Francine du Plessix Gray and Corporate Influence Over Museums

Wednesday, May 11, 2005


Francine du Plessix Gray

May 10, 2005
Golden Couple’s Daughter Recalls Life Without Glitter


A Memoir of Parents
By Francine du Plessix Gray
529 pages. Illustrated. Penguin Press. $29.95.

Oscar Wilde famously wrote: "children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them."

In an arresting new memoir, "Them," Francine du Plessix Gray somehow manages to juggle all three sentiments at once. Her book paints a vivid, often harrowing portrait of her formidable mother and her equally formidable stepfather, and the remarkable trajectory of their lives, which took them from Revolutionary Russia to Vichy France to post-World War II New York.

She unflinchingly recounts both the hardships they sustained in war-torn Europe and the selfishness they displayed in their relentless pursuit of social success in Manhattan. She chronicles their generosity and fickleness, their charm and perfidy and often appalling narcissism. And she charts the emotional costs that their glittering, seigniorial existence exacted from them – and from their relatives and friends.

She was Tatiana du Plessix, the former muse of the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky – an imperious, larger-than-life woman who liked to claim direct descent from Genghis Khan and whose presence, her daughter writes, "had the psychic impact of a can of Mace." She would come to preside over a soignée hat empire at Saks Fifth Avenue and become one of the smart set’s most imperious arbiters.

He was Alexander Liberman, another émigré – the son of Russia’s leading authority on lumber and his brazen, libertine wife. After his father appealed to Lenin for permission to leave the country, Alexander used his impressive array of talents, his mastery of three languages and his not inconsiderable charm to quickly make a name for himself in Paris, becoming the assistant art editor of France’s most illustrious magazine at 19. His steady ascent would continue in New York, where he eventually became editorial director of the Condé Nast publishing empire.

What is so astonishing about Ms. Gray’s memoir is its completely stereoscopic vision: her ability to wield the cool detachment of a biographer (using skills she honed in earlier books about Simone Weil and the Marquis de Sade) while simultaneously drawing upon a daughter’s heated reservoirs of memory and emotion.

As a reporter, she painstakingly reconstructs the vanished worlds that her mother and stepfather traversed, and she talks with former associates who recall the couple’s cruel capacity to exploit – and later dump – friends who could be socially useful.

At the same time, Ms. Gray is able to write about Alex’s "resourcefulness and prodigality," the sense she had as a young girl in occupied France that he would take care of her and her mother. She writes about her mother’s bravery and cunning in helping the family elude the Nazis and eventually escape to the United States. She describes the "wordless reverence" she felt in looking at her mother sitting at her vanity table as she applied her makeup. And she captures the care that Alex could take in going over her schoolwork, quizzing her about literature and history.

But the young Francine’s yearning for attention from her mother and stepfather would be betrayed again and again. Once in America, Alex and Tatiana became so wrapped up in each other and their mutual ambitions that they frequently sent Francine off to live with relatives or friends, leaving her to wonder why she had been exiled from their lives. They were out on the town five nights out of six; "it is absolutely essential to our careers, darling," her mother breathily explained. Even Christmas turned into "yet one more occasion to heighten their status in society" with big, glitzy parties that included the likes of Salvador Dalí, Janet Gaynor, Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne, Christian Dior, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. No one seemed to notice that Francine rarely ate breakfast and barely touched the dinners left each night by the housekeeper – until anemia and malnutrition were diagnosed when she was 11.

There is lots of raw, emotional pain in this volume, but it is filtered through a prism of wistful reminiscence and a longing on Ms. Gray’s part to comprehend her parents – to understand how the very qualities that enabled her mother and stepfather to survive the upheavals of the Russian Revolution and invent a new life for themselves in America were also qualities that made them selfish, willful, hard-hearted and steely in their ambitions. She is clear-sighted about the byzantine emotional arithmetic of her family and the psychological fallout of her parents’ penchant for emotional circumlocution.

Although Alex doted on Tatiana, catering to her every whim (including her demand in later years for growing amounts of painkillers), the couple’s happiness was based, according to Alex, on the fact that "they never shared serious talk." In fact Ms. Gray reports that Alex once asked a close family friend to act as an intermediary with Tatiana and ask if she would be willing to have another child.

The same shocking lack of emotional connection also informed Francine’s relationship with her mother, who had two family friends tell her that her father, Bertrand du Plessix, had been killed in action during the war – more than a year after his death. She later told Francine that she did not know how to deliver the news herself.

"The terrifying thing is that from then on Mother was seldom able to recapture my trust," Ms. Gray writes. "And we spent the rest of our lives – she lived on for another half century – not ever having any kind of a true emotional encounter again. We would continue to skirt each other, rather, like two wary lionesses, occasionally pawing or nuzzling each other in token of affection but rigorously avoiding any confrontation that would even begin to approach in intensity the one we had shared that summer day in Long Island."

How does one survive such childhood traumas? How does one come to terms with such distant, self-absorbed and frankly negligent parents? In Ms. Gray’s case, she says she turned to a succession of surrogate parent-figures, who provided her with the warmth and support so often lacking at home. She alternated between trying to emulate her mother and stepfather, and trying to rebel against them. And she learned early on to cover over her real feelings "with a mask of silence."

"My twinkling surface gaiety made my inner chasm all the more secret, all the more my own, like a cave that only I could enter," she writes. "So I smiled, curtsied, danced, made charming dinner conversation, twinkle, twinkle, little star, praises whirled and sparkled like a rainbow about me, my mother glowed with pride. Meanwhile, there lay inside me a private chamber in which I’d carefully buried my fears, a chamber that no one else could enter."

No doubt that detachment cultivated in childhood would eventually help Ms. Gray become a writer, and in these pages she 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.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company Home Privacy Policy Search Corrections RSS Help Contact Us Back to Top


Illustration by Andy Chen/The New York Times; Zack Seckler/Associated Press

May 11, 2005

Art, Money and Power

We had "Sensation" at the Brooklyn Museum, a gift to Charles Saatchi, whose collection it advertised, and shows at the Whitney of artists (Robert Rauschenberg and Agnes Martin come to mind) virtually packaged by the gallery that represents them. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has been renting its Monets to a casino in Las Vegas, while the Guggenheim, which gave us the atrocious "Armani," an even more egregious paid advertisement, is spending resources shopping itself around the globe while canceling shows here at home.

Every year, in one way or another, museums test the public’s faith in their integrity. When P.S. 1 unveiled "Greater New York" some weeks back, the exhibition turned out to be a shallow affair in thrall to the booming art market. No one really should have expected otherwise from an event timed to coincide with the city’s big contemporary-art fair. Meanwhile, P.S. 1’s institutional parent, the Museum of Modern Art, the spanking new headquarters of Modernism Inc., inaugurated its exhibition program with an appalling paean to a corporate sponsor’s blue-chip collection. This gave the financial services company, UBS, an excuse to plaster the city with advertisements that made MoMA seem like its tool and minor subsidiary. You can only imagine how that went over with another of the Modern’s sponsors, J. P. Morgan, UBS’s rival.

Now comes the Met with its current Chanel-sponsored Chanel show, a fawning trifle that resembles a fancy showroom. Sparsely outfitted with white cube display boxes and a bare minimum of meaningful text, this absurdly uncritical exhibition puts Coco’s designs alongside work by the current monarch of the House of Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld.

A few years ago, a Chanel show was put off by the Met’s director, Philippe de Montebello, because Mr. Lagerfeld wanted to interfere. It makes no difference whether he had a direct hand in it this time or, as the museum keeps insisting, was kept at arm’s length from the curatorial process: the impression is the same, and impressions count when it comes to the reputation of a museum.

Museums deal in two kinds of currency, after all: the quality of their collections and public trust. Squander one, and the other suffers. People visit MoMA or the Met to see great art; they will even consider art that they don’t know or don’t like as great because the museum says so. But this delicate cultural ecosystem depends on the public’s perception that museums make independent judgments – that they’re not just shilling for trustees or politicians or sponsors.

Naturally, the public wonders whose pockets are greased by what a museum shows, because there’s so much money involved in art. But this question can be subordinated if the museum proves that it’s acting in the public’s interest, and not someone else’s. In turn, museums can call on the public. The New York Public Library is auctioning some American art, including a couple of Gilbert Stuarts and an Asher B. Durand that has been a civic landmark for many decades. Some New York museum ought to end up with the picture but will have to rally public enthusiasm swiftly – it will have to bank on public trust.

Of course, this is the real world. Museums need trustees to cover the bills. They depend on galleries and collectors and sponsors and artists for help. Last year, the Modigliani retrospective at the Jewish Museum had a ridiculous painting that turned out to belong to a trustee who insisted it be included. No exhibition of a living artist avoids some negotiation (read: compromise) with the artist or the artist’s dealer. The artist or the dealer may demand that this picture, not that one, be shown; that new work be stressed; that a certain collector’s holdings be favored; or that the show’s catalog be written in a certain way. It’s the cost of doing business.

But there are degrees of compromise. Some years back, the National Gallery in Washington presented a show of the collection put together by a Swiss industrialist, Emil Bührle, with a catalog overseen by his heirs that celebrated his "inner flame" for art but made no mention of the fact that his fortune came partly from dealing arms to the Nazis, or that his son, who owned many of the works, was convicted of illegal arms sales. Only the most scrupulous reader of the fine print would have noticed that a Renoir once belonged to Hermann Göring.

The show was about Bührle, so the public could expect to learn who he was. The Chanel show avoids mentioning her activities during the war, when she maintained a life in Paris as the lover of an SS officer and, according to her biographer, Janet Wallach, tried to exploit Nazi laws to wrest control of her perfume business from her Jewish partners. No doubt, the Bührle show would never have happened if the National Gallery had emphasized how Bührle sold arms to the Nazis, and I suspect Chanel would not have been very happy about sponsoring this show if the Met had been more forthcoming about its founder’s wartime history.

Is such information irrelevant to what’s on view? It depends.

The public should decide. The Caravaggio exhibition at the National Gallery in London makes clear that he was a murderer. His violent personality explains something about his later work. It would have been irresponsible for the exhibition not to mention it.

Trust us, museums say: the rules need to bend, and we know how much bending is enough and how much is too much. In a curious way, commercial galleries are in a better position. We see where they’re coming from. Frank Lloyd Wright had a saying. At an early age he made a choice between "honest arrogance and hypocritical humility." He picked arrogance. Galleries are honest about wanting to sell you something. Museums often traffic in moral hypocrisy – and are then exploited for their presumptive lofty independence. Chanel couldn’t have bought better publicity.

As for the Met, it says something that it would allow itself to play this role, just as it says something about the Modern that its first big exhibition seemed like a corporate payoff.

At least MoMA gets something. The museum will get art from UBS. Mr. Saatchi made millions recently selling Damien Hirst’s shark, whose value was enhanced by the notoriety of "Sensation." All Brooklyn got was grief.

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