Francine du Plessix Gray arrived in the United States at 10 in 1941, not knowing a word of English. Her aristocratic French father, she later learned, had been killed while fighting for the French resistance.
At first, she was sent to live in genteel poverty with relatives and family friends, listening to radio soap operas as a way to learn English. She won a scholarship to a private girls’ school in Manhattan.
Soon enough, after her mother remarried an influential magazine designer, she grew up surrounded by high fashion, glamour and what she later recognized as the monstrous egos of mother and her stepfather, which she wrote about in a prize-winning 2005 memoir, “Them.”
She wrote novels and biographies that often examined the lives of women as creative forces and as muses, and she published an acclaimed memoir that explored her complicated personal history as a Russian-French child who came of age in America.
Ms. du Plessix Gray — the French half of her name is pronounced “due play-SEE” — died Jan. 13 at a hospital in New York. She was 88. The cause was complications from congestive heart failure, said a son, Luke Gray.
After winning a prize in college and studying with poet Charles Olson, she did not begin to write in earnest until she was in her mid-30s and the mother of two. She eventually joined the staff of the New Yorker magazine and taught at Columbia, Yale and other universities.
Her novels included the best-selling “Lovers and Tyrants” (1976), which portrayed a woman’s dissatisfaction with her expected social roles. Literary scholar Julian Moynahan, in a review in the New York Times, wrote that the debut novel was “crammed with unforgettably drawn characters, rich emotion and complex social portraiture.”
Ms. du Plessix Gray’s nonfiction books included studies of Catholic radicals, the rise of Hawaii as a sugar empire and military “fortress,” and women in the Soviet Union. She wrote biographies of several French women, including 20th-century philosopher Simone Weil; Louise Colet, a writer and the muse of 19th-century French novelist Gustave Flaubert; and Madame de Staël, a writer and intellectual who lived from 1766 to 1817.
Ms. du Plessix Gray’s 1998 biography of the Marquis de Sade, the 18th-century libertine from whose name the word “sadism” is derived, cast new light on his marriage to Renée-Pélagie de Montreuil and sought to elevate his reputation as a writer.
“It has all the right stuff,” author Norah Vincent wrote in a review in The Post: “country estates, tasteful violence, sodomy, wigs, romance, lavish parties with catered food, conspiracies, a Peeping Tom police inspector, debauched priests, friendly peasants, rich people in puffy clothes, courtroom drama, a prison break, big historical tie-ins, an insane asylum, a predatory mother-in-law, and literary cachet to boot. Best of all, every sordid turn of the tale is true.”
In many ways, though, the most dramatic stories that Ms. du Plessix Gray told grew out of her own life and, in particular, her difficult relationship with her mother, who left the Soviet Union for Paris in the 1920s.
“My flamboyant Russian-born mother,” she wrote in “Them,” which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography, “strode into a room, shawls spectacularly draped about her shoulders, like a tribal war goddess and moved through life with a speed and fierceness that recalled the howling wind of the steppes. Tatiana was one of the most dazzling self-inventions of her time.”
Her mother went on to become a celebrated hat designer, known as Tatiana of Saks. She married a fellow Russian, Alexander Liberman, who became the art director of Vogue magazine and later the creative director of Condé Nast publications.
“They passed on a desire to shine,” Ms. du Plessix Gray later wrote, but she was constantly in the shadow of their egos.
Ms. du Plessix Gray studied French and Russian, piano, painting and ballet, yet she also suffered from benign neglect. She sometimes fainted at school because her mother would forget to feed her.
It was a pattern of behavior that had persisted at least since 1940. That year, Ms. du Plessix Gray’s father, a diplomat who had joined the Free French movement to battle the Nazi takeover of France, was flying from Casablanca to Europe when his plane was shot down and crashed into the sea near Gibraltar.
Ms. du Plessix Gray was not told about her father’s death for a year. The job was left to a governess.
“‘Why didn’t you tell me?’” Ms. du Plessix Gray wrote in her memoir about confronting her mother. “I remember sobbing, repeating the word ‘you,’ ‘why didn’t you, you, you tell me?’”
Their relationship was irrevocably altered.
“And we spent the rest of our lives — she lived on for another half century — not ever having any kind of a true emotional encounter again.”
Francine du Plessix was born Sept. 25, 1930, in Warsaw, where her father was assigned to the French Embassy. She spent her early years in Paris, where, she later wrote, “my temperature was taken twice a day, my head was perpetually wrapped in some woolen muffler.”
After attending the private Spence School and Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, Ms. du Plessix Gray graduated in 1952 from Barnard College in New York. She spent two summers studying with Olson at Black Mountain College in North Carolina and worked as a reporter on the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift at United Press in Manhattan.
In 1957, she married artist Cleve Gray and settled in Warren, Conn., where she lived for many years. He died in 2004. Survivors include two sons, Thaddeus Gray of Lakeville, Conn., and Luke Gray of Brooklyn; and five grandchildren.
Ms. du Plessix Gray won a top writing prize in college but did not write again for years, as she increasingly began to feel “an immense void, a great powerlessness.”
She pulled her prize-winning story, which a dozen years later became the opening chapter of her first novel.
“Every woman’s life,” she wrote in “Lovers and Tyrants,” “is a series of exorcisms from the spells of different oppressors: nurses, lovers, husbands, gurus, parents, children, myths of the good life.”