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Le Select, a classic Montparnasse cafe, which saw a steady stream of college students when Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis studied in Paris, June 13, 2019. As a college student, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis spent her junior year in Paris, and the city became one of the greatest influences in her life. (Joann Pai/The New York Times) Image Credit: NYT

PARIS In August 1949, a 20-year-old Jacqueline Bouvier arrived in France and began a year that would change her life. Before her marriages to Jack and Aristotle, before the glamour and the tragedy, before she lived in the White House or worked at a publishing house, she was a college student boarding a ship to spend her junior year abroad in Paris.

With her French name and heritage (one-eighth French from her father’s side), she was already predisposed to admiring France. But the academic year of 1949 to 1950 cemented her passion, allowing her to absorb the country’s language and culture - and she would seek inspiration and intellectual refuge in these outlets for the rest of her life.

From the genteel 16th arrondissement where she resided with a host family, to the narrow streets of the Latin Quarter where she attended university classes, Jacqueline’s time in battered postwar Paris would inspire an unabashed intellectual flowering.

“Paris was the perfect incubator for her myriad talents. Her style, her razor-sharp wit, her ways of imagining, were honed there,” said Alice Kaplan, the John M. Musser chair in French literature at Yale University and the author of Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis, which takes a thorough look at Jacqueline’s transformative Paris experience. “Whether she was turning to Proust and Saint Simon as a guide to the hornet’s nest of Washington politics, or shaping a symbolic wardrobe as first lady, France was always her compass.”

I recently set out to retrace Jacqueline’s days in Paris as an exchange student 70 years ago, seeking a glimpse of the period she later called “the high point in my life, my happiest and most carefree year.”

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The gardens of the Chateau de Courances, the grand country estate of the aristocratic de Ganay family, in Courances, France, June 13, 2019. As a college student, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis spent her junior year in Paris, and often left for weekends at the country estate about 40 miles from the city. (Joann Pai/The New York Times) Image Credit: NYT

Her sojourn began on the SS De Grasse, setting sail from New York to Le Havre with the Smith College Junior Year in Paris, part of a group of 35 young women. Because her college, Vassar, lacked a study-abroad program, Jacqueline applied to Smith’s.

Smith’s was the oldest US study-abroad program in Paris - begun in 1925, paused during World War II and resumed in 1947 - Smith required its students to pledge that they would speak only French at all times.

Upon arrival, Jacqueline first polished her language skills at a six-week immersion course in Grenoble before beginning her studies in Paris. “I have an absolute mania now about learning to speak French perfectly,” she wrote in a letter to her stepbrother, Yusha Auchincloss. Her coursework focused mainly on art history and literature, and her classes took her to the Sorbonne, the Louvre museum’s Ecole du Louvre, and the Parisian center of American study abroad, Reid Hall.

In the heart of Montparnasse, Reid Hall has welcomed US students since the 1920s. Today the sprawling structure is part of the Columbia Global Centers, an ambitious educational network in nine cities around the globe; it also houses the study-abroad programs of more than a dozen US and British colleges and universities.

I found Smith’s offices up a lopsided wooden staircase, the warren of narrow rooms and worn terra-cotta tile floors hinting at the building’s origins as an 18th-century porcelain factory.

“A lot has changed, but some things haven’t,” Marie-Madeleine Charlier, the associate director of Smith in Paris, told me in her office. As in Jacqueline’s day, students still live with host families; they still honour a language pledge - I saw it posted prominently above the Smith office door, signed by all 20 students of the 2018 to 2019 academic year - they still lounge in Reid Hall’s spacious courtyard on sunny days; they still discuss politics, architecture and theater in small group seminars. There remains, as well, one eternal similarity: “Every student goes through an identity change,” said Mehammed Mack, the program’s faculty director.

Like the decades of students before and after her, Jacqueline, too, experienced a transformation. Reflecting on her academic year in Paris, she wrote in 1951: “I learned not to be ashamed of a real hunger for knowledge, something I had always tried to hide.”

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A building on Avenue Mozart, where Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis lived with a host family as a student, in Paris, June 17, 2019. As a college student, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis spent her junior year in Paris, and the city became one of the greatest influences in her life. A discreet plaque on an exterior wall boasts of the building's illustrious former tenant. (Joann Pai/The New York Times) Image Credit: NYT

In 1949, World War II still cast a shadow over France. Heat and hot water were scarce; baths were limited to once a week. Everyone, including Jacqueline, had a ration card for coffee and sugar. Post-war housing shortages meant most Smith students lived in a spartan dormitory at Reid Hall, but Jacqueline’s mother, Janet Auchincloss, used her social connections to secure more comfortable lodging for her daughter.

The French touches in White House

In the slightly stuffy 16th arrondissement on the western edge of the city, I stood across from 78 Avenue Mozart gazing at the majestic seven-story building adorned with glazed bricks of sea foam green and embellished with art nouveau flourishes. Jacqueline lived here with a host family - a discreet plaque on an exterior wall boasts of the building’s illustrious former tenant - sharing a rambling, bourgeois apartment with seven other people.

Jacqueline’s host mother, the aristocratic Comtesse Guyot de Renty, had suffered greatly during the war. As members of the Resistance, she and her husband had been deported to Germany in 1944; the Comte de Renty died in a slave labour camp, while his wife spent the duration of the war at Ravensbruck, a German women’s concentration camp. After the war, the Comtesse de Renty found herself in reduced circumstances, and “being from a bourgeois family, she decided to take in students,” said Claude du Granrut, one of de Renty’s daughters, who lived with Jacqueline that year. (The household also included du Granrut’s sister, her sister’s young son, and two other Smith students.)

“The apartment was large and pleasant,” du Granrut told me as we sipped tiny cups of coffee in her sunny living room. “But there was only one bathroom. And no heat! It didn’t work. Jacqueline put on gloves to study. I remember her always being covered up.”

Jacqueline and du Granrut forged a lifelong friendship that year - both born in 1929, both university students on the Left Bank. “She was part of our family,” du Granrut said. “My mother was very fond of her - and she loved to go with my mother because my mother couldn’t speak a word of English.”

The Comtesse de Renty took Jacqueline to museums, in particular the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, which is housed in a 19th-century wing of the Louvre building on the Rue de Rivoli. Here, they viewed collections of Sevres porcelain and French furniture and discussed the characteristics of each era - lessons in the history of French design and decorative arts that may have proved useful years later. “When I visited the White House, I saw every room had its own style,” du Granrut said. “Some pieces were purchased, some were borrowed, but she had the flair of combining them to create a small collection.”

A short walk from du Granrut’s apartment, I entered the Musee des Arts Decoratifs and stepped into a labyrinth of rooms displaying objets d’art that spanned several centuries. Beyond the magnificent marquetry and carved furniture, I noticed a gallery devoted to the Empire period of Napoleon Bonaparte. Later, I discovered that Jacqueline decorated the Red Room at the White House with elements of this same classic French style, and she spoke eloquently about it in her 1962 television special, “A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy.”

Although Jacqueline “enjoyed being in a French home,” said du Granrut, nevertheless “she left on the weekends.”

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The Ritz Bar, featuring a menu of modern cocktails, in Paris, June 11, 2019. In letters home, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis as a college student in Paris wrote of going to the Ritz and “being swanky. (Joann Pai/The New York Times) Image Credit: NYT

Her destination was often the Chateau de Courances, the grand country estate of the aristocratic de Ganay family, about 40 miles from Paris. Jacqueline had met Paul de Ganay through society connections of her stepfamily (her stepfather, Hugh Auchincloss, was a Washington financier), and she enjoyed horseback riding on their grounds. “She rode very, very well. She loved it,” du Granrut said.

Today, the Chateau de Courances and its manicured 185-acre park are open about seven months of the year, limited to weekends and holidays. Its stables were destroyed by a fire in 1978. But horseback riding in Paris seemed a quintessential Jackie experience, and so I contacted Horse in the City Paris, a private horse-riding guide, for a morning trot in the Bois de Boulogne. With several stables and two racing tracks, the park, west of Paris and just outside the city limits, has long been a popular spot for equestrians - and, according to at least one of her biographies, Jacqueline rode here, too.

When she wasn’t studying, Jacqueline wrote of behaving “like the maid on her day out, putting on a fur coat and going to the middle of town and being swanky, at the Ritz.”

The visit in 1961

Jacqueline’s next trip to Paris - the state visit of June 1961, in which President John F. Kennedy, five months into his term, declared himself the man who accompanied his wife to Paris - was a public declaration of her Francophilia. French newspapers celebrated the first lady’s style and French fluency, her keen interest in French culture. “She prefers the ‘intellectual’ films of our avant-garde directors,” wrote the weekly, Paris Match. The three-day visit swept through some of the grandest spaces in Paris: reception rooms at the Hotel de Ville, the hall of mirrors at Versailles, the presidential Elysee Palace. But despite the glamour and ceremony, Jacqueline still remembered old friends like the de Rentys, the de Ganays, and Jeanne Saleil (the former Smith in Paris director), inviting them to events.

Paris continued to call to Jacqueline after her 1968 marriage to Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. (No stranger to the City of Light, he owned an imposing apartment at 88 Avenue Foch in the 16th arrondissement, and even had his own preferred table at the restaurant Maxim’s, an art nouveau landmark.)

At this point, however, her desire for privacy had grown intense. In the ensuing years of their marriage and after Onassis’ death in 1975, we can only guess at her French life from bread crumb clues - such as the books she published as an editor at Doubleday in New York. The final one, Paris After the Liberation, by Antony Beevor and Artemis Cooper, included the period of Jacqueline’s student days.

On my final day, I wondered how Jacqueline would visit today’s Paris. If, like me, she found herself with a free evening, how would she spend it? A public lecture, in French, with three young writers, held at Reid Hall - her old student stamping grounds - seemed like the type of event she would have enjoyed, with its focus on contemporary French literature.