Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis ~ Alice Kaplan

Why did Alice Kaplan choose these three women to profile? Choose them from among the “thousands of American students” selected for the study abroad program and the many thousands more that took themselves to France at an early stage of their life to see the world? Because all three were transformed by the experience and all three in turn transformed aspects of American life upon their return. Why was the book of interest to me? Why was I moved to buy and read it? I greatly admired two of the three. Susan Sontag from afar, if you will: I envied her intellect, even though I may not have understood much of her writings (I kept trying). Angela Davis was and is (of the three she’s the only one still living) a contemporary of mine. At 68, she’s only a year older than me. In those turbulent years of my twenties and hers, I always admired her courage and fervent passion for what was right.

So:  “First Lady”, “Intellectual” and “Activist”. These are the terms that come immediately to my mind if playing a name association game. Kaplan uses the terms “Catholic debutante “,  “Jewish intellectual”, and “African American revolutionary”.

Jacqueline Bouvier, 1949-1950

Each section has two major parts: the time spent in Paris and the subjects experience there, and the effects of that experience upon their return. Jacqueline Bouvier’s family tree is reviewed, the most prominent aspect being that her family (especially her father’s) claim to French royalty is mostly a myth. Jacqueline didn’t necessarily believe her father’s stories, but still, she had an affinity for the French. And the family had connections. Even if she and her family were no longer rich, they still traveled in high-class circles. France at the time of her year there was still in its post-war recovery phase. Food was still rationed, fuel for heat was problematic and the “facilities” were certainly something that a Bouvier could not have been accustomed to. By all accounts (i.e. by Kaplan’s account), she seems to have taken to all of it very well, immersed herself in French life, and got a grand education.

Upon her return she had to figure out what to do with her life. She was briefly engaged to a young Wall Street broker. She toyed with the ides of the CIA (several of her friends were also recruited). She improbably (improbably because of the way she went about it) won a contest for employment at Vogue, but turned it down, opting to tour Europe with her sister Lee. Two years later, she married Jack Kennedy. A marriage is really what she had wanted all along. But not just any marriage – she had plenty of opportunities for those.

AK spends a lot of time on Jackie’s fashion fetish: the minor dust-up regarding french designers (whereupon she designated ” Franco-globalist” Oleg Cassini as her official designer, and the ILGWU. My eyelids begin to droop at this point.

Along about this time there occurred

a vast change in Jacqueline Kennedy’s tone since she wrote her hesitant letters to the Vogue staff in 1951. No longer the dutiful Bouvier daughter or Auchincloss stepdaughter, she was, at age thirty-one, a grande dame, exacting, well-informed, with her taste and role models firmly in place.

At least during the years with Jack, there was a constant struggle between the French inferences on her and what it means to be an American at the dawn of the 1960′s

how rigid the definition was, how unknowing and defensive. A country assuming its status as a world power was still afraid of not being itself..

In June of 1961, the President and First Lady made a 3-day state visit to France, during which time Jackie took the opportunity to acknowledge the impact of her stay in Paris, and especially the influence of Mademoiselle Saliel’s (the director if the study abroad program) invaluable preparation for her “starring role on the world stage” (AK).

AK covers the standard highlights of Jackie’s ‘reign’: the White House redecoration, the televised White House tour, the assassination, the Onassis marriage, the work at Doubleday, the marriage to her close friend and financial advisor. AK offers rare insight into both subsequent marriages – marriages that I had a rigid misconception of.

Five years later [after the burial of the assassinated President] she took off her mantle as widow to marry for a second time. Whatever the public imagined, her escape from the United States was far from frivolous: She left the country with her children two months after the assassination of Robert Kennedy, retreating to the armored world of the Greek shipping magnate, who offered freedom from her role and protection for her children. In addition to his other real estate on land and sea, Onassis had an apartment on the avenue Foch and his own special table at Maxim’s.

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, now Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, crossed over to what many considered the dark side of her cosmopolitanism. She became, in the public mind, a socialite and a jet setter, more European than American. It appeared as though she were purposefully embracing every suspicion every Congressman had ever had about her – “too French and too international.”

After the death of Onassis which AK suggests may be the “authentic” phase of her life, she goes on to discuss that phase as the point where a female stops impersonating females. She draws from the suggestions of both Carolyn Heilbrun and Gloria Steinem that women have been trained by society to impersonate females – until they find their authentic selves. Extremely interesting view points.

The marriage to Maurice Templeton also grows in my understanding as well with AK’s treatment. The Jacqueline Bouvier section, the part of the book I least cared about, became probably the most eye opening part. Although it seemed to me that there is a sense that this is AK’s favorite subject as well.

Susan Sontag 1957-1958

Unlike Jackie, Susan Sontag didn’t spend a privileged “junior year in Paris”. She got there on her own. At 24, she fulfilled her dream and went – leaving behind her husband and child. She was always a brilliant student, graduating from college at 18. Her father had died when she was younger, and her mother later remarried after moving to Arizona (for Susan’s asthma). Upon remarriage, they settled in Los Angeles, with Susan dreaming of becoming “a self-Europeanized American.”

After discovering Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood she began her first of life long lesbian affair. Barnes was to become her literary touchstone. In fact the next several years of her life (her marriage and her leaving for Europe) were eerily reminiscent of the character in Barnes’ novel. She knew she had to go to Europe – to Paris.

Sontag’s experience of the city was quite different from Bouvier’s. While Bouvier’s french was quite good and part of the program was to speak only in french, for Sontag, the french spoken language was nearly non-existent. She could read french fairly well, but she lived amongst other Americans in their own little milieu. She got a much richer flavor of the city, but not of the people. But she did learn to speak the language in her own peculiar way – not peculiar speaking, but the unique way she learned it. Her method was typical of the way she learned all things, by acute observations, by the lists she made, by the perfection she sought. Sontag was a great list-maker,  And “a voracious consumer of culture, just not in class.” This is why I’ve always admired her and had an affinity for the way she thought about and approached things.

While in Paris it is said that she frequently viewed two films a day. Yes. That is voracious: Life as a continuous film-festival. For Sontag, film was “a school for living”.

“It was from a weekly visit to the cinema that you learned (or tried to learn) how to walk, to smoke, to kiss, to fight, to grieve. Movies gave you tips about how to be attractive…But whatever you took home was only a part of the larger experience of submerging yourself in lives that were not yours. The desire to lose yourself in other people’s lives…faces.”

AK evinces an unmistakable Jackie preference (over Sontag) in one anecdote regarding a dinner invitation. This is not to say that AK doesn’t devote her full attention to Sontag. However here, and in the following Angela Davis section, she seems to strain at some points to ‘compare and contrast’. I found this ‘academic’, and may have been better left to the summary sections at the end. Much of which is therefore made redundant. The Sontag section is marked by various movements in literature and film, a catalogue of lesbian affairs that Sontag held throughout her life. A richly observed snapshot and analysis of a brilliant life.

Angela Davis, 196-1964

From well of, white and privileged to middle class and Jewish, to black and growing up in an era of the struggle for  basic civil rights.

For some Americans, the early 1960′s was an era of idealism and service, Vietnam a cloud on the horizon. For young African Americans, for Angela Davis, those years were defined by the life-and-death struggle for basic rights of citizenship.

Davis graduated from college in 1965 as a French major and she graduated with the highest of honors.

French was the first important stop on an intellectual path that led Angela Davis from literature to philosophy, from philosophy to political radicalism and life as an educator.

The seminal event that happened during her Junior year in Paris happened not in Paris, but back home in Birmingham, Alabama: the September 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church which resulted in the deaths of four young girls. This would be an event that Angela Davis would never forget and would play a central role in defining who she was.

On her return she studied under Herbert Marcuse, fell under the influence of the new literary movement spearheaded by Alain Robbe-Grillet. Read Sartre, Beauvoir, Genet, Camus. As I’d mentioned earlier, Davis is a contemporary of mine, and I was reading all of these same authors (although Davis surely read everything first as I was reading them only as they were in translation, and Angela Davis was reading the works in their original French).

Whereas for Sontag, cinema was the school for living (something I still believe), for Angela Davis it was literature, the novel that was “a school for consciousness”. Can you see my affinity and respect for these two women, and whence it comes? Surely it’s obvious.

Davis’ life arc was changed, of course, by subsequent events: her trial for murder and acts of terrorism. She was eventually acquitted with the support of not only French, but worldwide rallying behind her. Davis still lives (as do I!) What s fascinating g life. There have been several documentaries about Davis’ life and a planned film based on her story that is in the hands of the great Algerian (appropriately enough) director Rachid Bouchareb (Hors la loi, Indigènes), who seems the perfect director to do her story justice.

For the most part I enjoyed the sections on Sontag and Davis, though I didn’t learn much that I was not already familiar with. The section on Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis surprised me and added a new understanding of her. Softening my Jackie-O prejudices. Well researched certainly, if sometimes redundant.

1 Comment

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One response to “Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis ~ Alice Kaplan

  1. Pingback: Les Enfants Terribles ~ (France, 1950) ~ DVD | Chazz W

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