The French Paradox by Ellen Crosby: New Excerpt
By Crime HQApril 2, 2021
I found out about my grandfather’s affair with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis when I read my grandmother’s diaries – ironically over Valentine’s Day weekend. No, I had no idea. Yes, it was a shock.
Grandmama was so matter-of-fact describing their relationship that she could have been reporting on the weather or what she ate for dinner that evening. Plus she implied – with the blasé nonchalance French women possess when discussing l’amour and cheating – that such liaisons are what any woman living with a man deals with sooner or later, as normal as breathing. Though reading between the lines I got the impression she felt more envious of Jackie, one of the most iconic and glamorous women of the last century, than angry at my grandfather for being so captivated by her.
The affair took place in 1949, a year Jacqueline Bouvier later described as the happiest of her life. That autumn she sailed from New York to France along with thirty-four young women from Smith College to spend her junior year in Paris studying art history and literature at the Sorbonne, the Louvre, the Institut d’études politiques (better known as Sciences Po), and a former porcelain factory in Montparnasse where Smith had its classrooms. On the last night of the voyage to France, the ship’s captain asked the Smith students to sing ‘La Vie en Rose’ – and for Jackie to sing a verse by herself. The song pretty much summed up the year to come for a privileged group of American teenagers, or perhaps the hoped-for year that awaited them in the most beautiful and seductive city in the world. Not to mention the tantalizing prospect of romance, love and maybe a little discreet sex in the place that wrote the book on it. As for Jackie, it didn’t take long after arriving in Paris before she fell head over heels in love with the City of Lights, all things French – and my grandfather.
To be fair, my grandparents weren’t married at the time or even formally engaged, although they had been seeing each other and my grandmother, at least, had assumed theirs was a serious relationship. Which was probably why Pépé kept his on-the-side dalliance a secret and Grandmama wrote that he did a bang-up job because she never caught on. It wasn’t until years later that she found Jackie’s letters – my grandfather had kept them all – which she read with the benefit of clear-eyed hindsight and the wisdom of a wife of nearly thirty-five years. I was almost certain she never told my grandfather she found out about him and Jackie; I wondered if Pépé ever guessed that she did.
By the time I learned about the affair, it was decades too late to ask her. Nor could I ask my mother, who had also passed away, though she must have known since she was the one who hid the journals in an innocuous-looking box from Galeries Lafayette, one of Paris’s main department stores. It was tucked away in a dark corner of the attic at Highland House, my family’s home for generations and now my home; I found the box after I finally got around to replacing a light bulb that had burned out ages ago. When I took off the lid, the journals – half a dozen well-worn burgundy leather volumes smelling of mustiness and old memories – were lined up in chronological order in two neat rows.
My grandfather had met Jackie by chance at the Louvre. Jackie dropped her gallery map. Pépé picked it up. They started talking and later went for drinks at a café in the Quartier Latin, the student district near the Sorbonne. Even though my grandfather was fluent in English, their conversation was in French since Jackie had signed Smith College’s pledge to speak only French for her entire time in Paris, even among her classmates.
There were more meetings at art galleries and museums, places Jackie loved and couldn’t get enough of visiting, trying to absorb everything she could. But there were also what seemed to be heavy make-out sessions in parks, gardens, and other out-of-the-way places. According to Grandmama’s journal, that’s as far as it went. If there were any hotel room trysts or back-seat-of-the-car steamy midnight lovemaking sessions, Jackie didn’t allude to them. Still, it was obvious there was passion, flirtation, moonlight poetry, champagne-fizzed dancing at nightclubs, and plenty of, well … opportunity. Whatever really happened, Jackie had been discreet in what she revealed in her letters.
It was also clear their relationship would never survive her departure for America the following spring. Pépé wouldn’t follow her to the States; she would get on with her life once she returned home. They were both wide-eyed realists about their future. I did know – because my mother told me – that my grandparents had dined at the White House on several occasions when John F. Kennedy had been president and my grandfather was France’s young, brilliant Deputy Head of Mission at the embassy in Washington. My mother also hinted that Pépé had played a role behind the scenes in the complicated diplomatic negotiations between Jackie and the French Cultural Minister whom she managed to persuade to allow Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to leave the Louvre and travel from France to the United States in 1963. I suspected the irony wasn’t lost on either Jackie or my grandfather: the Louvre was where they first met. I wondered, as well, what their relationship had been when she was First Lady and he was the number two diplomat at the French Embassy, meaning he ran the place when the Ambassador wasn’t there.
I kept what I learned from my grandmother’s journals to myself, not even sharing the revelations about my grandfather with my fiancé, Quinn Santori, just like two generations of women in my family had done before me. My mother hadn’t told my father, either. She wouldn’t. I knew that with absolute certainty.
Don’t ask me why I didn’t tell Quinn. Maybe it was because it was Jackie, who had come often to Virginia to ride and hunt because of the privacy, discretion, and uncomplicated acceptance she found here. No paparazzi lurking around corners waiting to ambush her. And perhaps, also, because she had been a good friend of my mother’s, someone I had known as well, although I was just a little girl.
Much of what I remembered was embodied in a photograph of Jackie seated on a wicker sofa on our veranda. I sat cross-legged on the ground in front of her and she was smiling, her arms wrapped around me, her chin resting on top of my head. Me with a gap-toothed smile, since two front teeth were missing, bandages on both elbows after I skinned them falling out of one of our apple trees, and my mother, on the chair next to us, grinning as well.
Both of them still in riding clothes after a morning hack: jodhpurs, boots, sleeves rolled up, shirt buttons undone, flattened helmet hair. A teapot and two cups and saucers sat on the glass-topped coffee table. A small glass for me, probably lemonade. No other glass or teacup for a fourth person so I wondered who had taken the picture. Both Mom and Jackie looking relaxed and happy. The kind of photo you frame as a souvenir of a happy time.
My mother kept it in a place of honor on the desk in her study off the master bedroom. Now that room was mine. I’d seen the photo so often it was difficult to separate what I really remembered from what I imagined about that sweet, sunny spring morning.
Maybe it was because Jackie’s affair with my grandfather completely upended my rock-solid faith that my grandparents – unlike my parents – had been genuinely in love, each other’s soul mates. After my grandmother died, my grandfather had kept company with his friends from the old days – les vieux potes – his buddies from the Resistance, colleagues from the French diplomatic corps, friends who would come over to drink his finest champagne, smoke cigars, and watch France try to win Six Nations rugby or the World Cup. If he ever went out with another woman, I never knew about it unless it was because she needed an escort and he did it as a favor to a friend. Not even a whisper of romance with someone new. Had I been naive to believe – to want to believe – my grandmother had been his one and only?
And as these things sometimes do, the story of that complicated year in Paris had suddenly come full circle. Jackie’s junior year abroad had recently become a hot topic of conversation around here – in Middleburg and Atoka, the next-door village where I lived. In a few days several paintings Jacqueline Bouvier had bought seventy years ago when she was an exchange student – apparently for a song – would be on display at The Artful Fox, Middleburg’s newest art gallery. Not only was everyone in town interested in the exhibit, it had attracted national attention because of the fascinating backstory of how she had acquired the paintings. With her discerning eye for art and beauty, Jackie had chosen oil paintings by a little known – at that time – French artist named Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, who had been Marie Antoinette’s portraitist. Two of the paintings were of the French queen. Now they were worth a fortune because Vigée Le Brun had been re-baptized in the art world as one of the ‘Old Mistresses’ – female painters who were contemporaries of the ‘Old Masters’. They were just as talented as the men but never got their due for the very reason that they were women. After the exhibit was over, their current owner, Cricket Delacroix, one of Jackie’s close friends from that year in France, was going to donate Jackie’s Old Mistress paintings to the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.
And my ninety-three-year-old grandfather was flying here the day after tomorrow to attend the exhibition and celebrate Cricket’s ninetieth birthday at a party to which it seemed everyone in Middleburg and Atoka had been invited.
Pépé was the only one who knew the real story of what happened between him and Jackie, who could fill in the gaps and blank spaces, the little stutters and ellipses that I had detected in the pages of my grandmother’s journals.
But after all these years would he finally reveal the truth about his relationship with one of the most private and secretive women in the world if I asked him? More important, did I have any business prying, just because I had found out about the affair? Pépé knew me so well and I am the worst liar in the world. Would he figure out there was something on my mind when we visited that exhibit together – and maybe he’d ask me what was going on?
I was dying of curiosity to know more about the star-crossed love story between my grandfather and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, one of the most beautiful and fascinating women of the twentieth century.
Who wouldn’t be?
Excerpted from The French Paradox by Ellen Crosby, Copyright © 2021 by Ellen Crosby. Published by Severn House Publishers.
About The French Paradox by Ellen Crosby:
In 1949, during her junior year abroad in Paris, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis bought several inexpensive paintings of Marie-Antoinette by a little-known 18th-century female artist. She also had a romantic relationship with Virginia vineyard owner Lucie Montgomery’s French grandfather – until recently, a well-kept secret.
Seventy years later, Cricket Delacroix, Lucie’s neighbor and Jackie’s schoolfriend, is donating the now priceless paintings to a Washington, DC museum. And Lucie’s grandfather is flying to Virginia for Cricket’s 90th birthday party, hosted by her daughter Harriet. A washed-up journalist, Harriet is rewriting a manuscript Jackie left behind about Marie-Antoinette and her portraitist. She’s also adding tell-all details about Jackie, sure to make the book a bestseller.
Then on the eve of the party, a world-famous landscape designer who also knew Jackie is found dead in Lucie’s vineyard. Did someone make good on the death threats he’d received because of his controversial book on climate change? Or was his murder tied to Jackie, the paintings, and Lucie’s beloved grandfather?