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

By: Alice Kaplan

In the young eyes of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis, mid-twentieth-century France was a dream, from the exhaled air of liberation and newly minted voting rights for women to the country’s flair for the avant-garde. And for one year in each of the early adult lives of these women, it became a rose-colored reality.

Author Alice Kaplan, who holds a Ph.D. in French and is currently a professor of French at Yale  University, documents these women’s respective years spent in France. For Jacqueline Bouvier, a  junior year abroad was a time of intense immersion in the language and culture of the country,  along with chasing the folklore of her ancestry. At twenty-four years old, Susan Sontag fled to  Paris in 1957, seeking relief from her failing marriage, and more broadly, the confines of heteronormativity, where she was joined by her lover Harriet Sohmers. Six years later, in 1963,  Angela Davis arrived for her junior year abroad, primed for the intersections of intellectual,  political, and personal pursuit, relishing Paris for its foundation of activism, revolution, and solace from the harsher racial oppression of her upbringing in Birmingham, Alabama. 

Kaplan writes with genuine intrigue in and admiration of the lives of these famed American women and brings forth a colorful picture of perhaps the lesser-known experiences that foreshadowed what was to come for each of the future cultural icons. The young Bouvier spent her year as an observer of all things French, soaking in the literature, cinema, and fashion – the latter to become the influence of renown during her White House days. Sontag’s time abroad encompassed a deeper journey of self-discovery, a longing for something new in the storied streets of Europe. Such experiences would similarly be reflected in her later work. The voyage of  Davis was also one of identity; the only Black student in her study abroad program, her French education provided “a language through which she could make her demands heard,” setting the stage for the outspoken political activist she would become. 

Kaplan rounds out in great detail, the historical context surrounding each of their ventures. Not only does such detail enable the reader to better understand the world these women occupied and navigated at the time, but also to display how that world responded to them. In the present  

day, it can be of greater appreciation, the affection with which Kennedy adorned the White  House in French culture; in the ’60s, Kennedy was considered “too French…and too international” during an era expecting of great patriotism, where anything less than that from the  First Lady, would be speculation of irreverence towards the country she represented. 

The writing, while beautiful, can linger on tertiary details and asides, like the specifics of how  Pablo Picasso’s dove “became an international logo for peace, [and] first appeared on posters for  a communist-sponsored peace congress in April 1949.” While Kaplan finds relevance in such digressions, some of the overly rich details, while interesting, can become mildly inaccessible if 

you lack an advanced knowledge of French history and culture. For true Francophiles, these factoids will be a delight to pocket. 

Dreaming in French is a slow, and simultaneously, brief portrait of otherwise exciting and remarkable women. The country serves as the shared canvas for their disparate journeys, and while Kaplan seeks to loosely seam together the lives of these women, the end product essentially serves as three independent biographies, in chronological order.  

The successful thread Kaplan does weave is the sentiment of how each of the studied women found pieces of themselves in their Parisian passage, marked indelibly by the city’s vibrations.  For Kennedy, Sontag, and Davis, Paris was a home for a great education, romance, and enlightenment, which perhaps sooner pushed them, with an air of inevitability, into their intrinsic truths and power, which we know them for today. 

About the Author: 

Alice Kaplan received her Ph.D. in French at Yale University in 1981, where she now resides as the John M. Musser Professor of French, specializing in 20th Century France, as well as serving as the Director of the Whitney Humanities Center. Her additional works include The InterpreterThe Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach, which was a finalist for the National  

Book Award, and perhaps most salient, French Lessons, a memoir of her own study abroad excursions in the titular country.