There was an overlap in what Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag and Angela Davis learned in France, if only because the French literary canon, the sense of what matters in arts and letters, has remained remarkably consistent throughout the twentieth century, and still today. Like all serious students of French before and after them,they read Marcel Proust. All three shared a love of this literary philosopher of memory and analyst of desire, jealousy, and social class.
In the summer of 1959, Arthur Schlesinger, already JFK’s trusted adviser – the same Arthur Schlesinger who had done intelligence work on the Resistance during his own postwar stint in Paris – visited the Kennedy’s summer compound at Hyannis Port and wrote, with a touch of condescension, that the young senator’s wife “was lovely but seemed excessively flighty in politics.” She asked naïve questions that were irritating, although she was “intelligent and articulate” on other issues. He remarked that she was reading Proust.
Schlesinger was only half-right about her naivete, for nothing could have better prepared an American political wife on the campaign trail than Proust’s wicked knowledge of human desire, social and sexual, his understanding of the making and breaking of careers. The likelihood of a 1950s or 60s political wife gaining the intellectual respect of her colleagues was slim, whether they noticed her reading Proust or Sartre’s Nausea : in that milieu, the pursuit of literary culture was comparable to interior decoration. A year later, when the routine of the 1960 campaign trail became too brutal, Jacqueline Kennedy immersed herself in another classic, the eighteenth-century precursor to Proust in the realm of society’s deconstruction: She had the Memoirses du Duc Saint-Simon” in French , wrote John Kenneth Galbraith, another New Frontiersman who had lived abroad in the late 1940s in England, France and Italy, and who was exceptional in his understanding of Jacqueline’s qualities. “She would take no part in the day’s political persuasion. . . But she had a deeper purpose: it was she, not the more trusting JFK, who would observe, hear and render judgment on the politicians they would encounter . . . She made no conscious decision to analyze them; she simply took for granted that it was her job.”
For the soft-spoken but mischievous Jacqueline Kennedy, Saint-Simon and Proust were models of the cutting remark, the elegant slur, the devastating description that surpassed anything she had known in girls school. And when the tension became too great, she could, according to at least one of her biographers, rival them in devastating one-liners. She read Saint-Simon and Proust on the campaign trail as a consolation for lost time and as a field guide to the underside of Camelot.
Susan Sontag wrote about Proust in a diary from her senior year in college: “I have almost finished Swann’s Way and there are moments during my reading, of exhilaration so painful that my head begins to ache, my hands tremble, and tears crowd my eyes.” She would return to Proust again and again, first through her friend Richard Howard, who was translating him; and then through her lover Nicole Stephane, who bought the film rights to A la recherché du temps perdu; and later still through her study of photography, one of Proust’s abiding passions.
In Search of Lost Time was taught in Angela Davis’s sophomore year at Brandeis by Milton Hindus, a professor of comparative literature known for having conducted one of the rare interviews with the anti-Semitic writer Celine in his postwar exile in Denmark. In 1963, Hindus published his Readers Guide to Marcel Proust.
French professors tend to worry about whether their twenty-year-old undergraduate students are equipped to get anything out of Proust, their theory being that you can’t appreciate him unless you’ve felt, yourself, the passing of time, the way people can weave in and out of your life, the way faces grow to resemble character traits, the way a mystery at age eighteen can finally be resolved at age eighty. But what Proust had to offer Angela Davis in her understanding of her own society included his corrosive humor in analyzing the foibles of class structure in turn-of-the-century Paris, his portrait of exclusion and bigotry against Jews and “orientals” in the Parisian milieu he frequented, and his rendering of violence at home and on the front during the First World War. For a young woman of her intellectual intensity, her life experience, he must have been a ruminative companion with his long, consoling sentences and his mastery of surfaces.
Proust figured into Angela Davis’s trial: whether her private communications with George Jackson could count as evidence for the prosecution, proof of her “wild passion and will to conspire”; whether they were inadmissible by virtue of her constitutional right to privacy; or, even if deemed admissible as evidence, whether they could be considered promises of violent behavior or a touching example of Proustian memory work and the performance force of language behind bars.
Educated by modernists, receptive to avant-gardes , the three women were attuned to the New Wave and the New Novel that came of age in the 1950s and 1960s. Angela Davis read Robbe-Grillet and wrote about Robbe-Grillet’s phenomenology in her advanced literature course at the Sorbonne. She returned to Brandeis and wrote about Robbe-Grillet’s phenomenology just as Sontag began to celebrate the New Novel in her first critical essays in the New York Review of Books. Jacqueline Bouvier was in France too early to be exposed to either of these literary trends, but by 1961, Robbe-Grillet and Alain Resnais were well-enough known to have First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy screen their Last Year in Marienbad at the White House.
Bouvier, Sontag and Davis could admire the same writers or filmmakers, but for different reasons. For Jacqueline Bouvier, influenced by Malraux’s aesthetic theories, artists and writers were in conversation with one another, across the generations, in a museum without walls. Susan Sontag’s understanding of culture was much more combative. Translation was a struggle not to betray or be betrayed; art and politics were a matter of getting it or missing it. Angela Davis was a utopian. She wrote about liberation and revolution when she was still a student of literature – for her, art wasn’t art without a humanitarian purpose, a revolutionary purpose.
In the United States, what is known about these woman’s French legacy? Jacqueline Kennedy remains the eternal First Lady, the unique American woman who set standards of beauty and grace for an era. So much so that the expert use she made, throughout her life, of her deep knowledge of French culture and history, especially in her work as an editor, has often been overlooked. Susan Sontag is the ultimate New York intellectual, a handsome warrior of ideas. She is so identified with New York that her debt to France has been glossed over. Angela Davis is best known as an African American communist intellectual, for her visits to East Germany and Cuba, and for her connection to the Black Panthers. Her deep mark on French culture, on Francophone film and literature, has gone unnoticed.
Now, at a time when ambitions and landscapes are “global” and so much of the world’s business is in English, I like to think about how joyfully all three of them took to a foreign language and an unfamiliar city, how much France gave to them, and how much they’ve given back.