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

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

by Alice Kaplan


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A year in Paris . . . since World War II, countless American students have been lured by that vision—and been transformed by their sojourn in the City of Light. Dreaming in French tells three stories of that experience, and how it changed the lives of three extraordinary American women.

All three women would go on to become icons, key figures in American cultural, intellectual, and political life, but when they embarked for France, they were young, little-known, uncertain about their future, and drawn to the culture, sophistication, and drama that only Paris could offer. Yet their backgrounds and their dreams couldn’t have been more different. Jacqueline Bouvier was a twenty-year-old debutante, a Catholic girl from a wealthy East Coast family. Susan Sontag was twenty-four, a precocious Jewish intellectual from a North Hollywood family of modest means, and Paris was a refuge from motherhood, a failing marriage, and graduate work in philosophy at Oxford. Angela Davis, a French major at Brandeis from a prominent African American family in Birmingham, Alabama, found herself the only black student in her year abroad program—in a summer when all the news from Birmingham was of unprecedented racial violence.

Kaplan takes readers into the lives, hopes, and ambitions of these young women, tracing their paths to Paris and tracking the discoveries, intellectual adventures, friendships, and loves that they found there. For all three women, France was far from a passing fancy; rather, Kaplan shows, the year abroad continued to influence them, a significant part of their intellectual and cultural makeup, for the rest of their lives. Jackie Kennedy carried her love of France to the White House and to her later career as a book  editor, bringing her cultural and linguistic fluency to everything from art and diplomacy to fashion and historic restoration—to the extent that many, including Jackie herself, worried that she might seem “too French.” Sontag found in France a model for the life of the mind that she was determined to lead; the intellectual world she observed from afar during that first year in Paris inspired her most important work and remained a key influence—to be grappled with, explored, and transcended—the rest of her life. Davis, meanwhile, found that her Parisian vantage strengthened her sense of political exile from racism at home and brought a sense of solidarity with Algerian independence. For her, Paris was a city of political commitment, activism, and militancy, qualities that would deeply inform her own revolutionary agenda and soon make her a hero to the French writers she had once studied.

Kaplan, whose own junior year abroad played a prominent role in her classic memoir, French Lessons, spins these three quite different stories into one evocative biography, brimming with the ferment and yearnings of youth and shot through with the knowledge of how a single year—and a magical city—can change a whole life. No one who has ever dreamed of Paris should miss it.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226424385
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/02/2012
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Alice Kaplan is the author of French Lessons: A Memoir, The Collaborator, and The Interpreter, and the translator of OK, Joe. Her books have been twice nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Awards, once for the National Book Award, and she is a winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She holds the John M. Musser chair in French literature at Yale.

Read an Excerpt

Dreaming in French

By Alice Kaplan

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 Alice Kaplan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-42438-5

Chapter One

Jacqueline Bouvier 1949–1950

Imaginary Aristocrats

In one way at least, she was like so many other American girls: her relationship to France began as a fantasy. In her case, the fantasy was a family story, passed down in a book. She learned, as a very young girl, from a story written by her grandfather, that she was descended from French royalty.

The story was both false and prophetic. It was false because her family origins were common. It was prophetic because when Jacqueline Bouvier went to France for her junior year in 1949, she quickly gained entry into the social circles of the leading families of Paris—captains of industry, counts and countesses, duchesses and marquis. When she returned ten years later as First Lady, she was as close as an American woman could get to being a queen, and her aristocratic friends came to her court at the Elysée Palace and the Château at Versailles.

That is the quick version of a story with many twists and turns, from fantasy to reality, with its connection to the intense hopes and dreams of a generation of postwar women on both sides of the Atlantic. Not only did Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy make good on her grandfather's fantasies; she in turn created fantasies of France among hundreds of thousands of American women. French women, too, claimed her as one of their own.

In fact there was very little about Jacqueline Bouvier that was genuinely French. She had both a first name and a last name that resonated with Frenchness, and she pronounced her first name with a French intonation—Jacqueleen. But she was only one-eighth French, through her father, whose great-grandparents, Michel Bouvier and Louise Vernou, had met in the 1820s through the circle of French immigrants in Philadelphia. Jacqueline's mother, Janet Lee, who affected ties to the Southern aristocracy, claimed she was descended from the Maryland Lees, even though her ancestors were New York Irish immigrants, just as Jacqueline's paternal grandfather had claimed to be descended from French royalty even though his ancestors were Provençal shopkeepers. Both sides of the family dissembled in order to climb the social ladder, whether it be in the Hamptons and Manhattan with the Bouviers or in Newport and McLean, Virginia, where she lived from the age of thirteen with her mother and her patrician stepfather, Hugh Auchincloss. The Bouviers and the Lees alike operated within the great American tradition of immigrant ambition, which held that in making yourself anew, you had the right to embellish the past.

In medieval times, common people in France went without last names as long as they were without land. They were known by their labor: shepherds were "Bergers"; bakers were "Boulangers"; carpenters "Charpentiers"; and each of those occupations has become a common French last name. "Bouvier," equally commonplace in French, comes from the job of the men who herded cattle (boeufs)—the cowboys. The cowboys became villagers: around the time of the French Revolution, Jacqueline Bouvier's people were shopkeepers in Pont-Saint-Esprit in le Gard (southern France)—modest commoners who would have rolled their r's and eaten earthy stews of garlic and olive oil and fish from the Rhône, which flowed through the town.

The first Bouvier to emigrate to the United States was one of those commoners, a carpenter who had been conscripted into Napoleon's army. After the defeat at Waterloo and the restoration of the monarchy, he was on the wrong side of the state. Throughout the summer of 1815 and especially in the south of France, armed royalists roamed the countryside in search of Napoleon's troops, massacring generals and foot soldiers alike. Amid this "white terror," Michel Bouvier fled to America with others of his kind and began a lucrative career as a cabinetmaker in Philadelphia for Napoleon's exiled brother Joseph. Michel Bouvier's progeny progressed rapidly, until Jacqueline's great-grandfather earned a place on the sought-after social register of the Philadelphia elite, a distinction unheard of for a Catholic in those days.

In 1927, when Major Bouvier, Jacqueline's grandfather, a wealthy New York attorney, wanted to put in writing an account of his family's social success, he published, at his own expense, a book called Our Forebears, describing the Bouviers as "an ancient house of Fontaine near Grenoble" and the Vernous (the ancestors of Michel Bouvier's wife, Louise) as "one of the most illustrious and ancient families of the province of Poitou." The center of Bouvier's genealogical invention is an annotated registry of coats of arms. This heraldry cited the name of any Bouvier or Vernou in France whose name had a "de" added to it. Special mention was made of Bouviers who had earned titles by serving as secretaries to members of parliament. The major's prose is peppered with mentions of royal decrees, marriages of notables to nobles, and descriptions in untranslated French of Bouvier and Vernou coats of arms. He claims for his ancestors both revolutionary zeal as French supporters of the American Revolution and unsullied loyalty to the French aristocracy they embodied—having it both ways.

About Michel Bouvier, the defeated soldier who fled France in fear for his life, Jacqueline's grandfather says only that he arrived in Philadelphia from Pont-Saint-Esprit in 1817. Yet Michel Bouvier's was the real American story. He used his status as a veteran of Napoleon's army to cultivate Joseph Bonaparte. Bouvier helped Bonaparte build his estate, then rebuild it after a fire. He married up in social class, speculated in land rich with coal, and settled his large family in a brownstone mansion on the smartest street in Philadelphia. He had gone from immigrant carpenter to cabinetmaker to businessman and real estate tycoon in less than forty years. When he took his family back to visit Pont-Saint-Esprit in 1853, the rough-and-tumble foot soldier of old whose daughters had attended the fanciest schools, he was more than qualified to tell tales of American streets paved with gold.

Jacqueline Bouvier's journey to Paris was thus a reverse migration—at least a temporary one. It's hard to know whether she still believed the family legend, but she was certainly curious about the French Bouviers. Her host sister, Claude, remembers that Jackie investigated her French roots during her year in France—she may have visited the place mentioned in Our Forebears on her way to grander estates in Beauvallon, outside Saint-Tropez, where she was entertained by the truly noble du Luart and de Lubersac families in the summer of 1950.

Her ancestral home, Pont-Saint-Esprit, was so obscure compared to glamorous Saint-Tropez that it is worth noting, if only as a stroke of coincidence, that it came into ghoulish prominence a year after Jacqueline Bouvier returned from Paris. In 1951, a mold in the local bread poisoned a number of townspeople. In a frenzy, some victims threw themselves out of windows and ran through the streets screaming. Others simply dropped dead. One of Jacqueline's distant cousins still living in Pont-Saint-Esprit, a lawyer named Marcel Divol, who was a Bouvier on his mother's side, fought the long legal battle on behalf of the victims against the town baker and flour supplier. It was a tale of tragedy in a simple Provençal community looking much as it had in the days of Napoleon—bleached stucco houses, open-air fountains, dusty squares with chickens and dogs underfoot. Nothing there would have resonated for Michel Bouvier's twentieth-century descendants, who had grown up on a steady diet of aristocratic lore and imagined their forebears living in castles surrounded by moats.

During the Kennedy-Nixon campaign of 1960, Jacqueline Kennedy's French roots were much discussed, and her grandfather's genealogical pamphlet made the rounds of the newsrooms. French journalists looking for a story at Pont-Saint-Esprit on the eve of the election, with nothing but the aristocratic rumors as source material, found a family named Bouvier living in squalor on a farm on the outskirts of the town and delighted at the contrast with the soon-to-be resident of the White House. Within a year of the Kennedy presidency, Jacqueline Kennedy was receiving so many letters each week from French people claiming to be her cousins that her staff gave up responding to them. On the eve of her state visit to France in 1961, an impoverished farm dweller in Pont-Saint-Esprit named Danielle Bouvier set out in an automobile for Paris: two journalists had promised her an audience with the First Lady. Danielle's car crashed en route, killing her.9 Like the mysterious poisoning of 1951, her tragic death would be seen, in future decades, as a sign of the "Bouvier-Kennedy curse." Yet a regional French archivist investigating the Danielle–Jacqueline Bouvier connection soon revealed that neither Danielle nor any of the poor Bouviers in Pont-Saint-Esprit were related by blood to the American Bouviers: most of the real Bouvier descendants were now living in Marseille, Nîmes, and Valence. If Jackie Bouvier had ever believed in her grandfather's myth—and no child in any branch of the family was without his or her copy of Our Forebears, specially inscribed by the major—it must have been like believing in the tooth fairy. By the time she got to France as a college student and saw the modest streets of Pont-Saint-Esprit, she was probably disappointed, and certainly disabused of the legend.

French Attributes

The family's French connection meant the world to Jacqueline's grandfather Vernou Bouvier, who encouraged in his progeny an allegiance to all things French, and to a certain idea of themselves as noble in a grand tradition. The family chauffeur was French; French was spoken at lunch once a week at her grandfather's estate and continued to be the language for meals at her mother's house as well.

Jacqueline Bouvier delighted in peppering her English with French phrases, something she learned to do better and better as she continued her French studies in a series of private schools. As her own French aura strengthened, however, the French side of her family was floundering. Her handsome father, nicknamed Black Jack Bouvier, a Wall Street broker in the family tradition, had squandered an already reduced family fortune in a series of womanizing and alcoholic misadventures. After Jacqueline's parents divorced, when she was eleven, her mother married the more solid financier Hugh Auchincloss. Divorce was a social and a religious scandal, and Jacqueline suffered. An outsider from the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant society her mother married into, she was also estranged from Catholic rites and rituals now largely forsaken.

We can only speculate about the effect of the divorce on the young girl's psyche and about the intensified place of France in her imaginary life. In her father's absence from her new home, and in her knowledge of his financial mishaps, Jacqueline Bouvier's French identity was something she could hang onto, something that set her apart both from her Irish mother and from a rather colorless stepfather, who remained a host rather than a parent. Now that the Bouvier family fortune was lost, all that seemed left of the old opulence was Jacqueline's horse, which had, of course, a French name, "Danseuse." Her father boarded it for her at a stable near Central Park and his Seventy-Fourth Street apartment, hoping this would ensure regular visits from her. Since his own father's mansion had been sold for taxes, he couldn't offer her the grandiose settings of the Auchincloss's Newport or Virginian estates. Danseuse was a source of great complicity between father and daughter. During Jacqueline's year abroad, riding became a passport into the social life of the French upper classes, in the Bois de Boulogne and later through the ritual hunt—the chasse à courre—at the Château de Courances.

In a sense there is nothing unusual about Jacqueline Bouvier's attachment to French. Spoken or written or read, the language has always held pride of place among the American elite, encouraged in schools as much as in shops and restaurants. In her case it may have appeared to be an affectation, but it corresponded to a real need to maintain her identity in the face of pressure to conform—a shield against her stepfather and mother.

Much later, when she became a Kennedy woman, Jacqueline's Frenchness distinguished her from a family whose every ritual, every home, and every habit of speech was defined by the Irish-American clan. Jack Kennedy, too, had had his own stints in Paris, working at the American embassy through a connection from his father, ambassador to the United Kingdom, but French phonetics had never made a dent on his accent. "Pahk yah cah in Havahd yahd"—which is the line people use to make fun of Boston accents—consists in stripping words of their r's, and of course nothing can be more French than an r pronounced deep in the throat, with relish. When you listen to recordings of Kennedy speaking haltingly with a French journalist about the Algerian war or about de Gaulle, he sounds like so many well-educated men of his generation, schooled in French through exercises in grammar and translation, as if they'd never have to speak it.

It is difficult to know how many of the French attributes given to her in dozens of books and articles are as fictional as her grandfather's biography, as if her own need to identify with France was taken up by everyone around her and embroidered with their own threads. One of her biographers reports that young Jacqueline Bouvier wrote essays about the French Enlightenment and the French Resistance in World War II for her school newspaper at Miss Porter's. Actually, like any regular high school senior, she wrote about spring fever and contributed cartoons about a frizzy-haired, gangly student named "Frenzied Frieda." She is identified with the great salonnières—with the French women who, in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, organized Parisian social life in their parlors and through their literary correspondence. Students at Miss Porter's remember her fondness for Madame Récamier, the nineteenth-century salon hostess painted by David. The memory may be apocryphal, though it points to a problem for her generation: the lack of role models for women who aspired to beauty and wit at the same time, who wanted a life that was both sensual and intellectual.

The many French books in her personal library, sold at auction after her death, from Stendhal to the Abbé Prévost and George Sand, tell a story of her attachment to French culture that was fostered by friends and admirers as much as by her own literary taste. David Pinkney, the dean of American historians of France in the 1960s, sent her his book on Haussmann's rebuilding of Paris during the reign of Napoleon III with this inscription: "To JBK: Don't confuse me with Baron Haussmann and I shan't confuse you with Eugénie." The allusion was to Napoleon III's wife, who was beautiful but frivolous, and to Napoleon's engineer and designer Haussmann, a homely but terribly effective civil servant. Perhaps the surprising thing about Pinkney's gift wasn't just that Jacqueline Kennedy had received a scholarly book from an academic historian, but that he could count on her to understand the rarefied joke in his inscription. This isn't just an issue of a superior cultural literacy. What strikes us today is that Jacqueline Kennedy was focused on a time and a place so far from her own. She was a French time traveler, a voracious reader and a person who lived in her head, through her dreams and her imagination. In every account of her life, from the kiss-and-tell accounts of her husband's infidelities to glamorized hagiographies, this quality shines through. People who didn't like her remembered her as aloof and snobbish, while the friends who loved her admired her solitude and reserve. She had a counterlife. And she nurtured her counterlife with images and words and histories that came from France and that sustained her from the time she began to read her grandfather's fantasies of the family, through the lonely pressures of her existence in the White House, to the very last months of her life when, as an editor at Doubleday, she helped two British historians shape their history of France at the Liberation—the France she had known at age twenty.


Excerpted from Dreaming in French by Alice Kaplan Copyright © 2012 by Alice Kaplan. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents



l Jacqueline Bouvier: 1949-1950 7

2 Jacqueline Bouvier: The Return 47

3 Susan Sontag: 1957-1958 81

4 Susan Sontag: The Return 113

5 Angela Davis: 1963-1964 143

6 Angela Davis: The Return 177

Conclusion 223

A Note on Sources 229

Notes 237

Acknowledgments 267

Index 271

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