Excerpt: 'Them: A Memoir of Parents' Author Francine du Plessix Gray traces the remarkable trajectory of her mother and stepfather's lives, from Russia to New York City.
NPR logo Excerpt: 'Them: A Memoir of Parents'

Excerpt: 'Them: A Memoir of Parents'

Cover image for Them: A Memoir of Parents hide caption

toggle caption

Political writer Alan Greenblatt on Them, by author Francine du Plessix Gray: It traces the remarkable trajectory of her mother and stepfather's lives. Born in Russia, they fled to France after the Soviet revolution, only to move west again with the advent of World War II. In New York, they created successful third lives, rising to the top of the fashion world, but becoming emotionally icy parents to the writer.

More Recommendations

Get more nonfiction suggestions from writer Alan Greenblatt.

Excerpt from Chapter 1:

My mother enjoyed claiming direct descent from Genghis Khan. Having asserted that one eighth of her blood was Tartar 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 voilà!, our ancestry was established.

You couldn’t have argued the point with her, for in her quest for dramatic effect Tatiana du Plessix Liberman would have set all of human history on its head. Besides, you mightn’t have dared to risk a showdown: in her prime, she was five feet nine and a half inches tall and 140 pounds in weight, and the majesty of her presence, the very nearsighted, chestnut-hued, indeed Asiatic eyes that fixed you with a brutally critical gaze through blue-tinted bifocals, had the psychic impact of a can of Mace. And you may not even have wanted to call my mother’s bluff, for a kinship to the great Khan was so symbolically fitting: perennially adorned with large, blazing costume jewelry that recalled instruments of torture or insignias of archaic cults, she strode into a room, shawls spectacularly draped about her shoulders, like a tribal war goddess and moved through life with a speed and fierceness that recalled the howling wind of the steppes. Tatiana was one of the most dazzling self-inventions of her time, a force of nature all right, and those of us who loved her may well remain under her spell until the day we die.

By profession, my mother was a designer of hats—her working name was "Tatiana of Saks"—and according to many authorities she was the finest hat designer of the mid-century. For twenty-three years, she had her own custom-design salon at Saks Fifth Avenue, where over the decades she advised thousands of women how to lure their men, keep their husbands, and enchant their luncheon companions through the proper tilt of a beret or the sly positioning of a black dotted veil. She was hailed by The New York Times as "the milliner’s milliner," lauded for typifying "the feminine elegance that makes her exclusive creations the crowning glories for discriminating women." She was perhaps best known for her ethereal spring hats—casques of pastel-shaded veiling, leafy pillows of tulle speckled with violets, turbans of frothy gauze swirled beehive-style in shades of lilac, dynamite pinks, and grassy greens, bretons of rose-printed silk surah displaying bundles of silk roses underneath their rolled brims. She never did any preliminary sketching or drawing of her hats but created them by sitting in front of a large mirror, sculpting and draping felt, velours, organza, or satin onto her head, using her own reflected image, eight hours a day, two hundred and fifty days a year. Mirrors were the central metaphor of her life, and I can think of few women whose innate narcissism has been more perfectly fulfilled.

Beyond being a renowned milliner, Tatiana was also one of a small handful of professional women who were looked on as New York City’s most commanding fashion presences—others were editor Diana Vreeland, designer Valentina, and Hattie Carnegie’s chief stylist, Pauline Potter, later Pauline de Rothschild. Yet Tatiana was by far the least orthodox trendsetter of those three, and no canon of fashion did she transgress more violently than Diana Vreeland’s decree "Elegance is Refusal." One might say that Tatiana perfected the art of too-muchness: the great hunks of fake jewelry she flung on herself included eight-inch-wide imitations of pre-Columbian breastplates, four-inch stretches of rhinestone bracelets, candelabras of paste earrings, and—her most famous logo—a massive dome ring of quasi-rubies resembling the top of a bishop’s crozier.

If the tape l’oeil of Tatiana’s style still managed to be renowned as one of New York’s most "elegant," it is because elegance is above all a matter of consistency; and her gestures, her speech, her entire manner and presence were absolutely in line with the maximalism of her getup. She was brazen, brusque, intolerant, blatantly elitist, atrociously impatient, prodigally generous, and as categorical in her tastes as a Soviet commissar. She did not converse but proclaimed, and many of her decrees had to do with debunking and deriding conventional symbols of affluence: "Meeeenk is for football," she said. "Diamonds are for suburbs." No arbiter of taste I know of has so militantly proclaimed the gaucheness of displayed wealth, the supremacy of comfort and clean line. She took such pride in the thirty-five-dollar set of Macy’s garden furniture with which she equipped our first tiny rooms on Central Park South that it accompanied her wherever she lived for almost fifty years. Upon her death, I had to evaluate the very modest personal holdings she left me, and I discovered that the famous ring of "rubies" with which she had stunned New York for a half century was made exclusively of mediocre garnets and was estimated to be worth some twelve hundred dollars.

The world had to come to Tatiana; she made very few steps toward it, particularly toward the United States. Despite her immense literary culture, in half a century she never bothered to learn more than fragmented English, and at the time of her death in 1991, she was still getting her world news from French periodicals and New York’s Russian-language newspaper, Novoye Russkoye Slovo. She detested traveling in any part of the Americas and had a 1920-vintage cartoon-strip view of our Midwest: "Butcher!" she shouted at a dentist she disliked after an emergency tooth extraction, "Go back to Cheeecago!" The faux pas she made in the English language were epic: she once went to FAO Schwarz, flanked by my eight- and ten-year-old sons, and announced to the salesman, "I want to buy kike." "Kite, Grandma, kite," the children pleaded.

"I want kike!" she insisted. Her declarations about whatever she currently thought was The Best—be it in couture, resorts, food, medical doctors, literature—were as flamboyant as her savage jewelry. She had a Nietzschean faith in success (“One does not argue with winners") and fervently believed in snobbism ("Snobs are always right"). Hers was an old-fashioned brand of elitism, in part corny and in part humanistic, indifferent to money and dually geared, like that of many Russians, to pedigree and to public achievement.

An element of Mother’s dictatorial largesse was that she wanted to share (some would say impose) every one of her enthusiasms on her friends and loved ones. Her need to control and direct the lives of others extended to the most menial details. Arriving at a beach on the first day of vacation—she was a sun worshipper and a crack swimmer, beaches were her paradise—she would walk very fast ahead of us, her slender arms clanging with tribal gold, and patrol it at length: she critically examined the quality of the sand, the clarity of the water, the status of the population. And then, having found what she judged to be the finest spot on that stretch of seashore, she would holler to her group: "Venez ici tout de suite, c’est le seul endroit!" "Come here at once! This is the only spot!" And we would all troop along. For we knew that on issues of bodily comfort and of most anything that had to do with the wisdom of life’s pleasures she was usually right, and we feared that if we did not follow her orders the arrival of a busload of noisy Swedish nudists would subject us to her derisive "I told you so.” It is through this dictatorial spirit that Tatiana characterized not only the art of savoir vivre but also the essence of the fashionable mind, which inevitably issues its decrees in the imperative tense—"A must for the fall," "The best look of the season"—and has to do with spreading, as swiftly as possible, the infection of style.

Yet beneath Tatiana’s despotic manner, beneath her exhibitionism and flamboyance, there hid a shy, deeply private, very self-demeaning child woman whose complexities were forged in the terror of the Russian Revolution.

I have photographs that show my mother in 1912 Russia, age six, an assertive tot with long blond curls dressed in a lavish Paquin frock and seated, Récamier-like, on an ornate velvet couch, already a commanding, shrewdly controlling presence, already fully aware of the effect she is having on her little public. ("Now you know why there was revolution," she often quipped about the photo, pointing at the elaborate Parisian dress.) Born in St. Petersburg, Tatiana Yakovleva came from a family of intelligentsia—architects, lawyers, government officials, and also a great many performing artists—who were suffused with that craving for French culture and luxuries, and also with an adulation of pedigree, from which few upper-class Russians were exempt. She always claimed, for instance, that her maternal grandfather, Nikolai Sergeevich Aistov, one of our most colorful forebears, was “a prominent government official of noble descent.” The truth is far more interesting than her elitism would allow. Nikolai Sergeevich, whose father made his living as a singer, was in fact a distinguished dancer and a very successful ballet entrepreneur; one of our best-documented progenitors, he characterizes many of our family traits, most particularly in his affinity for striking poses.

Nikolai Sergeevich Aistov, born in 1853, graduated from the St. Petersburg Theatrical School, where he earned grades of “excellent” for behavior; "good" for math, religion, fencing, history, acting, and singing; and merely "satisfactory" for ballet and ballroom dancing. This did not hinder him, however, from being accepted as a member of the Marinsky Imperial Ballet, where he remained a member of the corps de ballet for over a decade, being ultimately promoted, at the age of forty-two, to the coveted rank of premier danseur. I have a cherished photograph of him, a tall, stately man with features of classical beauty, in full stage regalia. He is, I believe, in the role of the pharaoh in Pharaoh’s Daughter, one of those early extravaganzas of Marius Petipa, set at the Pyramids, which featured exotic Egyptian dancers, scheming British archaeologists, drug-induced dream states, and awakening mummies.

Perhaps because of his height, Nikolai Sergeevich seemed to have limited potential as an exclusively classical dancer and was better known as a mime-actor and a general ballet régisseur than as an agile executor of entrechats and tours fouéttés. Apart from the title role in Pharaoh’s Daughter and Claude Frollo, his principal stage personae were those of the Grand Duke in Giselle and other characterizations in which he had little to do but swagger imperiously about the stage in ornate regalia, striking a variety of commandeering poses and miming orders to his assembled peons ("Unleash the slaves!" or "Let our warring parties come to peace!"). In sum, Nikolai Sergeevich strikes me as a performer who mostly got by in his chosen vocation—as did a few other members of my family—through his charm and staggering good looks, his imposing presence, and his shrewd capacity for just plain hustling. He may well have been a protégé of Marius Petipa, the French choreographer who for decades was the chief ballet master of the Marinsky, where Nikolai Sergeevich served for a few years as principal director. For they retired from the Marinsky in the same year, 1903, when a new administration took over.

It was on her father’s side of the family that Tatiana claimed descendance from Genghis Khan, and this contention, too, might have been based on a minuscule ground of fact. Her paternal grandmother, Sofia Petrovna Iacovleff, née Kuzmin, the cherished babushka who was the great love of my first eight years, was born in the province of Samara, just northeast of the Caspian Sea and due west of Kazakhstan. Having belonged until the sixteenth century to the Genghisid Dynasty, it is an area, which still bears such strongly Oriental, un-Russian names as Sagiz, Makat, Chelkar—names that display a powerful influence of the Tartar culture. "Very noble family," "direct descendants of Genghis Khan": That was my mother all over—to desire both the aristocratic pedigree and the freedom to be a barbarian. So, yes, there is a chance in a million that we were descended from the Khan, and my great-grandmother’s brother, Piotr Kuzmin, did serve for a few brief years as Marshall of the Nobility in the nearby province of Riazan.

My great-grandmother—Babushka—who seems to have been a powerhouse of a girl, showed great promise in her studies and was given far more latitude in her choice of vocation than most nineteenth-century young women in the eastern Russian provinces. Having displayed a particular aptitude in mathematics, she attended university at St. Petersburg. Family legend has it that she was the first woman in Russia ever to receive a Ph.D. in math and that as she came down from the podium at her graduation ceremony, degree in hand, angry male academics protesting her intrusion into their ranks pelted her with tomatoes. Reserving her mathematical talent for domestic purposes, Sofia Petrovna soon married an architect and engineer named Evgeny Alexeevitch Iacovleff and bore him the following children:

My grandfather, Alexis, who followed in his father’s footsteps, also becoming an architect-engineer, and a prizewinning designer of state theaters;

My great-aunt Alexandra (Aunt Sandra), a gifted contralto who made her operatic debut in 1916 singing the role of the Countess in Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades and whose nurturing affection, like Babushka’s, was one of the treasures of my early childhood;

My great-uncle Alexandre (Uncle Sasha), a legendary explorer who after the revolution became one of the two or three most eminent artists to emerge in Paris’s Russian émigré community and who played a central role in my mother’s life;

My great-aunt Vera, the second born, was the only one of the siblings who never accomplished anything of note, having married, at the age of twenty-two, a German fertilizer tycoon whom she had met while vacationing with her parents in the French Alps in 1906.

The four Iacovleff children were all born and brought up in their parents’ spacious apartment on Gagarinskaya Embankment, off Nevsky Prospect. And it is precisely there, in her beloved grandmother’s living room, that my mother’s earliest memory is set. She is about five, and she is—guess what—posing for her portrait. Uncle Sasha is the artist, and she is wearing a flouncy white lace dress of Paquin design. He is telling her to sit still, and she remembers hearing those words while seeing the Neva glimmering through her grandmother’s windows.

In her next recollected memory, Mother and her younger sister, Ludmila or "Lila," are in Vologda, 170 kilometers or so east of St. Petersburg, where their father has been sent to supervise the construction of a government theater. She remembers a particular place in her parents’ majestic house, a long hall with waxed floors on which she liked to fall down and slide. She also recalls streets covered with snowdrifts, pigeons on the snow, the family driving in their own carriage, the freezing temperatures, the winter coat with matching chinchilla-trimmed muff she was bundled into when taken outside—all the Iacovleff girls’ clothes, like their mother’s, were sent for from Paris. Tatiana described her mother, Lyubov Nikolaevna, as coquettish, elegant, prodigiously talented in languages and music and particularly in dancing, a gift she’d inherited from her father, Nikolai Sergeevich Aistov. She also recalled her mother, more warily, as being very flirtatious and charming with her admirers but aloof with her own family, and this maternal coolness may well have affected, eventually, Tatiana’s relations with me.

Then in 1913, when Mother was seven years old, her father won an architectural competition, and the family—attended, as ever, by a German governess, a maid, a cook, a coachman—made a big move to the town of Penza, some three hundred kilometers southeast of Moscow, where my grandfather was assigned to build another theater. My grandfather seemed to have loved the most up-to-date technology. He was the first person in Penza to own an automobile, and in 1914 he even bought his own airplane, which he named Mademoiselle. "He had a pilot’s license and flew over meadows, frightening cows," my mother recollected seven decades later. Peasants protested to the local authorities that my grandfather’s flights so terrified the cows that they didn’t produce any milk. But the governor of the province, who was smitten with my grandmother, settled the incident, and my grandfather continued his flights. "One of these days the Master is going to fall," peasants would say when they saw him flying.

Life soon grew difficult for Tatiana and her sister. In 1915—they were then nine and seven years old—their parents were divorced. Their father left for America, allegedly because he had invented a new brand of rubber for automobile tires that failed to obtain a patent in Russia but that he was promised in the United States. Soon thereafter, my grandmother married, en deuxième noces, a prosperous pharmaceutical entrepreneur, Vassily Kirillovich Bartmer, who lost all his money at the onset of the 1917 revolution. The family was left destitute, and their survival grew all the more precarious in 1921, when the famine affected southeastern Russia with particular savagery and Bartmer died of tuberculosis and malnutrition. Lyubov Nikolaevna tried to eke out a tiny income by opening a dancing school. The family apartment was requisitioned. The three women lived in one room, burning precious books for fuel. My mother remembered spending those days doing the rounds of open-air markets and thrift shops to sell whatever furniture and linens remained to them. Notwithstanding her extremely limited formal education—due to the revolution she had little schooling after the age of twelve—she had developed a very special gift that helped her to survive: she had a phenomenal talent for memorizing poetry, a skill much exalted in Russia, the honored status of which the revolution never altered. By the age of fourteen, she could recite literally hundreds of lines of Pushkin, Lermontov, Blok, and Mayakovsky, by heart. And upon the great famine of 1921, she helped her mother and sister survive by standing on street corners to recite poetry for groups of Red Army soldiers, receiving precious hunks of bread from them in return.

The famine took its toll. In 1922, Tatiana contracted tuberculosis, probably caught from her stepfather. Her mother was soon remarried ("She wasn’t one to stay unmarried very long," Tatiana commented acerbically) to a kind lawyer named Nikolai Alexandrovich Orlov, whom her daughters seemed to be very fond of and referred to in their letters as père. But Tatiana’s TB grew worse, and those of her relatives who had already settled in France—her uncle Alexandre, her Aunt Sandra, and Babushka—soon began the negotiations needed to obtain her a visa for France. Uncle Sasha finally obtained the proper papers with the help of the powerful industrialist André Citroën, and Lyubov Nikolaevna accompanied her daughter to Moscow to see her off on the train to Paris. I’ve often tried to imagine the two women’s states of mind upon this departure: brought up since the age of nine by an aloof, narcissistic single mother who twice in recent years had been on the prowl for a new husband, Tatiana does not seem to have been offered much maternal affection. I once asked her what she thought her mother’s feelings might have been when she stood at the train station in 1925, sending her daughter on to a new life in France: was it sorrow, I asked? Sorrow mingled with relief at knowing her child would be safe? Shrugging her shoulders, my mother looked at me coolly. "Nothing as complex as that," she said. "Just one less mouth to feed."

So that is how Tatiana came to arrive in Paris, at the age of nineteen, "a gorgeous, unwashed savage," as one of her kin described her when she stepped off the train, voicing her craving for the best clothes, the most brilliant parties and literary salons, and—a particular fixation that marks Russians to this day—a title of nobility. "All the communist garbage and en plus she already wanted to be a countess," my great-aunt Sandra would comment when recalling her niece’s arrival.

After the frugality of postrevolutionary Soviet Russia, after her years of hunger and deprivation and of living in tiny communal rooms, even her grandmother’s modest three-bedroom apartment in Montmartre struck Tatiana as the dernier cri of luxury and comfort. “Babushka is so kind and tender, and fusses over me a great deal,” she wrote to her mother in her first ecstatic letter home.

She brings me cocoa in bed, and doesn’t let me get up until 11 o’clock....The apartment is wonderful. French doors open onto the balcony. There are silk hangings in all the rooms—orange in my room, coffee-colored in the guest room, and golden, in aunt Sandra’s; there are marble fireplaces, and windows to the ceiling; the bathroom has hot water, and there’s a telephone. The kitchen has a gas stove, on which everything cooks in half an hour....They had underwear ready for me, as well as linen, silk, and batiste dresses, an overcoat, and a white silk hat....From my balcony I can see the Eiffel tower, which lights up at dusk. There are splendid fireworks, and advertisements spelling out whole phrases. I am very struck by Auntie. She’s really very beautiful, she clearly has a splendid voice, I’ve never heard another like it.

I’ve recently come to believe that those families that function most richly—those whose members draw most mutual inspiration from one another—are united by the memory of a radiantly benevolent forebear. Our family was blessed to have three such models: The relatives waiting for Tatiana in Paris were extraordinary human beings.

Babushka, the icon of our tribe! Her picture always stood within sight of my mother’s bed, as it still stands within sight of mine: firm, square jaw, crown of thick silver hair, eyes as determined as they were gentle. Throughout her life, she emanated an aura of goodness and serene optimism. The happiness of her marriage had been legendary in her St. Petersburg circles—whenever she went out to a dinner party with my great-grandfather, the couple dropped a note to the hostess ahead of time, asking to be seated next to each other. But beneath Babushka’s veneer of elegance and genteelness there was a seething energy, a will of iron. Widowed in her thirties—my great-grandfather died young of congestive heart failure, which for several generations has been a family curse—she had assumed the male role in a family of sybaritic men and single-handedly managed the family’s foundry business. Benevolence, keen intelligence and deep mysticism blended more harmoniously in her character than in that of any human being I have known. From the age of four on I spent at least one night per week at the flat she shared with her daughter, my great-aunt Sandra, delighting in the flutter of Babushka’s silks and mended laces, in the smells of verbena and rose water, dried apricots and steaming kasha, that imbued her rooms. I tyrannized her for hours into games of Durachki, “Little Idiots,” the simplistic diversion that is the first card game learned by any Russian child. Released from my governess’s tyrannical taboos, I ate kisel—the cranberry jelly that is a staple of the Russian diet—by the bowlful, tracing my initials on the gelatinous red surface with dribbles of thick, sweet condensed milk. I was also allowed to read my Jules Verne into the wee hours, relishing the fragrant triple benediction with which Babushka blessed me as she put me to sleep. Over the decades, the memory of her profound goodness and grace was perhaps the strongest bond that united me to my mother: whenever we had an argument, one of us would suddenly look up and exclaim, "What would Babushka say?" and the very recall of our revered mentor led us to fall into each other’s arms.

I knew Babushka’s daughter, my equally cherished great-aunt Sandra, even better; for whereas my great-grandmother died in 1939, when I was eight, Sandra lived well into the 1970s. At the time Tatiana arrived in Paris, Sandra, a large, handsome woman of angelic disposition then in her early forties, had already had a tragic life. Her first husband, the father of her only daughter, Masha, was killed in action in the first year of World War I. She remarried a few years later and lost that second husband, also an officer with the czarist troops, during the revolution, when a group of Communist sailors threw him off the fortress of Kronstadt into the sea, feet tied with heavy weights. Shortly thereafter, in 1920, when she sought exile in Constantinople with Babushka and Masha, the latter died of scarlet fever. Having just received their visas for Paris, Babushka and Sandra wound their way alone to Paris via Dessau, Germany, where Sandra’s sister, my great-aunt Vera, had settled a few decades before. Their visit there was corroborated for me recently by Vera’s daughter, now eighty-seven, who reported that one of her earliest childhood memories concerns Sandra’s deep mourning for her daughter, the hours-long, uncontrollable bouts of weeping that overtook her during her stay.

But stoicism runs strong in the family. Upon arriving in Paris in 1922, where she and Babushka initially depended on the financial support of her brother Sasha, Sandra was able to resurrect her singing career. She was eventually offered the role of Aïda, in which she made a very successful debut at the Paris Opera in 1925, a few months before Tatiana’s arrival. For the next decade, she appeared in recitals and operas throughout western Europe and South America. A very partial listing of the thirty-nine leading roles in her repertory: La Juive, Tosca, Otello, Carmen, Siegfried, Tannhäuser, The Damnation of Faust, Salambo, Cavalleria Rusticana, Ruslan and Ludmila, Eugene Onegin, Aïda, Les Huguenots, and Die Walküre, the last three of which she could sing in five different languages; and of course Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades, in which she had made her debut at the St. Petersburg Opera around 1916 in the role of the aging countess, a demanding contralto part that only a handful of singers in any one generation can handle. 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 Aïda 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.” Aunt Sandra standing in her finery by the banks of the frozen Neva, suddenly swathed like a prophet in a tall column of smoke. Magic.

The Sandra who greeted Mother in Paris in 1925 could not have been very different from the Aunt Sandra whom I cherished during my childhood in 1930s Paris. Her most striking feature was her radiant operatic smile, which she claimed to maintain through the use of a pink dentifrice called Toreador. Majestically tall, like most Iacovleffs, and statuesque, she had dazzlingly milky skin, kind and melancholy brown eyes, and jet-black hair pulled back in a simple bun. Her tastes in music were adorably kitschy. She deemed Rimsky-Korsakov to be the greatest composer who ever lived, and her favorite opera was his Tale of the Invisible City of Kitej. She was totally unaffected, generous to a fault, trusting to the point of extreme naïveté, and endlessly affectionate, rechanneling her vast maternal energies toward any emotionally needy person who came along. She was also, like her mother, deeply Puritanical and once exclaimed, when she was told that her brother Sasha was having an affair with the dancer Anna Pavlova, "It can’t be true! Who’s ever heard of anyone having an affair with a married woman?"

The third member of the closely bonded family that welcomed Tatiana to Paris in 1925 was the intrepid, dashing explorer and artist, Uncle Sasha.

From Them: A Memoir of Parents, by Francine du Plessix Gray. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) Francine du Plessix Gray, 2005.

Books Featured In This Story