Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis

Joanna Biggs writes:

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.

(LRB 2 August 2012)

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