“You can always come back,” my mother said. “Just go.”
As a young woman, Kate Betts nursed a dream of striking out on her own in a faraway place and becoming a glamorous foreign correspondent. After college—and not without trepidation—she took off for Paris, renting a room in the apartment of a young BCBG (bon chic, bon genre) family and throwing herself into the local culture. She was determined to master French slang, style, and savoir faire, and to find a job that would give her a reason to stay.
After a series of dues-paying jobs that seemed only to reinforce her outsider status, Kate’s hard work and willingness to take on any assignment paid off: Her writing and intrepid forays into la France Profonde—true France—caught the eye of John Fairchild, the mercurial fashion arbiter and publisher of Women’s Wear Daily, the industry’s bible. Kate’s earliest assignments—investigating the mineral water preferred by high society, chasing after a costumed band of wild boar hunters through the forests of Brittany—were a rough apprenticeship, but she was rewarded for her efforts and was initiated into the elite ranks of Mr. Fairchild’s trusted few who sat beside him in the front row and at private previews in the ateliers of the gods of French fashion. From a woozy yet mesmerizing Yves Saint Laurent and the mischievous and commanding Karl Lagerfeld to the riotous, brilliant young guns who were rewriting all the rules—Martin Margiela, Helmut Lang, John Galliano—Betts gives us a view of what it was like to be an American girl, learning about herself, falling in love, and finding her tribe.
Kate Betts’s captivating memoir brings to life the enchantment of France—from the nightclubs of 1980s Paris where she learned to dance Le Rock, to the lavender fields of Provence and the grand spectacle of the Cour Carrée—and magically re-creates that moment in life when a young woman discovers who she’s meant to be.
Praise for My Paris Dream
“[A] glittering coming-of-age tale.”—Entertainment Weekly (The Must List)
“Fashion and self-examination—froth and wisdom—might seem like odd bookfellows, but Betts brings them together with winning confidence.”—The New York Times Book Review
“As light and refreshing as an ice cream cone from the legendary Berthillon, My Paris Dream evokes the sights, sounds, smells and styles of 1980s Paris.”—USA Today
“My Paris Dream is awesome.”—Man Repeller
“What was Bett’s Paris dream? Her dream was her awakening, [which] is elegantly chronicled in these pages.”—The Daily Beast
“For those who are interested in the men and women involved in haute couture, Betts’ reminiscences will be a delight.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Full of slangy French, delectable food and swoon-worthy fashion.”—BookPage
“An amazing story of a young woman in Paris trying to break into the fashion business.”—Sophia Amoruso, author of #GIRLBOSS
“Kate Betts’s story brought me back to my own young self and the journey I made—in my case, from a small town in Illinois to New York City.”—Cindy Crawford
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Seeds of the Dream
In the summer of 1982 I discovered Paris for the first time. I was on a high school graduation adventure with my boarding school roommate, Maria, and her sister Johanna. We bought Eurail passes and spent two months traveling around France, Italy, Germany, and Czechoslovakia. We arrived in Paris on a hot June morning, bunked in a youth hostel on the rue des Barres behind the Hôtel de Ville, and made a beeline for Berthillon, the ice cream parlor on the Île Saint-Louis that Johanna’s worldly older boyfriend had told her had the best ice cream in the world. It was true. I still remember the intense flavor of the side-by-side scoops of raspberry and lemon-lime sorbet. Everything about Paris was more intense, from the sorbet flavors to the cornflower-blue sky stretched over the sharp spire of Sainte-Chapelle to the scarlet poppies poking out of green grass squares in the Luxembourg Gardens to the acrid smell of urine in the long, white-tiled Métro corridors.
For two weeks we walked and walked, restlessly roaming from Right Bank to Left, through lush displays of dahlias and roses in the Île de la Cité flower market, past the stout Gothic turrets of the Conciergerie, and over the Pont Neuf to the boulevard Saint-Michel. We walked from the Jardin des Plantes to the Eiffel Tower and then crossed the Seine again on the Pont de l’Alma, taking in the golden shadows of Paris at dusk. Every streetscape and boulevard seemed to shimmer in the heat and summer light like an Impressionist tableau. We visited the Louvre, Notre Dame, and Sacré-Cœur. We rolled down the grassy hillside of the Parc des Buttes Chaumont and ate buttered baguettes with thick slabs of boiled ham. In the evening we counted out chunky ten-franc coins and splurged on steak au poivre and cheap Beaujolais at Aux Charpentiers.
Something about the majestic landscape moved me in ways I didn’t quite understand: the shock of history. Everywhere I looked, the past was present. On the sides of the limestone buildings, brass plaques memorialized fallen soldiers and members of the French Resistance. The parks, the broad, slick paving stones on the boulevards, even the light had been immortalized by the Impressionist painters. So much texture and flavor! Twenty kinds of bread were splayed out in bakery windows; boisterous cafés spilled over with students, professors, prostitutes, and ouvriers, workers in their cobalt-blue jumpsuits.
When the summer ended, I headed off for my freshman year at Princeton and was immersed in an all-American preppy campus that was a world apart from the bohemian Paris that had moved me to my soul. Within a few weeks, I fell in love with a sophomore named Will who, like me, had grown up in the prep school tradition of the East Coast. Will was confident about his place at Princeton, not intimidated by ambitious classmates or the grind for grades. He laughed at me for trying to read every book on every syllabus, for rushing over to Firestone Library after dinner. On weekends we’d go to drunken parties in the basements of eating clubs like Cap and Gown or the Tiger Inn, where masses of people would dance to one-hit wonders. “Everybody wants to rule the world,” we sang along, punching the air with our hands and skidding around the beer-soaked tile floor in our acid-washed jeans and Laura Ashley blouses. Yeah, we were gonna rule the world, at least until 2:00 a.m., when many of the party animals were vomiting in the gutter.
I was interested in fashion, and that made me a bit of an anomaly on campus. Style was part of my upbringing. New York in the seventies was defined by larger-than-life style icons like Bianca Jagger, Halston, Diane von Furstenberg, and Andy Warhol.
My mother and father had divorced when I was six. I was never sure why exactly—we didn’t talk about it—but I remember a kid pointing at me in second grade and whispering to her friend, “Her parents are divorced.” In those days, at that school, divorce was rare. A few years later my mother moved my sister, my brother, and me into an apartment on East 63rd Street just off Park Avenue, across the street from Halston. Warhol lived two blocks up; my brother and I would see him with Liza Minnelli in the butcher on Lexington Avenue. We stayed with my dad every other weekend and on Wednesday nights. He was an architect and had a strict aesthetic inspired by Le Corbusier, Louis Kahn, and the Color Field painters of the 1950s. His apartment, across the street from the Museum of Modern Art, was all white, with recessed lighting and the latest Eames chairs. He was passionate about art and architecture and would take us on excursions to the Museum of Modern Art or to SoHo and would talk endlessly about painters like Frank Stella and Franz Kline and the art scene in the sixties. He loved to tell the story of a trip to Paris as a newlywed, when my mother dragged him to a concert. It was Édith Piaf’s last. “You never know,” he would say, “what you might learn or see.” He was strict and aloof in a way that my mother was not, but he cared about manners education—cultural education. “You are barbarians!” he would say when my brother and I complained about yet another museum.
As a teenager I devoured copies of Vogue and French Elle and Carrie Donovan’s pages in The New York Times Magazine. From my mother I learned the power of fashion to lift a mood or transform a moment. She always said that shopping was better than therapy. If things got tense in our family, if she was fighting with my father over alimony or if my brother was expelled from yet another school, she would dash off to Bergdorf’s to console herself with a new Jean Muir dress or a Pucci scarf. Like many young women, I used fashion to try on different personas—one day preppy, the next day punk. In college it was a way of defining myself among the valedictorians and All-Ivy athletes. I wasn’t wearing anything radical—no Mohawks, no combat boots—but the fact that I cared about how I looked, that I paid attention to my appearance, mystified my roommates. They were varsity athletes—rowers, lacrosse players, and soccer forwards. Blow-drying my hair and putting on makeup made me something of a freak among freshmen.
Four years later, on a hot June day, I was standing under the ancient ash tree on Cannon Green, a new college graduate posing for pictures with my parents, my sister, and my grandmother. My brother had cooked up some excuse to avoid this family event. Anyone could see the unhappiness in that picture. My mother and father had been divorced for over a decade, and the years of conflict and disappointment are written in my beautiful mother’s sad blue eyes. My father’s posture is awkward, almost mechanical, but he’s smiling his goofy smile, and his fierce brown eyes are filled with pride. I’m smiling, too, a weary smile brought on by too many champagne parties and the futile feeling that I would always be caught in my parents’ tug-of-war. Only my eighty-two-year-old grandmother, once statuesque but now hunched over with age, seems oblivious to the tension.
“I have something for you,” my grandmother said after my mother and father had retreated to their separate corners of the green. She thrust a small box into my hand. “Make sure you read the card.”
In the box was a pair of small perfect round diamond studs. My grandmother believed every young woman should mark important occasions with talismans, preferably beautiful jewelry.
“Oh, thank you, Libby!” I kissed her on her soft, powdery cheek.
The note card had four dates scrawled in her loopy handwriting: “1986, 1956, 1926, 1893.” The years my father, and his father, and his father before him had graduated from Princeton. Looking down at those numbers, all I could think was, Get me out of this equation. I wanted to get as far away as possible, not just from my unhappy parents but from the expectations the legacy conferred on me.
At Princeton I was the emissary of a family tradition. When I had tried to find my own way as a teenager—for a while I had my heart set on becoming a dancer—my father steered me back onto the college path and eventually toward Princeton. Some people are immensely proud of their family legacies; mine haunted me with the implication that I was qualified not on my own merits but because of the line I had been born into.
Everything in my life had been so predictable, so bound up in traditions I was supposed to uphold without even knowing quite what the implications were. I wanted to swerve off the path marked out by that succession of dates, to do something adventuresome and unexpected. I wasn’t a rebel in the usual sense of breaking rules, but I had a hunger to learn something about myself—what that was, I didn’t exactly know.
The thing that intrigued me was journalism. As a kid, I’d watched Barbara Walters on the Today show every morning, reporting on the war in Vietnam. She was authoritative and glamorous—an intoxicating combination. As a freshman I had joined the staff of The Daily Princetonian. I admired the paper’s star reporter, Crystal Nix, a brilliant six-foot-tall African American woman who made reporting look effortless, filing story after story while the rest of us in the newsroom scrambled around frantically, chasing campus news. My only front-page byline was attached to a story about zoning restrictions on a local Wawa convenience store. It was hardly what they call a Cheerio choker.
As a senior, I took a course called Politics and the Press, taught by the Vietnam correspondent Gloria Emerson. Emerson had started on the women’s pages of The New York Times in the 1960s, reporting on events like Marc Bohan’s Oriental-inspired collection at Dior or the arrival of longer suit jackets and ostrich trim at the Fontana sisters in Rome. By 1968, she was so fed up with the fashion beat, she asked to be transferred to Vietnam.
In my delusions of grandeur—or out of desperation—I thought I could make that jump, too. I could parlay my Wawa exclusive into a Time magazine gig in Paris and then transfer to Rome and end up in some remote, exotic place like Hanoi. Aspiring to become a war correspondent was romantic and sounded good on paper, but secretly, when I played out that fantasy in my head, I never made it past Paris. I was in love with fashion and culture, specifically French culture.
And yet, like most bewildered souls graduating from college, I didn’t have a clue as to how to make it happen. I had no plans, no strategy. My friends had signed up for interviews with advertising firms like J. Walter Thompson or had applied and been accepted to law school or were taking the Foreign Service exam. They knew their starting salaries and what the next five years of their lives would look like. I knew I was supposed to make a choice and plant a flag somewhere, to locate myself physically in a way that announced I was “starting my life.” But all I had was an instinct that harkened back to that feeling of elation I’d experienced in Paris four years before. I knew virtually nothing of the practical aspects of living in Paris, but I could see myself there. I could see myself in a walk-up in some exquisite limestone building on the Île Saint-Louis. I couldn’t say what I thought I’d find there, but I knew Paris would give me something I couldn’t find anywhere else.
“I Would Die for You,” Prince
“What I Like About You,” the Romantics
“Tainted Love,” Soft Cell
“Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” Tears for Fears
“Don’t You Want Me,” the Human League
“Our Lips Are Sealed,” the Go-Go’s
“I Ran,” A Flock of Seagulls
“I Melt with You,” Modern English
“Save It for Later,” the English Beat
“Avalon,” Roxy Music
“Road to Nowhere,” Talking Heads
“Everyday I Write the Book,” Elvis Costello
“Do You Really Want to Hurt Me,” Culture Club
In the months following graduation, I talked endlessly and with great bravado about my plan to live in Paris. I would find a job and learn to speak French fluently. I told my boyfriend, Will, that I’d be gone for just a year. A year seemed like enough time to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. It certainly sounded more appealing than a year in some entry-level cubicle at J. Walter Thompson.
Secretly I was not so sure. The security of family and friends in New York made a European adventure seem daunting. I vacillated back and forth: I didn’t know many people in Paris. Then there was the job, or, rather, the lack of a job. What would I do? I was not going to Paris to be a flâneur, or the female version—one of Manet’s immaculately coiffed ladies whose sunlit garden and nineteenth-century finery were financed by her industrialist husband. I was not Hemingway or Janet Flanner, banging out newsy dispatches from a café over a bottle of cheap wine. All I had was an impulse to go.
My godmother, Sandy, lived in a rambling corner apartment with sweeping views of the gilded dome and esplanade of Les Invalides. She was a footloose bohemian who loved a good party and, on a whim many years earlier, had followed her boyfriend, Bob, an editor at the International Herald Tribune, to Paris. Bob kindly gave me the phone number of a woman named Maggie Shapiro, who ran the internship program at the Trib, and she offered me a stagiaire. I signed up for French classes at the Sorbonne, solicited reference letters from professors and former employers, and filled out a stack of forms for a student visa. My friend Tanya connected me with a French family who rented rooms to American students. I sold my car, had my wisdom teeth pulled, and typed up a French résumé. I booked a ticket on a cheap charter flight to Paris: one-way.
And then a bomb went off.
I was sitting on a rattan stool in my mother’s kitchen when I saw the news flash on TV: an explosion in Paris. This was the fifth one in just ten days. Terrorists had been planting bombs in cafés and Métro stations. A grisly attack had occurred at a police station and another one at a post office in the Hôtel de Ville.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Seeds of the Dream 3
Chapter 2 Just Go 10
Chapter 3 17, Rue de Grenelle 13
Chapter 4 Dual Citizenship 29
Chapter 5 87, Rue Saint-Dominique 46
Chapter 6 Douce France 61
Chapter 7 In the Forest of Brocéliande 81
Chapter 8 L'Entretien 85
Chapter 9 5, Rue d'Aguesseau 93
Chapter 10 The Daily Metamorphosis of Exterior Things 101
Chapter 11 Follow the Money 112
Chapter 12 Flâneurs 117
Chapter 13 Le Bizutage 126
Chapter 14 Inside the Tabernacle 133
Chapter 15 The Cour Carrée 146
Chapter 16 29, Rue Cambon 158
Chapter 17 Leaving the Station 173
Chapter 18 3, Rue Ernest Psichari 184
Chapter 19 Saying Goodbye 194
Chapter 20 Coming Home 202
Chapter 21 Up in the Attic 214
Epilogue: 12, Rue des Barres 219
List of Illustrations 229
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A moving memoir. A love letter to Paris. ~*~LEB~*~