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.”