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Jackie Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis: their Paris years

Jackie Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis may not have much else in common. But they'll always have Paris.

By / May 8, 2012

"Each of these women had dreams about Paris before they went there," says author Alice Kaplan of Jackie Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis. "Their families had dreams about Paris."

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Jackie Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis could hardly be more different. Yet, as young women, each of these 20th-century icons spent a seminal year in Paris. In Dreaming in French, Yale University French professor and National Book Award finalist Alice Kaplan follows the three through their days in the French capital and considers the ways in which Paris left its mark on the rest of their lives. I recently had a chance to talk with Kaplan about the relationship of these three women to Paris, the magic of the city itself, and the ongoing importance of the "junior year abroad" experience. Here are excerpts from our conversation:

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Q: You follow Jackie Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis through the year each spent in France. Which young woman was most profoundly impacted by her Parisian sojourn?

They were impacted in so many different ways that it’s hard for me to choose. [But] Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy got the intellectual sense of self that she would call on more in her life.

Susan Sontag got freedom. She got freedom from a marriage she never should have made. Paris was a place that gave her permission to live out her sexuality. She got a model of how to be an intellectual without being in a university. That was really key for her. What she had was like a model of a way of life.

Then Angela Davis, her case is very different than the other two. I would say that France had a profound impact on her in that she learned in France that racism is not confined to Birmingham, Ala. That it was an international phenomenon, that the French were extremely racist toward the Algerians. That opened her up to all sorts of analysis. She’s been very important in the American scene for having really had a very broad and nonparochial perspective on issues of race. That was important to her. But I would say that in general she was more important to France than France was to her.

Q: Could these young women have had an equally profound experience in Rome or Madrid?

Paris was then and remains the world capital of literature. Each of these women had dreams about Paris before they went there. Their families had dreams about Paris. Jacqueline Bouvier’s grandfather gave [his family] all a genealogy showing that they were descended from [French] royalty. Susan Sontag imagined herself as a European when she was a child at North Hollywood High. Her imagination wasn’t any European. I do believe she imagined herself a French European. She was reading about Marie Curie at school. She was reading André Gide at school.

There were so many layers for Americans of French mythology. You see it in the Woody Allen movie “Midnight in Paris.” You see how deep that romantic love affair is with French culture. Of course Angela Davis was reading Camus before she went to France. She was an existentialist on the Brandeis campus.

Q: Study abroad is more and more a part of the US college experience today. How different is it from what the young women in your book experienced?

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