DREAMING IN FRENCH: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy,
Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis by Alice Kaplan
Publisher University of Chicago Press, March 2012
A year in Paris... since World War II, countless American students have
been lured by that vision—and been transformed by their sojourn in the City
of Light. Dreaming in French tells three stories of that experience, and how
it changed the lives of three extraordinary American women.
All three women would go on to become icons, key figures in American
cultural, intellectual, and political life, but when they embarked for
France, they were young, little-known, uncertain about their future, and
drawn to the culture, sophistication, and drama that only Paris could offer.
Yet their backgrounds and their dreams couldn’t have been more different.
Jacqueline Bouvier was a twenty-year-old debutante, a Catholic girl from a
wealthy East Coast family. Susan Sontag was twenty-four, a precocious Jewish
intellectual from a North Hollywood family of modest means, and Paris was a
refuge from motherhood, a failing marriage, and graduate work in philosophy
at Oxford. Angela Davis, a French major at Brandeis from a prominent African
American family in Birmingham, Alabama, found herself the only black student
in her year abroad program—in a summer when all the news from Birmingham was
of unprecedented racial violence.
Kaplan takes readers into the lives, hopes, and ambitions of these young
women, tracing their paths to Paris and tracking the discoveries,
intellectual adventures, friendships, and loves that they found there. For
all three women, France was far from a passing fancy; rather, Kaplan shows,
the year abroad continued to influence them, a significant part of their
intellectual and cultural makeup, for the rest of their lives. Jackie
Kennedy carried her love of France to the White House and to her career as
an editor , bringing her her cultural and linguistic fluency to everything
from art and diplomacy to fashion and historic restoration—to the extent
that many, including Jackie herself, worried that she might seem “too
French.” Sontag found in France a model for the life of the mind that she
was determined to lead; the intellectual world she observed from afar during
that first year in Paris inspired her most important work and remained a key
influence—to be grappled with, explored, and transcended —the rest of her
life. Davis, meanwhile, found that her Parisian vantage strengthened her
sense of political exile from racism at home and brought a sense of
solidarity with the burgeoning Algerian independence movement. For her,
Paris was a city of political commitment, activism, and militancy, qualities
that would deeply inform her own revolutionary agenda and soon make her a
hero to the French writers she had once studied.
Kaplan, whose own junior year abroad played a prominent role in her classic
memoir, French Lessons, spins these three quite different stories into one
evocative biography, brimming with the ferment and yearnings of youth and
shot through with the knowledge of how a single year—and a magical city—can
change a whole life. No one who has ever dreamed of Paris should miss it.
"A fascinating group portrait of three different women from three
different generations whose trajectories nevertheless converge in one
surprising yet significant place: Paris. In this lively, original biographie
à trois, Alice Kaplan shows how time spent living in the French capital and
learning about its culture gave each of these sui generis heroines 'her own
ideas of what counted'—and how those ideas in turn became an indelible part
of the American political and cultural landscape."
-- Caroline Weber, author of Queen of Fashion: What Marie
Antoinette Wore to the Revolution
“Alice Kaplan’s Dreaming in French is an eloquent, brilliant, and often
moving portrayal of three remarkable women whose personal and intellectual
engagement with France transformed them, and by extension America as well.
These intimate narratives of Jacqueline Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela
Davis feel not only vital, but also necessary to our understanding of their
moral, aesthetic and political development, and just as importantly, to our
understanding of each as a remarkable, flawed, and complicated human being.”
-- Dinaw Mengestu, author of How to Read the Air