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

A compelling look at three talented women and their youthful time, separately, in Paris and the great city’s influence on their lives.

It reads like the plot of a novel – three women from different backgrounds spend time in the early 20s in Paris, returning to the U.S. transformed. One, raised in an upper crust East Coast society family and named “Deb of the Year,” would become the very polished and popular wife of a handsome president doomed to be assassinated. The middle class girl from a North Hollywood family became, after her Paris sojourn, a well-respected writer. The third, though she was raised as an African American in the segregated south, came from an upper middle class family and spent time in Manhattan studying at a private school. She eventually would be acquitted of murder as a member of a radical fringe group.

“If you reduce them to identity labels, they are the soul of diversity: a Catholic debutante, a Jewish intellectual, an African-American revolutionary, from the East Coast, the West Coast, and the South,” writes Alice Kaplan, a  Sterling Professor of French and Director of the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale University in her book, “Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis” (University of Chicago Press 2013; $26). “They have often been reduced to their images: a sheath dress and a double strand of pearls, a mane of black hair with a white streak, an afro and a raised fist.”

Kaplan explores the time each spent in Paris and how those experiences shaped them, making all three cultural icons and bringing all both fame – for Kennedy and Sontag and controversy – for Davis.

Kaplan, the author of such books as French Lessons, and Looking for “The Stranger,” earned a Ph.D. from Yale University with a major in French and a minor in philosophy and is a recipient of the French Légion d’Honneur as well the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in History (for The Collaborator) and the Henry Adams Prize (for The Interpreter).

“I wanted to find that existential threshold where you start to see what you can do with what you’ve been given,” Kaplan of this examination of a period in each woman’s life. And, Kaplan points out, while the men who spent time in France and came back in some ways different – think Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer, women like Kennedy, Sontag and Davis “have not had a place in the great American tradition of expatriate literature.”

Until now.

Capote’s Women: The Story of the Writers’ Swans

“There are certain women who, though perhaps not born rich, are born to be rich,” author Truman Capote wrote about the beautiful, well-dressed, and style-setting women he called his “swans.”

The ultimate arm candy for the wealthiest and most powerful of men, these women of the mid-20th century were trophy wives before the term existed. And they counted Capote, the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and creator of the true crime genre with In Cold Blood, his chilling recounting of the brutal murders of a Kansas family, as their best friend.

In Capote’s Women: A True Story of Love, Betrayal, and a Swan Song for an Era, New York Times best-selling author Laurence Leamer takes us back to a time and a world where jet-setting, making the best-dressed list, attending and giving A-plus list parties, and dining at the most wonderful places whether in New York, Paris, London, or wherever your yacht happened to be moored were what these exalted women excelled at.

Obtaining their lifestyles depended upon a confluence of beauty, wit, moxie, and marrying and knowing when to discard husbands as they worked their way up and up. At times, divorce papers were barely signed before the next wedding was held.

“You have to enter into their lives,” says Leamer, explaining how he so succinctly captured the personalities of the swans: Gloria Guinness, Marella Agnelli, Slim Hayward, Pamela Churchill, C.Z. Guest and Lee Radziwill who constantly seethed because of the attention her older sister, Jackie Kennedy, always received.

“Even though,” Leamer points out, “unlike Jackie she didn’t want to do the hard work that it takes to achieve something.”

These women knew how to climb to higher heights. Gloria Guinness had transitioned from a childhood of constant motion in Mexico and marriage at age 20 to a man 27 years older to marrying a German aristocrat and a romantic involvement with a top Nazi during World War II. Her third marriage was to the grandson of an Egyptian King and her last, the biggest prize, was to a scion of the Guinness beer family who was also a member of Parliament. Other wins were modeling for big time designers and the best of the fashion magazines as well as being on the International Best Dressed List for several years.

But ultimately, she wasn’t happy says Leamer who believes she committed suicide.

There was also Barbara “Babe” Paley whose mother raised her   three daughters to marry money. Paley, who had been badly injured in an automobile accident when young, spent her life in considerable pain. Her husband expected perfection in all things and so she never slept in the same bedroom, so she could the loss of her front teeth.

But being the best wasn’t always the answer to happy life. The swans may have had uber-wealthy husbands, but they didn’t have good husbands. Frequently husbands and wives were flagrantly promiscuous, and the swans often led separate lives not only from their spouses but also their children.

“For them, to be a mom was to be hands-off,” says Leamer. “And the children often paid a price. They didn’t necessary learn to do anything because they were going to inherit a lot of money.”

Ornamental to the max, these were women who did nothing but did it extremely well. And Capote, despite his great literary successes, spent a lot of time doing nothing with them. He listened to their secrets and ultimately decided to write a book revealing what he had heard. When an article he penned revealed some of those stories, the swans all turned against him, and he was exiled from the society he craved.

“I went to a family wedding recently,” says Leamer noting the warmth and connectiveness that everyone had. “These women and Capote never had this.”

It’s such a cliché to say money doesn’t buy happiness. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. And it certainly is delicious to read about the lives of women who many thought had it all even though they didn’t.

Online Book Event


Join Laurence Leamer in an online event hosted by the American Writer’s Museum in Chicago when he reads from and discusses his new book.”

When: October 13 at 6:30 p.m.

How to Join In: This program will be hosted online via Zoom. To register, visit americanwritersmuseum.org/program-calendar/laurence-leamer-capotes-women/

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