Jacqueline Bouvier, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis Go to Paris

Reading between the lines.
March 31 2012 12:17 AM

Studies Abroad

How did visits to Paris shape Jacqueline Bouvier, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis?

(Continued from Page 1)

So what I found most striking about Kaplan's book was its relation not to France, but to America. It's a book, to some extent, about the desirability of abandoning or attenuating one's Americanness. “I am very attached by temperament to the status of the foreigner,” Sontag said in a French radio interview. “Even though I live there, I don't feel like a New Yorker.” And there’s this really hopeless note that Jacqueline Kennedy wrote to Oleg Cassini on the eve of her husband's inauguration:

Put your brilliant mind to work for a day—Coats—dresses for public appearances—lunch & afternoon that I would wear if Jack were President of FRANCE—très Princesse de Rethy mais jeune.

“Well, at least she didn’t say King!” quips Kaplan.

120328_BOOKS_Kaplan-photo-of-Sontag
Susan Sontag (middle) with Harriett Sohmers and Barbara Sohmers on the Pont Au Double, 1958.

Photograph courtesy of Harriet Sohmers Zwerling.

Each of Kaplan's subjects could be said to represent a different aspect of American ideas of France: Jacqueline Bouvier, brought up in wealth and privilege, embodies the love of French aestheticism, of social elegance, art and fashion; Susan Sontag, so haughty and self-regarding, the unabashedly lofty cerebralism of the French intelligentsia; Angela Davis recalls the soixante-huitards, the idealism and intensity of the Parisian political left of the postwar period and by extension, of the modern European left that those years engendered. (Indeed, Davis soon left Paris to study with Adorno in Germany.)

Kaplan's attempts to paint Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis as an intellectually gifted woman are belied by a hundred little details she reports herself, like this tart jibe from Olivier Todd's biography of Malraux: “She's good at talking about books, even the ones she hasn't read.” There are excerpts from her essays for a Vogue competition; there's a paragraph from a book she edited at Doubleday. All are striking in their lack of originality or interest. France, for Jacqueline Kennedy, was like a beautiful dress or a carefully-put-together room: Something you pose in.

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Sontag, too, seems a titanic poser. In this 1979 Apostrophes interview cited in Kaplan's book, Sontag is joined by the likes of Robert Doisneau and Helmut Newton in a conversation about photography. Weirdly, Sontag claims that a camera is like a passport into people's private lives; that you grant them importance by taking their photographs, so they let you right in. The panelists express a little well-bred skepticism. Well, she replies, perhaps the French have a more difficult character than do Americans, who are extremely docile and flattered around a camera. “And are you flattered when people want to take your photo?” comes the friendly but pointed question from presenter Bernard Pivot. “I'm embarrassed,” Sontag responds girlishly.

Where Kaplan sees reverence toward Sontag in this interview, I see an agreeable willingness to sock it to her on the part of her French interlocutors. Perhaps Kaplan's earlier work as a historian (on collaborators and Holocaust deniers in postwar France), very serious in character, led her to take it pretty easy on Sontag and Onassis, whose chief crimes were dingbattery and pretentiousness.

Alice Kaplan.
Alice Kaplan

Photograph by Catherine Helie/© Gallimard.

Davis is by far the most fluent and most vital of the three. Just watch her speaking French. She had a point to make which had nothing to do with making herself seem smart or cool or beautiful or elegant or the greatest speaker of French, even. And yet Davis is all of these things. The intensity of her desire to understand, and to make herself understood, is transcendental. "A political thinker and an analyst of society, Angela Davis considered her individual adventure important only in the way it might illuminate society," Kaplan writes. In any language the immediacy of what a person has to say will surmount whatever obstacles her questionable vowels might put in the way. Because it is not a matter of pruning one's character as if it were a bonsai. Real language happens when there is someone to speak and someone to hear.

If this pleasurable book never quite convinced me of the story it wanted to tell, maybe that’s just because my experience is so markedly different from the author's. And that’s totally okay. Perhaps Francophilia itself, the dreaming in French, is largely inexplicable, like the charm, impenetrable to some and irresistible to others, of foie gras, or Foucault. Maybe the mystery should be left as a sophomore French major I know left it recently, when she was asked, why? Why French? And she replied, “Je ne sais pas, quelque chose m'a pris.” I don't know, something just took hold of me.

See all the pieces in the new Slate Book Review.

Maria Bustillos is a Los Angeles-based writer and critic. She is the author of Dorkismo, and a frequent contributor to the Awl.

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