Revealing snapshots from Paris
Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag and Angela Davis
By Alice Kaplan University of Chicago Press, 289pp, $38.95 (HB)
IN Anglo-Saxon countries a deep ambivalence pervades thinking about all things French. This attitude comes with regional accents: in England, it is the grouching of cousins across the Channel, sniping at each other since 1066. In the US, a love-hate relationship pits Puritan probity against aristocratic glamour, despite the long and intertwined history of republicanism that connects the two nations.
In Australia, admiration and aspiration are cloaked in egalitarian derision: Parisian chic remains a benchmark for some, while the word ‘‘ wanker’’ is never far behind in the conversation of others.
This double-edged fascination pervades Alice Kaplan’s triple biography Dreaming in French, in which she traces the Paris years of three emblematically American women: Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, Susan Sontag and Angela Davis.
Little would seem to connect the three, apart from celebrity, and indeed each took something different from her formative year abroad.
Arriving in the late 1940s, Bouvier found a Paris struggling with post-war deprivation. The walls of its beautiful buildings were black with soot; the American students, like their French hosts, needed ration cards; and political discourse was still rancorous, not that Bouvier, with her art studies, her parties and her hunts, noticed.
Fifteen years later Davis, an academically gifted black woman politically schooled from childhood in the race hatreds of Birmingham, Alabama, and precociously fluent in French, found a Paris convulsed by the Algerian War, deeply suspicious of Arabs and still antiSemitic, but colourblind where she was concerned. Like Bouvier, she was a French