Francine du Plessix Gray was a French-American writer known for being a “Jane of all trades,” writing everything from fiction to reports to literary essays and numerous biographies. However, she was never fond of this title. In a 1982 piece with The New York Times Book Review in which she was tasked with describing her development as a writer, Mrs. Gray provided a harsh self-assessment. “Few scribblers I know have struggled so hard for so little,” she wrote. “I am too many things I do not wish to be.”
Francine had a difficult upbringing. At 10 years old, she arrived in New York with her mother, speaking no English. Her father, Bertrand Jochaud du Plessix, was in the French diplomatic service and died when his airplane was shot down while flying from Casablanca to France to join the Free French forces.
Prior to his passing, Mrs. Gray had always desperately craved the approval of her father, though she suffered from a bad stutter. Francine was a talented child who studied French and Russian, piano, painting and ballet; and yet, despite her mother’s newfound success in designing hats and step-father’s art and editorial career, she suffered from neglect.
She often wrote of her triumphs growing up, once saying, “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.”
She began writing art reviews for Art in America, where she was the book editor in the mid-1960s, and became a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Times and other publications.
In Them: A Memoir of Parents, Mrs. Gray wrote about her privileged but emotionally deprived childhood, and her dark relationship with her father, mother and stepfather. In 2006 she won the National Book Critics Circle Award for this piece.
Some of her other most famous writings include:
Divine Disobedience: Profiles in Catholic Radicalism (1970)
Lovers and Tyrants (1976)
World Without End (1981)
October Blood (1985)
Soviet Women: Walking the Tightrope (1990)
On January 13, 2004, the literary and stuttering community grieved after her passing at the age of 88. Mrs. Gray will always be remembered for her honest, raw and open writing.
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