It’s she, it’s she, it’s she

Joanna Biggs

  • Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag and Angela Davis by Alice Kaplan
    Chicago, 289 pp, £17.00, May 2012, ISBN 978 0 226 42438 5
  • As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Diaries 1964-80 by Susan Sontag
    Hamish Hamilton, 544 pp, £18.99, April 2012, ISBN 978 0 241 14517 3

On campus everyone wore jeans but in the city everyone wore mink, Simone de Beauvoir observed when she visited Vassar College to give a talk in February 1947. The reason, she thought, was that American women dress to tell the world about their standard of living, or to make men stare: ‘The truth is that the way European women dress is much less servile.’ If being a young woman in postwar America was suffocating, why not try Paris? Alice Kaplan’s Dreaming in French tells the story of three college girls – Jacqueline Bouvier, Susan Sontag and Angela Davis – who did. Kaplan, who wrote about her own year abroad in the memoir French Lessons, takes the three, who didn’t meet, as examples of mid-20th-century types: the (Catholic) aesthete, the (Jewish) bohemian and the (black) political activist.[*] In Paris it was possible to be nicely dressed and clever, an intellectual and a novelist, philosophical and political. There they didn’t have to choose between jeans and mink or intellect and motherhood; their lives could be ‘doubled’, as Bouvier put it. And the book gives you double vision: Camelot-era Jackie Kennedy is the ultimate American, until you know that she’s dressed in rip-off Chanel; Susan Sontag is the New York intellectual personified, until you see that her first novel is a nouveau roman; Angela Davis’s struggle typifies the Black Power movement, until you see that it’s Charlotte Corday all over again.

Jacqueline Bouvier and Claude de Renty, daughter of the comtesse, on the southern leg of their road trip around France in 1950.
Jacqueline Bouvier and Claude de Renty, daughter of the comtesse, on the southern leg of their road trip around France in 1950.

Jacqueline Bouvier was born into an age that still thought speaking French was like playing the piano: something upper-class girls did. But French was also a space for her to dream in: the Bouviers were descended from French royalty, the story went (they were more likely shopkeepers in the Gard). In 1949, bored of Vassar’s rolled-up jeans, Bouvier applied for the Smith College Junior Year in Paris. It was a rigorous programme, taught entirely in French, starting in August at a crammer in Grenoble. At the beginning of October, a month before the second volume of The Second Sex came out, the group moved to Paris, where they were issued with ration cards for sugar and coffee, and matched with French families. Bouvier stayed in the 16th arrondissement with the comtesse de Renty, a family friend who’d been a right-wing résistante in the war and survived Ravensbrück. She got the biggest room, and was taken on visits to the Louvre. But the attraction of Europe was its war-torn-ness, and at Christmas Bouvier and a friend visited an empty, whitewashed Dachau, opened to the public days earlier. The friend wouldn’t stop repeating ‘What were they thinking?’ on the way back.

In Paris, the college girls went to lectures at Sciences Po, took photos of sens interdit signs (as exotic as red phoneboxes), took seminars on the Communist Party, and read Sartre but not Beauvoir, who wasn’t thought suitable. They were strict about only talking French to each other, believing that if they were caught chatting in English they would be sent home, but lax about other things. The comtesse didn’t enforce the 12.15 a.m. curfew or stop Bouvier from having male visitors (other families wouldn’t let a suitor through the door), and there was freedom in being reachable only by letter (phones were for dramatic events). Gore Vidal said Bouvier lost her virginity in a lift to a writer for the Paris Review, someone else said she went out with an assistant to the prime minister, who took her riding in the Bois de Boulogne. We can’t know more until Bouvier’s papers are opened, but Kaplan has found a bilingual poem:

Qui sait pourquoi une brise d’Avril
Reste jamais

Pourquoi les étoiles dans les arbres
Se cachent quand il pleut

L’amour vient – jetant un sort
Est-ce qu’il vous chantera une chanson

Est-ce qu’il vous dira adieu
Qui peut le dire (Qui sait?)

Who knows why an April breeze
Never remains

Why stars in the trees
Hide when it rains

Love comes along – casting a spell
Will sing you a song

Will it say a farewell
Who can tell

It’s the sort of thing you could write at a café table, and feel pleased that you’d included the poetic word ‘brise’ as well as being vaguely bitter about the breeziness of the man who inspired it. It was another of the rites of the year abroad.

Bouvier wrote to her brother of her ‘two lives’: the first in the Sorbonne, ‘a lovely, quiet, rainy world’; the second ‘like the maid on her day out, putting on a fur coat and going to the middle of town and being swanky, at the Ritz. But I really like the first part best.’ In a photo taken at a ball in March, Roselyne Béghin, of the sugar fortune, and Sabine de Noailles, whose aunt’s grandmother inspired Proust, are caught mid-chat, eyes closed and mouths open in exclamation, but Bouvier, in a black strapless dress and triple-stranded pearls, manages only a half-smile. By contrast, in a publicity shot taken on the boat to France, Jackie, at the centre of a row of five girls striding across the top deck, is hard to pick out, she’s so beamingly at home. Kaplan argues that a bargain was being made between depressed postwar France and gleaming postwar America: in bringing their ‘maid on her day out’ excitement to ordering a picon-citron at the Deux Magots, the college girls showed France how glamorous it was, even if it didn’t feel it just then. And France offered freedom that they didn’t get in America. Bouvier took a road trip from Lyon to Bordeaux the summer before she left France. In a snap taken at an impromptu picnic on the banks of the Loire, she is sitting bare-legged in espadrilles on the long grass, holding up a bunch of grapes in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other. There is a wodge of baguette between her teeth so you can’t see her smile.

Back in the US, Bouvier got engaged to John Husted, a Wall Street stockbroker, but once her mother learned that he earned just $17,000 a year, the engagement was called off. She made gestures towards an entry-level position at the CIA and won the Paris Prize at Vogue – six months working at the magazine in Paris followed by six months in New York, fully paid – but turned it down: ‘I have already lived in Paris for a year and become so satiated with it, and so miserable when I came back home, that I would rather not go back for a while.’ Two years later she married John Kennedy. As he planned for the 1960 presidential election she read Proust, and was criticised for her love of foreign clothes. ‘I refuse to have Jack’s administration plagued by fashion stories of a sensational nature – & to be the Marie Antoinette or Josephine of the 1960s,’ she wrote to Oleg Cassini, the man she found to do Givenchy à l’américaine for her. A dress was to be inspired by Alain Resnais’s new movie: ‘You must see “les Dernieres années à Marienbad”, all chanelish chiffons. I saw a picture of Bardot in one – in Match or Elle in black – but mine could be red, covered up in long sleeves – transparent.’ When she had the chance she wore real Givenchy, as during the 1961 state visit to France, where Kennedy, who didn’t speak much French, called himself ‘the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris’. (Later, when Kennedy couldn’t work out what ‘potage aux vermicelles’ might be, he would accuse her of being ‘too Frenchy’.)

In her three years at the White House, she led a major renovation, and in a televised tour of the improvements combined a geeky knowledge of Lincoln and Jefferson with an antique dealer’s fastidiousness about the dating of chairs. She also did a shorter version of the tour in French, showing off by using the right vocabulary for upholstery and candelabras. What must have seemed liberating in the 1960s – a chance to combine the look of things and the knowledge of them – has since become a tradition: the Harvard-educated lawyer Michelle Obama walks a reporter around her newly established kitchen garden, though she proudly tells him she doesn’t know the names of all the varieties of tomatoes she grows. After Kennedy’s assassination and the death of her second husband, Aristotle Onassis, Jackie turned again to France. As an editor at Doubleday, she looked after Secrets of Marie Antoinette in 1985, The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier in 1991 and Antony Beevor and Artemis Cooper’s Paris after the Liberation, the last book she worked on before she died in 1994, finding a felicitous ending for it on her deathbed.

Susan Sontag (centre) with Harriet Sohmers (left) and Sohmers’s sister (right), photographed in Paris in 1958.
Susan Sontag (centre) with Harriet Sohmers (left) and Sohmers’s sister (right), photographed in Paris in 1958.

Susan Sontag’s idea of Paris came from Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood. Harriet Sohmers, a fellow student, had picked her up at the University of California by asking her if she’d read it. Sontag had, many times, and the reward for passing this test of a pick-up line was an introduction to San Francisco’s gay scene. Nightwood showed Sontag ‘the way I want to write – rich and rhythmic – heavy, sonorous prose’, but also how to live, as she and her new friends laughed about ‘what a parody of Nightwood’ their intertwining affairs were. She won a scholarship to the University of Chicago that autumn – ‘no more women, no more bars … if you don’t stop now’ – and within a year had married the sociologist Philip Rieff. Now she wrote about Nightwood instead of imitating it: her adviser, Kenneth Burke, had once lived with Barnes in Greenwich Village, and what she ended up writing – she argued that the novel made beauty out of something dissolute, where T.S. Eliot had said the book had a ‘quality of horror and doom’ – was loved by Burke, hated by a second marker, loathed by a third and redeemed by a visiting lecturer who was called on to adjudicate. Before she married Rieff, she had planned to go to Europe on graduating – ‘get my BA and run!’ A prodigy who had first gone to university at 15, she now followed a steady academic path: she stayed with her husband, had a son and when he was three and she was 22 started a philosophy PhD at Harvard.

It looked like Sontag had settled down and put away her fantasy of living in Europe. But two years later she got her passage: a scholarship to Oxford, starting in October 1957. While J.L. Austin lectured on speech acts, Sontag imagined, by way of a list, being at the zinc:

Café crème – white coffee after dinner
café au lait – breakfast coffee
une fine (brandy)
un Pernod (as many Pernods as colas in the US)

Sohmers was in Paris, and instead of going back to Harvard at Christmas, Sontag went to meet her. (Rieff had agreed: ‘Go to Paris, it must be great fun.’ ‘He doesn’t know, then, he’s cutting his own throat,’ one of Sontag’s friends commented.) Their Paris was one of borrowed apartments and short stays in hotels, of ‘the café routine. After work, or trying to write or paint, you come to a café looking for people you know.’ In 1967 Sontag told a journalist that she ‘came to Paris in 1957 and I saw nothing … I stayed closed off in a milieu that was in itself a milieu of foreigners.’ Americans in Paris met at the Café des Beaux-Arts or the Monaco or at Old Navy (‘vile sandwich at Old Navy’, she wrote in her diary); a Francophone evening was rare enough for a note: ‘I reely wuz speeking French. For owers ’n ’owers.’ She spent most of her time with Harriet, the ‘finest flower of American bohemia’, who worked for the Herald Tribune, and who some say was the inspiration for the Jean Seberg role in A bout de souffle. Sontag would write ecstatically of Sohmers – ‘It’s she, it’s she, it’s she’ – but they also gave each other bruises and pushed each other to tears. (When things got really bad, Sontag copied sentences from Nightwood into her journal.) By comparison, life in an Ivy League college with Rieff was unthinkably dull: ‘Everything urging me to decide, to act, to leave him when I go back.’

Paris let her say no to academic life, but not to a life of ideas. The best thinking was done in cafés, or in bed, or at the movies, not in libraries. Sontag hedged: she made more lists of French words (bidule was ‘thingumabob’, discuter was ‘to expound’) and signed up for lectures at the Sorbonne, where she heard Beauvoir speak: ‘She is lean and tense and black-haired and very good-looking for her age, but her voice is unpleasant, something about the high pitch + the nervous speed with which she talks.’ Sontag was more interested in looking at Beauvoir than in listening to her, much as Beauvoir was most interested in the way Vassar girls dressed. She had heard a rumour that Beauvoir was gay and worried that the way ‘exemplary independent women’ portrayed themselves – ‘hair drawn back, lean, even bony figure; tailored clothes with high-necked blouses’ – undermined ‘the feminist case’. Beauvoir thought high heels undermining; Sontag thought the same of high-necked blouses. Sontag tried both: in a picture taken by a street photographer, Sohmers and Sontag are wearing high-neck jumpers and ankle-length trousers with sneakers, but when Sontag took a bit part in a Nouvelle Vague movie, she wore heels and a straight-cut midi-length skirt to play with a paper lantern on celluloid. On 16 July she decided she could ‘live without H after all’ and by October she was in New York, where she had been taken on by Commentary and taken up by Sohmers’s ex, Irene Fornés. (She disproved Rieff’s claims that she was a lesbian by coming to court in lipstick and a skirt, and so won custody of her son.)

In New York she worked on a novel, The Benefactor, narrated by Hippolyte, a rich man who lives according to hints from his dreams. ‘I took the opportunity to travel outside my native country,’ Hippolyte says. ‘I found this more instructive than the wordy learning of the university and the library.’ Drawing on Des Esseintes as well as the nouveau roman, it read, Time’s critic said, like a ‘blurred translation from some other language’. But the reviewer for Les Nouvelles littéraires found the hero ‘closer to those of Updike and James Purdy than to those of our “new novel”’. Kaplan remarks that this was ‘just the kind of neither/nor position that suited her’, and the young Derrida saw merit in it: ‘A certain “misunderstanding” is often – especially in cases like yours – the best sign, as you well know.’ Sontag started spending July, the month before everyone leaves the city for the coast, in Paris. She would borrow Resnais’s apartment, investigate Blanchot for her translator friend Richard Howard, go to see the latest Godard film or visit the catacombs with her son.

In the late 1960s, she fell in love with Nicole Stéphane, who had acted in Jean-Pierre Melville’s films but now produced her own. Stéphane, who was descended from the Rothschilds, set Sontag up in an even posher part of the 16th than where Bouvier had stayed with the countess, and Sontag began to work on film and theatre projects, even acquiring the film rights to Beauvoir’s She Came to Stay, despite her problems with the high-necked blouse: ‘Is it possible I owe yet a second liberation to Simone de Beauvoir? Twenty years ago, I read The Second Sex. Last night, I read L’Invitée.’ (She abandoned the adaptation on Stéphane’s advice.) Towards the end of her life, Sontag was the bane of her French translators, writing them long letters about The Volcano Lover, including the following grammar-defying request: ‘I know that in French, the present tense is often used to describe actions in the past (unlike English), but I still don’t want to do it that way … About 20 per cent of the time you say so-and-so DISAIT, and 80 per cent DIT. Let’s make it always DISAIT.’ She’d forgotten that dit can be a past tense too; her favourite translator pointed this out gently by saying that the past historic ‘sounded more natural in the sentence’. In 2001, she told an interviewer on French radio that she was ‘very attached … to the status of the foreigner, to what one learns and one feels when one is foreign’. One of her responses to feeling foreign was to list the new things she encountered. And it was a habit that served her well when she left the Café des Beaux-Arts for New York: ‘Notes on Camp’, after all, is a 58-point list. When Sontag died in 2004, her son knew to bury her in the cemetery at Montparnasse a few yards away from Beauvoir.

Angela Davis and classmates in Biarritz in 1963
Angela Davis and classmates in Biarritz in 1963

Angela Davis’s school didn’t teach French, so she taught it to her classmates herself. Encouraged by her mother, who changed her own middle name from May to Marguerite because it was ‘more sophisticated’, Angela Yvonne Davis was fluent enough at 17 to try it out in the real world: she and her sister went to a shoe shop in Birmingham, Alabama and pretended they were French. The clerks were having trouble making out what they wanted, so called the manager over:

He asked us about our background – where were we from, what were we doing in the States and what on earth had brought us to a place like Birmingham, Alabama? … After repeated attempts, however, the manager fully understood that we came from Martinique and were in Birmingham as part of a tour of the United States.

The success of the trick made them giddy, and they laughed out the punchline: ‘All black people have to do is pretend they come from another country, and you treat us like dignitaries.’ Frenchness overrode blackness: Paris, adopted home of James Baldwin, Josephine Baker and Richard Wright, was a paradise compared to Jim Crow Alabama. But when Davis went there, the summer after Kennedy wowed the Elysée, she saw ‘racist slogans scratched on the walls of the city threatening death to the Algerians’: they didn’t have it in for her because they had it in for someone else.

If French was no longer a haven, it was still something she was good at, and the country was close to Germany, where her boyfriend was studying, at Frankfurt. The next year she enrolled on the Hamilton College Junior Year in France. At the crammer in Biarritz, Davis stayed with a widow who would bring in the soup for her to approve every night before dinner. On 16 September Davis picked up a copy of the Herald Tribune and discovered that there had been a bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham: four 14-year-old girls, one of whom was her sister’s friend and another their neighbour, had been killed. In her autobiography, Davis remembers the moment she saw the paper as one she couldn’t share with her classmates. It was one of the rare times she phoned home.

Immersion is meant to be the best way of picking up a language, but it can have strange effects; on my year abroad in Paris I obsessively followed newspaper reports about the war in Iraq. You go abroad with the idea that you will become French but end up caring more about what happens elsewhere. In Paris, Davis dressed up in red velvet to go to the Théâtre de la Huchette to see the same Ionesco plays as Bouvier (and I) did. She stayed with a right-wing family in the 16th, and remembered the ‘steaming bowls of café au lait, croissants and chunks of butter’ for breakfast. (Another Hamilton student remembered her host family differently: when they learned she was Jewish from her offer of a slice of Hannukah cake, they took against her.) Forty-seven years later, Davis’s host recalled her perfect French: ‘Angela a toujours le mot juste.’

Back in the US, Davis wrote about Robbe-Grillet for her senior essay. His appeal wasn’t aesthetic, as it had been for Sontag, but political: he had ‘conferred upon the novel a truly philosophical and existential purpose’. She went on to study for a PhD at UCLA and teach there; when the student newspaper reported that there was a communist in the philosophy department (Davis had joined the Che Lumumba Club the year before), the university fired her. Being Frenchy could also mean being radical: the FBI put it about that Jean Seberg was pregnant with the child of a Black Panther, and Davis’s desk held Camus’s Mythe de Sisyphe and a pack of Gauloises. The dismissal was ruled unconstitutional, though the university used the fact that her dissertation wasn’t finished to fire her constitutionally. The death threats and the newspaper articles made her realise she could use her fame for other causes.

In January 1969, a prison guard shot three inmates dead at Soledad Prison in California. Two days later a prison officer was found beaten to death and George Jackson, Fleeta Drumgo and John Clutchette, the three most vocal black militants in the prison, faced the death penalty for murder. Jackson, who had been jailed at 18 for driving the getaway car in a $70 hold-up on a ‘one year to life’ sentence, had educated himself in prison by reading Fanon, Mao and Che, and now wrote long letters to members of the Soledad Brothers Defense Committee. Random House was persuaded to publish the letters; Jean Genet, a Panther supporter Davis had interpreted for on a tour of US campuses, agreed to write the foreword. Davis began writing to George too, having grown close to his family, especially his little brother Jonathan, and George dedicated the book to ‘Angela Y. Davis, my tender experience’, when it came out in 1970. But that August, Jonathan held up a courtroom in which a white judge was hearing a case against a black man. Four died, including Jonathan and the judge; the guns he used were registered to Angela Davis. Soon she was on the FBI’s most wanted list, and visits were paid to the students she’d been to Paris with (look for her in Algeria, one of them said). She was caught in New York and her trial began in March 1971.

Davis became a cause célèbre in France: as Kaplan points out, being a communist there was no hindrance (and it didn’t hurt that she was beautiful). Genet defended her in the media and wrote the foreword to a pamphlet published by Michel Foucault’s Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons called The Assassination of George Jackson. (Jackson had been shot in prison just before his trial started; the others were acquitted.) Foucault, who was working on Discipline and Punish, wrote the afterword: ‘The struggle in the prisons has become a new revolutionary front.’ Sarraute, Derrida and Robbe-Grillet signed open letters in support; Sartre and Beauvoir made contact with her lawyers; Davis’s sister led thousand-strong marches through the streets of Paris. Angela was the season’s Marianne.

Four hundred and fifty newspapers sent journalists to cover Davis’s trial for murder, conspiracy and kidnapping. The prosecution argued that she had supplied Jonathan Jackson with ideas as well as guns. (Jackson had been carrying three French books that belonged to Davis the day he died.) Davis, as co-counsel, gave the opening address: if you had grown up in Birmingham, it was prudent to keep guns; at the Che Lumumba Club they were open to all in an unlocked cabinet. She had paid for them ‘as I often paid rent, medical costs and other necessary expenses for my comrades’. After three days of deliberation, she was found not guilty on all counts. On her release she combined teaching – a course on the ‘Prison Industrial Complex’ – with campaigning around the world (she found that a beret was the best disguise for her afro when travelling), but France was still where she was best understood.

[*] John Sturrock wrote about French Lessons in the LRB of 16 December 1993.