Year after year, hordes of university students head to France for their junior year abroad, as they have been doing since the 1920s. Perhaps you were one of them.
In 1949 those students included a 20-year-old Jacqueline Bouvier. She had visited France before, on a whirlwind European trip the previous summer with some family friends, but now she was back for a whole year on her own to study the language and the culture.
She later described this year as “the high point of my life, my happiest and most carefree year.” This is quite something, coming from a woman who was once at the pinnacle of American society. Moreover, the Paris she knew was just coming out of the war years. Housing was scarce and food was rationed. It was not the Paris today’s students see.
She and two other American girls lived at 78, avenue Mozart, in the 16th Arrondissement, in the home of the widowed Comtesse de Renty and her children. There was no central heating, and in winter Jackie did her studying in bed, swathed in quilts and sweaters. The one bathroom, shared by seven people, rarely had much hot water.
Jackie attended classes at the Sorbonne and at the American students’ center, Reid Hall (4, rue de Chevreuse), and, like most students in Paris, hung out at cafés on the left bank. Unlike most students in Paris, however, she had been queen of the debutantes in New York the year before and had society connections. Every so often she would dress up, put on what her cousin called her “one fur coat” (!) and head to the Ritz for cocktails with visiting friends. She referred to these evenings as “swanky.” Not a lot of foreign students can pull off this sort of thing.
She also broke a promise to her father by going riding in the Bois de Boulogne. She had once injured her back in a fall from a horse, and he had made her swear not to ride in Paris. Her father was furious when he found out.
The year in France changed Jackie. She acquired some of the tastes in fashion and decorating that she later displayed in the White House and during her jet-setting years.
In 1951 Jackie was back in Europe with her sister, Lee, on another whirlwind trip. The two collaborated on a book about their experiences, published years later in New York by Delacorte, under the title One Special Summer. The book is a reproduction of the handwritten original, with snapshots and illustrations by Jackie.
On that trip, Jackie and Lee stayed at the unquestionably swanky Hotel Continental (today it is the Westin Hotel on the rue de Castiglione). The only event in Paris that they recorded was a hilariously disastrous evening of chamber music at the house of a society hostess.
Ten years later, on May 31, 1961, Jackie was back again. Her previous trips had been recorded in letters and drawings for family, but this one was recorded on film for all the world to see, because she was now the wife of President John F. Kennedy. It was a state visit with all the trimmings: Air Force One, motorcades, a huge suite at the Quai d’Orsay and adoring crowds.
The French took to Jackie overnight. The evening before the presidential couple arrived, French television aired an interview with Jackie in—gasp—French. She was one of them! Parisians mobbed the streets and called her name. They loved her clothes, marveling at the chicness of her American designer Oleg Cassini. Nobody in France realized that Cassini’s job was to mimic Jackie’s favorite Givenchy and Chanel styles under an American label. For a first lady to wear non-American clothes was unthinkable, so Cassini stepped in as a sort of “ghost designer” to keep the peace.
The young, handsome president was interesting enough, but it was Jackie they came to see. She looked demure and diplomatic. Neat suits in pastel colors with three-quarter-length sleeves. Little round hats set far back on her head. White gloves. Pearls. Pumps. Handbags.
She came into her own at the gala dinner at Versailles, dressed in pink organza by Givenchy (on that evening she was allowed to honor French couture). At this point, confident in her position, she dismissed the official interpreter and took over translation duties between her husband and Charles de Gaulle, who was apparently smitten.
She also made a big impression on André Malraux, the culture minister. During the dinner she expressed a wish to see the Impressionist paintings, then housed at the Jeu de Paume. He immediately made arrangements to have the museum closed to the public the following morning so that he could escort her personally on a private trip. Their friendship later led to Jackie’s big coup—the visit of the Mona Lisa to Washington in 1962–63.
On the last day of the state visit, Jackie and Malraux triped the Jeu de Paume and then traveled to Malmaison, just outside the city. Meanwhile, JFK addressed members of the press at the Palais de Chaillot, beginning with the words, “I do not think it altogether inappropriate to introduce myself to this audience. I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.”
Jackie continued to visit Paris after the death of JFK. Aristotle Onassis owned (among other things) a 15-room apartment at 88, avenue Foch. He spent his last days in Paris, and died in the American hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1975. After his death, Jackie usually stayed at the Plaza Athénée. She came to visit her favorite couture houses and boutiques (her tastes migrated from Givenchy and Chanel to Valentino and Ungaro and then on to Carolina Herrera).
In 2002 the Musée de la Mode et du Textile honored her with a retrospective exhibition (in French). Her style is said to have inspired Carla Bruni, who showed up at the G-20 meetings in Pittsburgh (her corresponding state visit to the US) in a pastel suit with three-quarter-length sleeves. But no hat, no gloves, no pearls. Times have changed.
Philippa Campsie writes for the blog Parisian Fields, which covers everything from contemporary street art to Paris history.
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