“We write out of revenge against reality, to dream and enter the lives of others,” wrote Francine du Plessix Gray. A French-American novelist, journalist, biographer art and literary critic, she recently passed away in Manhattan at the age of 88.
Ms. Gray, whose elegant, often soulful books examined women’s lives and identities with great psychological insight, authored several biographies of French women include Simone Weil, her 2001 study of the 20th-century philosopher, political activist and mystic; Rage and Fire (1994) on Louise Colet, a writer, pioneer feminist and Gustave Flaubert’s muse; and Madame de Stael: The First Modern Woman (2008) on the writer and intellectual. Others include The Queen’s Lover, from 2012, a historical novel about Marie Antoinette, and At Home with the Marquis de Sade: A Life (1999), finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
A story she had written in college about her tyrannical governess, first presented in The New Yorker in 1967, became the first chapter of Lovers and Tyrants – a sensuous, evocative semi-autobiographical novel published in the mid-1970s. “One learns much more by writing fiction, because the insights come from those deeper subconscious levels where the greater and more interesting truths lie,” she once said. Ms. Gray returned to her own story in an acclaimed memoir Them, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2006. The book explored her privileged but painful childhood as well as her troubled relationship with her glamorous mother and stepfather. Her mother, Tatiana Yakoleva, whose family fled to Paris after the Bolshevik Revolution in the 1920s, where she became a muse to the revolutionary Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky and later married Ms. Gray’s father, Bertrand Jochaud du Plessix, a viscount in the French diplomatic service. After his plane was shot down by Fascist artillery in 1940, she and her mother emigrated to America. Tatiana – an emotionally icy and narcissistic woman whose presence, her daughter writes, “had the psychic impact of a can of mace” – married Alexander Liberman, another Russian émigré who had fled occupied France, who became the legendary art director of Vogue and editorial director of Conde Nast; she became a celebrated hat designer for the luxury department store Saks Fifth Avenue (above, the book’s elegant cover photograph by Irving Penn).
Ms. Gray attended Bryn Mawr, Black Mountain College and Barnard, was for two years the only woman on the nightshift at United Press International and also worked as was a fashion reporter in Paris. In the 1960s, she wrote art criticism for Art in America, where she also worked as book editor. Her thoughtful essays, which appeared notably in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, and nonfiction books include meditations on the trial of Klaus Barbie, the anti-Vietnam War movement, Thomas Merton or and the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon; she also published a book giving voice to women doctors, dissidents, journalists and factory workers in Soviet Women: Walking the Tightrope (1990); another describing Hawaii as a “sugar-coated fortress” and studies of Catholic radicals.
Her husband, Cleve Gray, a painter of gestural, lyrical calligraphic abstractions, passed away in 2004. They had two sons, one of whom, Luke, is also an artist.