Everything about Paris caused me to fill with grand emotion. Perhaps it was lust, not in the pornographic sense but in the desire to know, to see, to feel, to become a part of the arches and the trees in the park and the smoke in the cafes and the dead rabbits hanging in the window of the butchers and to cross the wide streets and to know that something momentous was going to happen to me soon. I ached from the desire to shed my skin and become ... what?
— Anne Roiphe
THE VERY "WHAT" ANNE ROIPHE POSES in her memoir Art and Madness is at the center of Alice Kaplan's Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis. The American girl in Paris is a trope as iconic as the three subjects of Kaplan's book, though it's a somewhat unexpected triumvirate: their primary commonality would seem to be a certain transcendence to a cultural shorthand — to personae so identifiable as to make for lazy Halloween costumes. But in examining each woman's relationship to postwar Paris, Kaplan arrives at larger common themes: not merely of experience, but of what it meant to be an American, and a woman, in the 20th century.
This is not new territory for Kaplan, whose memoir French Lessons provides an object lesson on the transformative powers of France's capital. But the Paris she explores in Dreaming is, on the one hand, that of 10-franc meals, existentialists, and food shortages, while on the other, the territory of Vincente Minnelli and Elaine Dundy. The Paris Kaplan's subjects experienced in the 15 years marking their respective visits is the one that would form American impressions of what it meant to be French — and more to the point, an expatriate — to this day.
Each woman, as Kaplan demonstrates, came to Paris with an objective in mind: crafting a distinct identity. For each, it was not so much what Paris could teach them as how it could confirm the preconceived notions of self each had deliberately formed. In Jacqueline Bouvier's case, the "foreign royalty" aura that would complicate her public identity and prove so central to her glamorous mystique was rooted in a much humbler truth. While family lore painted the Bouviers as aristocrats, they were in fact shopkeepers from the South of France. And yet, when Bouvier traveled to France on a 1949 semester-abroad program, it was not to explore her origins; rather, it was to confirm her place in the highest echelons of French society. While the Paris that greeted Bouvier and the rest of the Smith contingent under whose auspices she traveled was still crippled by wartime austerities, she lived in the still-grand apartment of an ancient family with good connections. What's more, due to her family's intercession she quickly found herself traveling in even higher social circles, surrounded by the children of dukes and barons.
While Bouvier's French, both spoken and written, was good, and while she and her fellow students made a point of not communicating in English, it was still, as Kaplan explains, "schoolgirl French" — that ...read more