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Francine du Plessix Gray.

Francine du Plessix Gray (1933–2019)

Francine du Plessix Gray, the French-American reporter, critic, novelist, and feminist known for her elegance and unsparingness in chronicling issues of the self and beyond, died in Manhattan on Sunday from complications of congestive heart failure. She was eighty-eight years old.

Gray’s upbringing was defined by both entitlement and loss. Born to a French father and a Russian mother in Warsaw’s French embassy in 1933, Gray emigrated from France to New York with her mother, Tatiana Yakovleva, after her father’s plane was shot down by fascists near Gibraltar in 1940. In New York, Yakovleva—once a muse for the Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky—married socialite and future Condé Nast director Alexander Liberman and eventually became a prolific milliner for Saks Fifth Avenue. Gray recounted her complex childhood and family life in 2006’s Them: A Memoir of Parents, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Educated at the Spence School, Bryn Mawr College, Black Mountain College, and Barnard College, Gray began her writing career in Paris, where she worked for the French fashion magazine Réalités. After having a nervous breakdown, she returned to the US, married the painter Cleve Gray in 1957, and relocated to Warren, Connecticut. Gray established herself as a writer, art critic, and book editor for Art in America in the mid-1960s and then as a contributor of fiction and essays to the New Yorker and other publications.

She went on to author numerous books that ranged from nonfiction reports on Hawaii to Catholic activism to delicate and epic novels, including Lovers and Tyrants (1976) and October Blood (1985). She also wrote biographies of Simone Weil, Louise Colet, and Madame de Staël. A professor at Columbia University and Yale University, among other institutions, Gray was known for her warm intellectualism and was photographed several times by Irving Penn, whom she memorialized in Artforum’s January 2010 issue. “There was a great complicity between us: It had to do with our mutual distaste for the world of high fashion in which I was being raised, and through which he had initially found his fame.”

Gray was transparent about her ambivalence toward writing, once telling the New York Times that she was “a Jane of all trades shuttling back and forth between scant fiction, voluminous reporting, innumerable and unmemorable literary essays.” She added: “I write out of a desire for revenge against reality, to destroy forever the stuttering powerless child I once was, to gain the love and attention that silenced child never had, to allay the dissatisfaction I still have with myself, to be something other than what I am.”

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