By her own account, writing wasn’t easy for Francine du Plessix Gray, who died last Sunday at the age of eighty-eight. As she told Regina Weinreich in her 1987 Art of Fiction interview, “I’ve always had a terrifically painful ambivalence of love and terror towards the act of writing.” But this doesn’t come through in her fearless books, such as the novel Lovers and Tyrants, a semiautobiographical account of her childhood, and Them, an unsparing look at her tyrannical parents. She was born in 1930 at the French embassy in Warsaw, but after her father died in 1940, Gray and her mother emigrated to America. Gray arrived in the country knowing not a lick of English; fourteen months later, she won the school spelling bee. Gray thrived in tense situations—she studied under the poet Charles Olson, whom she described as a “terrifying guru,” and before coming to fiction, she worked as the only woman on the night shift at United Press International, where she was forced to file stories “in a matter of minutes—sometimes a matter of seconds, since we were always trying to beat AP to the radio wire.” She went on to become a New Yorker staff writer and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and she taught at Yale, Princeton, Columbia, and Brown. However, despite her success, when asked whether she’d like to be a writer in the next life, she replied: “Hell no. Have you ever met a writer who’d want the same karma a second time round? I doubt if one exists. We write out of revenge against reality, to dream and enter the lives of others. The next time round I’d like to be a great athlete with a political mission, like Billie Jean King or Arthur Ashe, or perhaps a lieder singer.” Here, we bring you two short memories from those who knew her:
When Francine lived in her house in Connecticut, she loved to entertain her friends. Her dinners were small, and dotted with members of the local intellectual community. I was lucky enough to be invited to several. Francine envisioned herself a great cook. She was not. One of her favorite dishes to make was sorrel soup. She grew the sorrel in her garden and was very proud of it. The soup was dark green, creamy and bitter. Her enthusiasm for it was such that we all ate it quietly and fast. She insisted on seconds. As with everything else in her life: if she loved it, you were to love it, too. In the last years of Francine’s life, she left her house in Warren to be near her sons and doctors. She moved to a small, rather dark apartment in New York City. She insisted on filling the new apartment with as much of her furniture as possible. Her friend Peter Vaughn, who helped her move, stuffed in as much as he could. On the walls, she placed beautiful photographs of herself in her younger days. She greeted you in that apartment the way a princess would greet you: as if in a palace. She made the best of everything, and she made the best of this too. I so admired that about her. Not too long ago, I invited Francine to the opera. I believe it was Aida. A few minutes after the opera began, she fell asleep. After each intermission, and at the end of the show, she proclaimed it to have been a great cast and a great production. I never told her she slept through the whole thing. When I had dinner at her apartment in New York, she never spoke of sorrel. She no longer cooked, and we ate takeout. She must have missed the sorrel, but she never complained. Her emotions were hers alone. I hope they serve sorrel soup in heaven.
—Gabriella De Ferrari is an art historian, curator, and writer who has worked with and led major arts institutions throughout the United States.
Last year I saw Francine only twice. Each visit is deeply ingrained in my memory, and in their contrast they provide, I believe, a poignant insight into her remarkable self. I had known for a long while that Francine’s health had been steadily declining. I missed her, but although we kept exchanging Christmas greetings and occasional news, I felt reluctant to impose on her. I was well aware of how important it must have been for her to devote as much time as she could to her writing.
The translation of Francine’s best-selling memoir about her parents, Them, was published in Russia in 2017 and made quite a splash there: after all, both her mother Tatyana Yakovleva and her stepfather Alexander Liberman were of Russian extraction and achieved considerable success in the West. In the late twenties, her mother was involved with the famous Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky (still much read and revered in Russia despite—or owing to—his celebration of Bolshevism), who wrote her two love poems, which are among the greatest in Russian literature. Months later, when I learned that Francine still did not own the Russian edition of her book, I endeavored to obtain a copy of it for her. Last May, I delivered to it to her personally, while accompanying her close friend Joanna Rose on a visit to the nursing home where Francine was recuperating from her second stroke. This proved a heartbreaking experience for me. Francine, in her bed, looked most fragile, and although wholly lucid, she would swoon every few minutes, recover for a short time, and then swoon again. She was pleased with the book, and smiled; she mentioned Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, which she wished to reread, asked Joanna for DVDs of some thirties Hollywood films to watch, but her physical condition made my heart tremble.
But only a month later, in June, I heard that Francine would like to invite me over for dinner to her New York apartment. Delightedly, I accepted, and what I saw upon entering her room looked like a miracle: while in bed and very weak, she radiated life with a vigor not always found in people who are fully healthy. We talked for over five hours, pausing only to eat. She told me that she was rewriting her first and best-known novel, Lovers and Tyrants, to convert it from a third- to a first-person narrative. I thought this quite an enterprise and she explained that, though some particulars would remain fictional, she intended it to be an authentic account of her uncommon and troubled youth. She argued that the “artistic” should not impeach on the factual so long as it remained a matter of style and detail; and in this sense, “autobiographical fiction,” when properly executed, may achieve a deeper human truth than a mere autobiography or fiction might. We proceeded to discuss, in similar terms, some major autobiographies, from the Life of Benvenuto Cellini to the memoirs of the Duke de Saint-Simon on Louis XIV and his court, to My Past and Thoughts, the massive account of his life by Alexander Herzen, the nineteenth-century Russian liberal expatriate and protagonist of Tom Stoppard’s historical drama The Coast of the Utopia, which we both saw performed on Broadway and admired. Speaking of the impact a powerful autobiography may produce on the audience, I cited yet another example from Russia, the equally massive memoirs by Ilya Ehrenburg, People, Years, Life, that had an eye-opening effect on my generation in the Soviet Union. It was from these volumes that we first learned some truth, often about the existence of James Joyce, Marc Chagall, Igor Stravinsky, and a host of other Modernist masters, whose names we, living under Brezhnev’s regime, had never heard before. In English, these memoirs exist only in abridged versions, which Francine had read. She said that upon her recovery she would try to manage the omitted parts in Russian. Our conversation continued, and it was with some difficulty I realized that so did time. Francine never betrayed the slightest sign of fatigue, though she must have surely felt it, which made me think of the force hidden in the word we use so casually: life. The force of life. When I finally left, she said “See you again soon!” and I answered in one breath: “Absolutely!”
—Vasily Rudich is a classicist and ancient historian, the author of books on Roman history. He also wrote on Russian literature for periodicals and various collections.