Friday, February 15, 2013

Jackie O to Sontag. Roger Straus to Jackie O.
And a French Editor to settle it all.

Photo via iVerged

Last weekend I read Alice Kaplan's Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis – a book that I enjoyed thoroughly despite the fact that the social scientist in me was deeply perturbed by its total disregard for method or theory. The book is rich in utterly delightful detail about three of the most fascinating women in recent American history and is composed of two chapters – one before/during and one after – on their respective Paris sojourns.

I surprised myself when I realized that it was actually the Jackie chapters that I enjoyed the most. I had already read Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books so I knew that Ms. Kennedy's public image is unrightfully ditsy and contrived. What I found curious and so charming about this particular biographical account of her was how disciplined Jacqeline was about her intellectual and professional pursuits and how little she took for granted despite her social status.  Take a look at this note she wrote to Susan Sontag in 1980, practically begging for a blurb about Diana Vreeland's book of photographs that she had been editing:
It would be so deeply appreciated if you could give a quote for it... If you could see the different ways her original eye treats photographs – cropping, layout, juxtaposing. Or the photographs she remembered and put here, that we would have never seen. Do you know Paul Haviland? I believe he took about 11 photographs. His Passing Steamer looks like a Whistler. And Elsa Maxwell, Callas and her husband in a nightclub is pure Fellini. I think I had better be pulled off this book soon as I am ranting on a bit. Please forgive me. I want to do everything I can to make it a success for her. She is a gallant figure to whom I am devoted – (and it is a great book!).


Now. Wouldn't you say yes to her if for no better reason than to just give her props for so bravely referencing her second husband's mistress (Callas was the late Mr. Onassis's lover)?! It is not all that surprising that Sontag refused to blurb the book given her position On Photography. What shocked me was the weird way in which she chose to say no. Instead of responding to the (very sweet) note herself, she had her PUBLISHER write a rather formal letter in which he explained that it was Ms. Sontag's "standing rule not to comment on any "picture books"". Huh?!

I have a lot of respect for Sontag the intellectual but Kaplan's book has intensified my growing distaste for her as a person. I am sorry but it's not that hard to allow your principles to co-exist with kindness. So, you can imagine, my utter delight when Kaplan unearths the following letter to Sontag, this time by her long-time French editor at Edition du Seuil:
Finally, might I tell you this: in nearly 18 years of work as an editor, I have had dealings with many authors, French and foreign, often difficult, but you are the only writer who ALWAYS writes to me (one exception, a letter from you dated November 15, 1978) through the intermediary of your p.d.g [president-directeur-general, French for CEO– in this case Roger Straus]. It can be said without offending anyone that this complicates relations for no good reason. And it is rude.
HOT DAMN. I think I may have squealed.


  1. Such a fascinating you I find that most of what I've about Susan Sontag as a person I find quite unappealing, and it doesn't help that I've never enjoyed reading critical essays - I find the language pretentious and difficult to get through, regardless of the merit of the arguments or points being made. I know, it's terrible of me.

    My impression of Jackie O changed when I read more about her work as an editor and it surprised me that she took an interest in such a wide range of subjects - glad that there are books out there that correct the impression that she was merely a fashion plate!

    1. I like reading ABOUT Sontag way more than I like reading Sontag. I feel bad, too. ;)

      Re: Jackie. I read "Reading Jackie" last year and loved it for that very same reason. In Kaplan's book, again, she comes across as so curious, well-read and FUNNY... it's just really too bad that it's only now that this side of her is coming out. Also, I was always vaguely aware that she had a sister, but just recently started paying attention to her and now I am always looking for pieces on her. She seems even more free-spirited than her uber-famous older sister.