Jacqueline in Paris: Ann Mah’s Latest Book Imagines how Jackie Kennedy Was...

Jacqueline in Paris: Ann Mah’s Latest Book Imagines how Jackie Kennedy Was Transformed By Her Year Abroad 

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Jaqueline in Paris
Jacqueline in Paris by Ann Mah. © @annmahnet

“I would always take refuge in my memories of Paris–and France would remain that corner of the world where I was young and happy and free.”– Jacqueline in Paris by Ann Mah

Author, journalist, and blogger Ann Mah is best known for her writing on French food, wine, and culture with best-selling books that take us on a whirlwind tour of French regional cuisine to the grape vineyards of Burgundy. INSPIRELLE had the opportunity to talk with Mah when her last book, The Lost Vineyard, was published in 2019. She shared her passion for writing, immersive research, and listening to the stories of the grape growers and winemakers. Her keen journalistic skills matched with her boundless curiosity make Mah’s writing “evocative, sensitive, and rich in historic detail” and an absolute pleasure to read.

Writer Ann Mah at the American Library in Paris’ author’s night, February 2019. © INSPIRELLE

 

For her third novel, Jacqueline in Paris, Mah delivers a charming and insightful portrayal of Jacqueline Bouvier as a 20-year-old student in her junior year abroad from 1949-50 in post-war France. Set just a few years before she was introduced to John F. Kennedy (and endless public scrutiny thereafter), Mah vividly imagines the coming-of-age adventures of a young Jacqueline in a rare moment of freedom and self-discovery. Jacqueline would describe her student days in Paris as her happiest and most carefree time of her life.

Mah’s fascination with Jacqueline Bouvier was evoked in her book Mastering the Art of French Eating as someone equally enamored by French cuisine as the doyenne of French cooking, Julia Child. However, it was writing a travel essay for the New York Times, where Mah retraced the footsteps of Jacqueline’s student days in Paris over 70 years ago, that ignited a desire to take a deeper look into this little-known, formative period in her life.

Jacqueline Bouvier (standing left corner) in 1946 attending Miss Porter School in Farmington. © Pinterest

 

Ever the fervent researcher, Mah relished in recreating some of her adventures—going horseback riding, sipping cocktails at the Ritz Bar, and visiting the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. On the surface, it would seem Jacqueline had the quintessential Parisian experience. Mah knew there was more to her story.

“As I read more about life in postwar Paris—the damage still scarring the city, the country’s political instability—I realized that the story of Jacqueline’s year abroad reached far beyond the scope of a travel story. I began to understand the qualities of adventure, courage, and independence needed by a young American student living in Paris during that time,” Mah writes in her blog.

In Mah’s rendition of the origin story, we follow Jacqueline as she travels by ship with a group of Smith College girls from New York to Le Havre, with a six-week French immersion in Grenoble, before settling into Paris. She is housed in a cold and rambling 16th arrondissement apartment, home of the impoverished Comtesse de Renty and her daughters, all of whom are trying to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of World War II.

A commemorative plaque on a building in the 16th arrondissement where Jackie Kennedy lived as a student.

 

Away from the watchful eyes of her formidable mother, Jacqueline allows herself to be fully taken by the beautiful yet fragile city of Paris. She attends classes at the Sorbonne and Reid Hall, rides horses at the Château de Courances on weekends, starts a romance with an aspiring writer, and engages in heady conversations on French politics, culture, and art that will inspire her intellectual awakening. When she leaves France in the summer of 1950, this “unforgettable, transformative, sometimes difficult year” will sustain and follow her through the White House years, and well beyond.

Jackie Kennedy charms General Charles de Gaulle on her trip to France in 1961 with husband President John F. Kennedy. © Wikimedia

 

In 1961, she returned to Paris as Jackie Kennedy, with President John F. Kennedy on a state visit, to cheerful mobs of French well-wishers shouting her name. She famously charmed “irritating and impossible to please” President Charles De Gaulle with her fluent French and knowledge of French history.

As an ardent fan of Mah’s work, I found Jacqueline in Paris eloquently written, with characters so intricately drawn and scenes so precisely detailed that much of the book stayed with me long after I finished. Mah shines with her descriptions of the city she clearly loves and knows well—the smell of coal burning in the winter, the bitterness of Parisian espresso, and the quiet tragedy encased at the Musée Nissim de Camondo.

For Jacqueline, like many of us who stay long enough, Paris becomes less the fairyland of our dreams, and more a city with its beauty and flaws that we discover for ourselves.

Jacqueline was actually a Vassar student when she came over with the Smith group in 1949. Her university did not offer a study abroad program, so she applied to the Smith Junior Year Abroad. The Smith Program, which began in 1925, is the oldest American study abroad program in Paris.

Study abroad students on campus in Paris. © Reid Hall/Columbia Global Centers | Paris

 

The allure of studying abroad in Paris was as strong for Jacqueline and her cohort as it is today. With more than 300,000 international students coming every year, France remains one of the most popular higher education destinations in the world. Much has changed since Jacqueline came through the program, but there are many things that are the same. Smith students still do an immersive orientation at Grenoble, take classes at the Sorbonne, stay with French host families, and pledge to speak only French. Another constant: “Everyone goes through a personal transformation at the end of the program,” says Marie-Madeleine Charlier, administrative director of Smith in Paris.

Ann Mah’s Jacqueline in Paris will appeal to history aficionados, “Jackie” fans, romantics, and those who love all things Paris. Just be sure to enjoy the book in the way Mah recommends on her blog:

“Take it home over the weekend, read it with a tiny bitter cup of coffee, and imagine, as Jacqueline so often did, that you’re in a Left Bank café.”

To read more about studying abroad and its benefits, click here.

Pauline Lemasson moved to Paris with her family in 2011 after having spent 11 years in Los Angeles. Before coming to France, Pauline was the executive director of the Chinese American Museum where she advanced the history and stories of the Chinese American experience in Southern California. She's been featured on KCET Departure Stories and written for other blogs including Untapped Paris and the American Library in Paris. She recently left her position as Strategic Partnerships Manager at the American Library to pursue long-overdue personal projects in writing and teaching, along with copious amounts of reading and idle strolling.

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