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.

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