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.

"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."

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:

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?

It is very different today. There have been so many debates about various [American] schools exporting themselves to other places – to Dubai, to  Singapore, exporting brand as it were. The theory behind these new exported American schools is that we have something wonderful to offer to the rest of the world. The American university system is really one of the things the United States does best.

The other thing I’d say is that most people agree that there’s less difference now between Europe and the US. France has been Americanized in many ways. Not in all ways. The other thing that’s happened is a remarkable form of connection among countries because of the Internet and various technologies. And I wouldn’t completely bash those new technologies. I’ve had students who’ve entered into relationships, very interesting correspondences in French with students, you know, having fun on Facebook in French. It’s really nice to be able to stay in touch that way with friends in a different language.

On the other hand, when you look back at the 1949-1950 group [of Smith College students who studied in Paris with Jacqueline Bouvier, some of whom Kaplan interviewed for her book], for example, they would go for months without talking to their parents. And this is almost inconceivable to us. They would go for months and as for being out of touch, there’s something good about it. Going to a new country, just being away, not being in the expectations of the American social life or whatever their parents may have expected, they could try out new ways of being and that was very freeing for them.

Q. Another difference is that not all of today’s students strive for total foreign language mastery the way these students did. Does that make a difference?

You’re asking the wrong person. You are so totally asking the wrong person! My life’s work has been to insist that language is key and to value France because it is the place that takes language seriously as the essence of the human experience and so what I want to do most in my work is to help escort young people into another language, into the French language particularly. So I do think it’s key.

One of the reasons I wanted to write my book was to remind people that there was a time when Americans were so eager to learn something from the rest of the world. And learning another language is part of that. It’s giving yourself up to another system of thought and another way of doing things. And that is what I would call an endangered experience. And I wanted to remind people how valuable that could be, even if the experience is tough or horrible.

Q: Two of these women (Jackie Kennedy and Angela Davis) were in Paris on academic programs. Susan Sontag was not. Did it matter?

People go to Paris for all different reasons but I would say that the story of Susan Sontag is very poignant because she didn’t have enough money to go on a study-abroad program. The huge advantages Jacqueline Bouvier and Angela Davis had in the abroad programs was having directors that organized activities and put them in touch with all sorts of people living and working in France who arranged for them to take courses. Susan Sontag would sit in cafes, she was surrounded by other Americans. She didn’t have French friends. She would sit in cafes and open her notebooks and listen and make list after list of French words. And that’s really beautiful but it’s just much harder for her. That’s the beauty of these study abroad programs. They give students such opportunities.

Q: Did you have a junior year abroad experience of your own?

I went to the University of Bordeaux in the 1973-74 school year. The book is dedicated to my group of women friends from that year. We call one another l’équipe. It’s also dedicated to [my French host family]. I’m still in touch with all of them. There are things that happen to students on their junior year abroad that might not seem important at the time, but they grow through memory and take on new meaning through subsequent study and living.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's books editor.

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