October 2022

Following an American icon on her year abroad

Behind the Book by
Walk the streets of postwar Paris with travel writer and novelist Ann Mah, whose new book reveals a transformative year in the life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
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In 2019, Ann Mah published an article in the New York Times about 20-year-old Jacqueline Bouvier’s year in Paris as a college junior. As Mah traced Jacqueline’s days up and down the streets of Paris and into its museums and cafes, she revealed a new side of both the American icon and the postwar city. The article was the inspiration for Jacqueline in Paris, Mah’s novel about this formative year.

Mah shares a closer look at the process of fictionalizing this story—and the incredible moment when Jacqueline’s own voice began to come through.

A couple of years ago in Paris, I walked by a stately art nouveau building in the 16th arrondissement. On the wall hung a plaque that proclaimed: “Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis née Lee-Bouvier (1929–1994), widow of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 35th president of the United States of America, lived in this building as a student from 1949 to 1950.” It stopped me in my tracks.

By this point I’d lived in Paris off and on for a few years, and I had a pretty good sense of the famous Americans who had lived in and loved the City of Light—but I hadn’t realized they included the former first lady. As I gazed at the apartment building, which was large and elegant, with a limestone facade that blended seamlessly with its neighbors, I tried to imagine her as a student, 20 years old, pushing open the heavy wooden front door, buying a newspaper at the corner kiosk, dashing down the steps of the metro. Suddenly I was overcome with a desire to know more about this young woman who had decided to study in France only five years after World War II. What had drawn her to Paris? With whom—and how—did she live? And how had her junior year abroad affected the rest of her life, if at all?  

I began writing a travel article, retracing Jacqueline’s footsteps in Paris. At the library, I checked out a stack of biographies, scouring them for details about her year abroad, which were few and far between. I re-created some of her adventures: sipping cocktails at the Ritz Bar, riding horses in the Bois de Boulogne and visiting Reid Hall, the Parisian center of American study abroad since the 1920s. 

“The bright, adventurous young woman I had gleaned through snippets had her own voice, and in this novel I have tried to let her speak.”

I interviewed Jacqueline’s French host sister, Claude du Granrut, who spoke of the bitter cold of the winter of 1950, describing the earmuffs, scarves and sweaters they wore at home to keep warm. Their rambling apartment lacked heat: “It was broken,” she said. “Jacqueline put on gloves to study. I remember her always being covered up.” She told me that she and Jacqueline never spoke a word of English together, which I found especially touching, because it illustrated how deeply Jacqueline cared about learning the French language. 

In du Granrut’s memoir, Le piano et le violoncelle, I read more about her mother (and Jacqueline’s host mother), the Comtesse de Renty. She and her husband had been Resistance spies during the war; in the final days before the liberation of Paris, they were captured and sent to concentration camps, where her husband died. The war left her widowed and impoverished, with two daughters and a grandson to support, and as a result she had taken in boarders, including Jacqueline and two other girls studying abroad through Smith College. 

Piecing together these details of Jacqueline’s time in France felt both thrilling and painstaking. And yet my original questions about her still lingered. It occurred to me that the story of Jacqueline’s junior year abroad in Paris reached far beyond the scope of a travel article. How could I learn more? Famously guarded, Jacqueline did not grant many interviews, and most of her personal letters remain private. As a result, her story has largely been told through the memories and observations of others. But the bright, adventurous young woman I had gleaned through snippets had her own voice, and in this novel I have tried to let her speak.

At first I heard her voice like a whisper, perhaps her famous little half-whisper. But after listening to the French radio interviews she gave as first lady—in which she spoke fluent French with clear precision—I realized she must have deployed that girlish tone as a guise, a protective cloak. Perhaps such subterfuge was necessary for a young woman of her milieu, one socially poised but financially precarious, dependent on her looks, charm and ability to please. Her self-assured voice in French challenged the caricature of Mrs. John F. Kennedy and allowed me to glimpse a quick, clever side of her. I couldn’t forget it, and in the end it guided me, even in moments of doubt and frustration, until Jacqueline seemed to be talking to me directly. 

Much of this book was written during the early days of the pandemic, which meant I couldn’t visit France—my family and I barely left home—but every afternoon I retreated to my car, which was parked in the underground garage of my apartment building, opened my laptop and traveled to Paris. I tagged along with Jacqueline to museums and jazz nightclubs, country chateaux and cafes, and on long brisk walks through narrow cobblestone streets, until history started coming to life on the page and in my senses. I smelled the heavy smoke of her cigarettes, swallowed the icy brine of a raw oyster at Christmas, soaked up the delicate warmth of an early spring day in the Jardin du Luxembourg. I wept with her, too, when she left Paris and came to accept that she would never live there again.

Yes, Jacqueline left France in the end. I don’t think that’s a spoiler, right? Most of us are familiar with the triumph and tragedy of the rest of her life, playing out as it did upon a global stage and recorded in history. But it was her year in Paris, the academic year of 1949 to 1950, that she called ‘the high point in my life,’ and it has been an honor and a privilege to accompany her there and allow her voice to guide this story. I don’t pretend to know the woman who was Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, but I do feel a kinship with the 20-year-old American student in Paris named Jacqueline—and she is young, and happy, and carefree.

Ann Mah

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