By Mark Howell
"Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag and Angela Davis"
by Alice Kaplan
University of Chicago Press, $18
With this week's front-page story devoted to the child and teen targets of civil rights confrontations in Alabama 50 years ago and Shirrel Rhoades' review of the new film, "The Butler" about race and the White House, it is timely to take a look at a book published last year about how three leading ladies of America in the 1960s spent a serious part of their student years in the land of the French fry. It was those years that enlightened all three of them on race relations in their native land.
Written by Alice Kaplan, "Dreaming in French" became the center of an important feature in The London Review of Books written by Joanna Biggs, who also spent her youth in Paris in the same era as the protagonists in Kaplan's book. The impression one can't fail to take away from these writers and the lives of those they're writing about is the depth and degree of France's influence on all of our lives.
In 1949, Jacqueline Bouvier became bored with her life at Vassar and, to escape it, applied for a Smith College junior year in Paris. There she stayed in the 16th arrondissemont with the comtesse de Renty, but what really caught her attention was the war-torn condition of the city and the faraway ruins of Dachau, an abandoned and neglected concentration camp that she and friends visited one Christmas. "What were the Nazis thinking?" was their obsessive response on the way back. They attended seminars on the Communist Party, read Sartre and spoke French with each other.
According to Gore Vidal, Jackie lost her virginity in an elevator to a writer for the Paris Review but someone else said she went out with the assistant to the French prime minister who took her riding in the Bois de Boulogne. ("We cannot know more until Bouvier's papers are opened," notes Biggs.) Whatever, France offered Jackie and her friends a freedom they did not feel in America.
Back in the U.S., Bouvier became engaged to John Husted, a Wall Street stockbroker, but when her mother learned that he earned $17,000 a year the engagement was over. Jackie thought about an entry-level position at the CIA but then she met John Kennedy. As Jackie Kennedy, she became famous as the only wife of a presidential candidate ever to read Proust and go to movies like Alain Resnais' "Les dernieres années Ã Marienbad." It was on their state visit to France in 1961 that President Kennedy referred to himself as "the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris." That trip was eagerly anticipated by Jackie as an opportunity to introduce Jack to a whole lifestyle that had had such a profound effect on her. But the President of the United States now saw for himself how Europe viewed the American South, embroiled as it was in murderous racial conflict. He could not fail to hear the incredulity and revulsion of this American ally at his country's prevailing attitude toward its black citizens so many years after the Civil War. Jack Kennedy returned home a changed man, a president determined to change history.
Susan Sontag was the author of "Against Interpretation," "Styles of Radical Will" and the play "The Way We Live Now" among many other works in a lifetime of writing and teaching. She went to Paris in the late 1960s a year after writing despairingly in her diary: "If you don't stop now ... no more women -- no more bars.--" Within that year she had married the sociologist Philip Rieff and won a scholarship to Oxford. "Go to Paris," advised her husband. "It must be great fun." So Susan did, but largely to pursue her girlfriend from the University of Chicago, Harriet Sohmers, and to spend some serious time in bars.
Harriet, whom Susan called "the finest flower of American bohemia," was working for the Herald Tribune in Paris, where she also became the inspiration for the Jean Seberg role in Jean-Luc Godard's "A bout de souffle." But while in Paris Susan Sontag fell in love with another woman, Nicole Stéphane, who'd acted in Jean-Pierre Melville's films but was now producing her own. Stéphane was descended from the Rothschilds and she set Susan up in what Biggs describes as "an even posher part of the 16th than where Bouvier had stayed with the countess."
In a 2001 interview on French radio, Susan admitted she was "very attached to the status of the foreigner, to what one learns and one feels when one is foreign." In the habit of listing all the new things she encountered as a voyeur of society, her practice paid off when she left the Café de Beaux Arts for New York: Her bestselling "Notes on Camp" is actually a 58-point list.
When Sontag died in 20004, her son (by Rieff) buried her in the cemetery at Montparnasse, just a few yards away from one of his mother's heroines, Simone de Beauvoir.
Angela Yvonne Davis attended a school in Birmingham, Alabama, that did not teach French, so she taught it to her classmates herself. "Encouraged by her mother," writes Biggs, "who'd changed her own middle name from May to Marguerite because it was 'more sophisticated,'" Angela was fluent enough at 17 to go with a friend to a shoe shop in town and pretend to be French. Her conclusion: "All black people have to do is pretend they come from another country and you get treated like dignitaries." It was a radicalizing discovery. Subsequently she attended college in Paris -- where she too stayed in the 16th, with a right-wing family -- because, she later said, the French capital was home to Josephine Baker, Richard Wright and James Baldwin.
Back in the U.S., while studying for a PhD at UCLA, she wrote an essay about Robbe-Grillet but knew very well that "Frenchiness" (as Jack Kennedy called it regarding the First Lady's taste in food) also meant being radical: the FBI at the time was saying that Jean Seberg, the American actress then married to French author Romain Gary, was pregnant with the child of a Black Panther. Angela Davis herself became Pantherized in the American public's mind (and a cause célèbre in France) when she was charged with murder, conspiracy and kidnapping after George Jackson and other black militants were helped to escape from Soledad Prison in 1969.
Her image at the trial (at which she was found innocent by an all-white jury) spread all around the world because of her eye-catching afro, sweetly echoed by actress YaYa DaCosta in "The Butler." In another new book, "Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party" by Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin, Angela has the last word on that. Her statement is typically both American hip and philosophically French:
"It is humiliating and humbling to discover that a single generation after the events that constructed me as a public personality, I am remembered as a hairdo. Humiliating because it reduces a politics of liberation to a politics of fashion. Humbling because such encounters with the younger generation demonstrate the fragility and mutability of historical images."