Extraordinary Lives: Francine du Plessix Gray

“Predictability in writing is like saltpeter in sex,” said Francine du Plessix Gray, in a lively exchange with Graduate Center President Bill Kelly at the October 10 program of his Extraordinary Lives series. These hourlong conversations celebrate “thinkers, artists, and visionaries who have indelibly impacted the fields in which they work.” On this occasion, Kelly artfully guided the slender, well-spoken woman of letters through musings about her upbringing, her life as a writer, and the art and craft of writing.

“I know of no contemporary writer who has written so many beautiful sentences,” said Kelly in his introduction. Her “dazzling essays” have appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, Vogue, and Vanity Fair. She has produced “compelling novels,” including October Blood, Lovers and Tyrants, and most recently The Queen’s Lover; “remarkable biographies” on such subjects as Madame de Staël, the Marquis de Sade, Simone Weil, and Flaubert’s muse Louise Colet; and her “magnificent memoir” Them, which won the 2006 National Book Critics Circle award.

Gray spoke of how the “very magisterial” and “dictatorial” Charles Olsen changed her life at Black Mountain College’s summer session in 1951. He inspired her writing career, encouraging her to keep a journal, which she does to this day, although “in one’s advancing age one leads a less tumultuous life,” she said drolly.

A heritage of European culture was her birthright, the ballet, opera, and painting that were the world of her parents, Vicomte Bertrand Jochaud du Plessix, a French diplomat in Warsaw, Poland, at her birth in 1930, and Tatiana, a sophisticated White Russian émigré and a muse to poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Then, from age ten, after the death of her father in World War II, hers was a privileged if immigrant life among the cultural elite of New York, where her stepfather Alexander Liberman was editorial director of Condé Nast.

But a history of hardship and adversity was also part of her heritage, and she told how her mother, reduced to poverty in Russia during the 1917 revolution and the 1920–21 famine, “stood on street corners and recited poetry to Soviet soldiers in exchange for pieces of bread.” In her own case, Gray explained that, despite the governess, Latin tutor, debutante ball, and upper-class salons, she considered herself to have endured an upbringing of “privileged neglect,” which forced her to become both creative and self-reliant.

Kelly remarked on her fascination with themes of displacement and exile, of “one world coming into another,” such as the disintegration of Rome at the time of St. Augustine, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the post–World War II period, and the 1960s cultural revolution. Gray agreed, noting her particular enthrallment with the eighteenth century as a transformative time, which saw the birth of modernism and democracy.

Other topics Kelly probed in their wide-ranging exchange included the diverse styles of reporting for radio and fashion magazines and finding a different voice for fiction and nonfiction. When asked how she could write about cruelty and describe dreadful things with dispassion, such as the actions of Klaus Barbie, the “Butcher of Lyon,” Gray commented: “Detachment is essential as a critical faculty in writing. It’s no fun to read somebody who’s having a tantrum, unless you’re reading William Burroughs.”

This self-described transnational writer credited her attraction to female subjects to a feeling of sisterhood and intense friendship with women, something she began to discover in her twenties. “Mothers are often the love of one’s life, even if you think you hate them. My mother was the love of my life, even though I cherish my father and my husband.”

Gray, an octogenarian, still finds plenty of surprise in her life, in good books, performances, or reading papers written by her grandchildren. And the greatest surprise is still ahead, she said, “I have no idea how long I’m going to live. Three years? Thirteen or fourteen? That’s the biggest surprise of all, to look forward peacefully to the fact that you will never know until it comes.” Thus, she demonstrated the resilience, strength, and candor that have held her in such good stead throughout her life and career.

The entire conversation may be viewed via FOR A.tr at: http://blip.tv/foratv-culture/francine-du-plessix-gray-on-revising-historical-figures-6421390.

—Jane House

Submitted on: NOV 15, 2012

Category: President's Office - Community Meeting