with Dali and Dietrich and told American women how to look, where to travel, and what to read. As told by their daughter, the distinguished writer Francine du Plessix Gray, their saga combines romance, glamour, and pathos. Their adulation for success was as obsessive as their fierce, neurotic love for each other, and they treated everyone elseincluding Francinewith ruthless opportunism. Them is a work of Tolstoyan emotional power as well as a brilliant social history of its subjects age.
The dramatic, untold story of Lina and Serge Prokofiev, a doomed love story and a shattering portrait of an artist.
Serge Prokofiev was one of the twentieth centuryand#8217;s most brilliant composers yet is an enigma to historians and his fans. Why did he leave the West and move to the Soviet Union despite Stalinand#8217;s crimes? Why did his astonishing creativity in the 1930s soon dissolve into a far less inspiring output in his later years? The answers can finally be revealed, thanks to Simon Morrisonand#8217;s unique and unfettered access to the familyand#8217;s voluminous papers and his ability to reconstruct the tragic, riveting life of the composerand#8217;s wife, Lina.
Morrisonand#8217;s portrait of the marriage of Lina and Serge Prokofiev is the story of a remarkable woman who fought for survival in the face of unbearable betrayal and despair and of the irresistibly talented but heartlessly self-absorbed musician she married. Born to a Spanish father and Russian mother in Madrid at the end of the nineteenth century and raised in Brooklyn, Lina fell in love with a rising-star composerand#8212;and defied convention to be with him, courting public censure. She devoted her life to Serge and to art, training to be an operatic soprano and following her brilliant husband to Stalinand#8217;s Russia. Just as Serge found initial acclaimand#8212;before becoming constricted by the harsh doctrine of socialist-realist musicand#8212;Lina was at first accepted and later scorned, ending her singing career. Serge abandoned her and took up with another woman. Finally, Lina was arrested and shipped off to the gulag in 1948. She would be held in captivity for eight awful years. Meanwhile, Serge found himself the tool of an evil regime to which he was forced to accommodate himself.
The contrast between Lina and Serge is one of strength and perseverance versus utter self-absorption, a remarkable human drama that draws on the forces of art, sacrifice, and the struggle against oppression. Readers will never forget the tragic drama of Linaand#8217;s life, and never listen to Sergeand#8217;s music in quite the same way again.
About the Author
Francine du Plessix Gray is a regular contributor to the New Yorker and the author of numerous books of fiction and nonfiction, including Simone Weil, At Home with the Marquis de Sade, and Lovers and Tyrants.