An American Girl in Paris


By Nancy K. Miller

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In the early 1960s, most middle-class American women in their twenties had their lives laid out for them: marriage, children, and life in the suburbs. Most, but not all. Breathless is the story of a girl who represents those who rebelled against conventional expectations. 

Paris was a magnet for those eager to resist domesticity, and like many young women of the decade, Nancy K. Miller was enamored of everything French—from perfume and Hermès scarves to the writing of Simone de Beauvoir and the New Wave films of Jeanne Moreau. After graduating from Barnard College in 1961, Miller set out for a year in Paris, with a plan to take classes at the Sorbonne and live out a great romantic life inspired by the movies. After a string of sexual misadventures, she gave up her short-lived freedom and married an American expatriate who promised her a lifetime of three-star meals and five-star hotels. But her husband wasn't who he said he was, and she eventually had to leave Paris and her dreams behind.

This stunning memoir chronicles a young woman’s coming-of-age tale, and offers a glimpse into the intimate lives of girls before feminism.


My First French Lover

I DIDN'T SET OUT TO sleep with Philippe. For one thing, he was my parents' friend; for another, he was married.

On one of their many trips to Paris before I lived there, my parents met Philippe Roussel, an ophthalmologist, at Aux Charpentiers, a neighborhood restaurant near Saint-Germain des Près, where long, family-style tables bring you into closer contact with other diners than you might wish. In his travel diary, which I discovered after his death, my father reported that the French friends who had recommended the restaurant had said that "while not modern or elegant it was a place where intellectuals came to eat."

My parents were all for intellectuals, as long as I didn't marry one. And while traveling in France, which they had been doing since the mid-1950s, they prided themselves on eating at restaurants not listed in the Michelin Guide. Sitting across the narrow table, the doctor noticed my father putting drops into his bloodshot eyes. He struck up a conversation with my parents, offering his professional services. After dinner they all went back to his office around the corner on the rue Jacob, where the eye doctor treated my father by injection. As if that were not enough ("This could only happen to me," my father noted in a rare burst of personal reporting), Philippe then invited my parents into his living quarters adjacent to the office for drinks and music. Philippe, it turned out, was not only a great eye doctor but a brilliant pianist. He played from memory for an hour. The music so moved my father that he crushed the wine glass he was holding in his hand. The following year, when they became better acquainted, Philippe played tennis with my mother, who was not accustomed to losing, and beat her 6–2, 6–2, 6–4, "a fine game," according to the diary entry, despite the score.

I never knew what I liked most about the story, which my father had told more than once: my father having his eye injected by a total stranger, or my father so stirred by Schubert that he broke a glass listening to the music.

WHEN I ARRIVED IN PARIS in the early fall of 1961 to study at the Sorbonne, I made an appointment to see Philippe about my contact lens prescription. A few weeks later he invited me to a party at his apartment. The following day, when I got back from my job teaching English at a lycée for girls, I found his card with a message scrawled in brown ink: "N. Vous avez fait des ravages." The ravaged victim of my charms turned out to be a Japanese painter who had been passing through Paris. He wanted to practice his English over dinner, but I wasn't in the mood for more lessons. Within the week, Philippe invited me out to dinner himself. We drove to Montparnasse in his red Volkswagen convertible with the top up and his hand under my skirt.

I wasn't completely surprised to find Philippe's hand creeping nimbly under my garter belt. I had already been initiated into this practice by Monsieur Delattre, the phonetics professor, during the summers I spent at Middlebury College's French School, where all the students signed a Language Pledge—un engagement d'honneur—not to speak a word of English for six weeks, under threat of expulsion. We were willing prisoners of the Pledge, endlessly correcting each other, alert to the slightest infraction, even while kissing. "Perfecting" our French was the fantasy that inspired compliance.

Monsieur Delattre would pick me up at my boarding house and we would go for long drives late at night down deserted country roads. I learned French slang words for penis—queue and verge, surprised that they were feminine nouns, while con, "cunt," was masculine, and also meant a guy who was a jerk—with no clue that nice girls were not supposed to know those expressions, certainly not use them. I cared only about my accent and getting the gender right. I justified the fingers by the phonetics. As it turned out, the French professor's hand-in-the-crotch-while-driving routine on Vermont country roads proved to be excellent preparation for my first year in Paris. I almost didn't mind being another stop on a stick shift. There was something seductive and guiltless about being a good pupil.

After an extra rare steak au poivre washed down with a bottle of Saint-Julien at the Coupole, we drove back to Philippe's apartment. He poured champagne for both of us and played a late Schubert sonata, cigarette drooping French-style from his mouth, the ash dropping slowly over the piano keys. I didn't break a glass, but I was impressed. Philippe had hesitated between the conservatory and medical school, he told me. A little after eleven o'clock, he stopped playing and suggested—very quietly—that I spend the night. I can't say that I found Philippe physically attractive—tall, thin, with a long beaky nose and thin lips—but he somehow forced you to like his ugliness.

"It's late, you know. If you leave now, you'll disturb the concierge."

"But you're married." The concierge was the least of my concerns.

"Anne has gone to the mountains with our son. She won't be back for two weeks."

"But wouldn't she mind?"

"That's my problem, not yours. If it doesn't bother me, why should it bother you?"

I knew from the French movies I had seen that the more you talk about it, the further you commit yourself to doing the very thing you say you neither wish nor intend to do.

"I'll be careful," Philippe continued, softly, taking advantage of my silence. "So what can happen?"

"But," I lamely started and stopped. Philippe had a subtle voice that ranged between irony and caress that was hard to resist.

"Darling, you're not a child. Tell me, what could happen?"


"So if nothing can happen and no one finds out, no one will get hurt, right?"

"Right," I said, reluctantly, though I knew it couldn't be that simple.

"So why not?"

I could never find a strong rejoinder to "Why not?"

Philippe drew me a bath in the most beautiful bathroom I had ever seen. The walls were painted a dark eggplant lacquer. They gleamed. Philippe sat on the edge of the tub in his white terry cloth robe, smoking and pouring a capful of Obao bath oil beads that turned the water turquoise blue. After watching me for a while without speaking, he brought me a robe that matched his (the kind I had only seen in the expensive hotels my parents liked to stay at), and holding hands, we walked slowly down the carpeted corridor in silence to the bedroom.

We lay on the bed, kissed lightly, and shared a last cigarette. Still not speaking, Philippe climbed on top of me and, within a matter of minutes of intense activity, rolled off neatly with a small groan. He took a cigarette out of his pack, tapped it lightly, and lit up.

"Et moi?" I asked, startled by the smoke signals that suggested closure. Philippe dragged on his cigarette, and offered me a puff. It wasn't about smoking, but I couldn't find the words. I took a cigarette from my own pack instead, and lay silent in the darkness. This was not what happened in any of the foreign movies I had seen.

"Débrouillez-vous," he said, after a while, propping himself up on one elbow. He pointed languidly to my other hand, which seemed to mean that if I wanted more, the rest was up to me.

"Do it myself? Is that something French?" I finally asked, torn between humiliation and curiosity.

"Oh," Philippe said fondly in English, "American girl," as though the answer should be obvious.

"Only until I know whether it's going to be a passade," he added, "or something serious."

A passing fancy. I wondered how he decided. As I fell asleep, I forced myself not to think about Philippe's wife.

The next morning the Swedish au pair brought us breakfast in bed: café au lait and warm croissants with butter and jam. I was stunned as much by the elegance of the breakfast (beautifully laid out on the tray, with simple white bowls and pitchers of coffee and hot milk) as by their complicity. (When did he tell her what to do, and wouldn't she mention his overnight guest to his wife?) But I didn't ask these questions (Did he sleep with her too?) and instead acted as though I understood the rules of the game, as though I did this sort of thing all the time. After breakfast, Philippe placed the tray outside the bedroom door, as if we had spent the night in a hotel, and started up again. Afterward, he took my face between his lovely long hands and wiped away the crumbs on my lips.

"You're a sweet girl. You turn me on," Philippe declared, kissing me.

Then he walked down the hallway that led to his day as a doctor in the other part of the apartment. "Let yourself out," he said, his hand on the doorknob. "You'll come to dinner when Anne gets back. I'm sure she'll want to meet you. You'll like her. She adores your parents," he added, as if to reassure me.

I walked back slowly through the elegant streets of Saint-Germain. It was briefly sunny that morning and I sat for a while on a rented chair in the Luxembourg Gardens, watching the children sail their tiny boats in the pond despite the cold. Was this the beginning of a story or a one-night stand? A passionate affair or a passade? When would I know? This was, I had begun to see, the problem with "experimenting," my parents' code word for what they took to be my vast sexual experience. By definition, there was no way to know beforehand how an experiment would turn out. If Philippe was typical of French lovers, I was headed for disappointment. He seemed to have performed better on the tennis court with my mother.

"I went to a party at Anne and Philippe's house last night," I reported the next day in my weekly letter. "They served blanc de blanc and foie gras." (I actually wrote "foie de gras." Those were early days.) "I met a charming Japanese painter, who wants me to teach him English."

If I had gone to Paris to escape from my parents, it had not taken me long to return home in my mind, even through my lies.

Waiting for Godard

I HAD LEFT NEW YORK for Paris still under the spell of Breathless. Godard's new wave movie, which my boyfriend David had taken me to see on my twentieth birthday, had made everything French infinitely desirable, as if I needed any persuading. Jean Seberg's character, Patricia, seemed self-possessed, independent, and unafraid, three things I desperately wanted to be. Patricia looked as if she had happily traded innocence for experience some time ago. She had cropped hair, a tight tee-shirt over capri pants, and lovers she wasn't even sure she loved.

Playing a girl from New York on her own in Paris, Jean Seberg was the quintessential gamine, and then there was her bad boyfriend. Within minutes of seeing them on the screen, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg eclipsed the Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir couple ideal I had nourished in college: the template for the intellectual life that included sex while excluding marriage. Belmondo's character Michel was the opposite of intellectual, of course, but I was attracted to the danger he brought to their relations.

Patricia was enrolled in courses at the Sorbonne as I would be (the price of parental financial support), but it was obvious from the start that going to school didn't take up much of her time. She was too busy trying to be a journalist. I loved the idea of the girl in the black-and-white-striped (Dior) shirtwaist dress jumping out of a stolen car and rushing off to a press conference for a celebrity novelist at Orly. During the interview with the great man, who sported dark glasses and a hat, Seberg veiled her ambition behind her own sunglasses, chewing nervously on her pencil, before daring to ask the writer whether he thought women had a role to play in the modern world. But when asked what she was doing in Paris, Patricia replied that she was writing a novel. I studied my expression in the bathroom mirror as she did and, holding my breath, rehearsed her answer. I discovered that if the words went by fast enough, I almost believed them. If I didn't write a novel, at least I would live one.

In Paris, I would leave my boring Barnard-girl self behind in Manhattan along with my parents. France was my hedge against the Marjorie Morningstar destiny that haunted American girls in the 1950s: marriage to a successful man and then the suburbs with children. In exchange for financing the year in Paris, my parents had exacted their particular pound of flesh: an account of my comings and goings in the form of a weekly letter. Letter writing seemed a small enough price to pay for the thrill of being in Europe. The harder part was the promise, in their words, not to hide anything from them. I promised, figuring that there was no way for them to ferret out any hidden items now that I wasn't living under their roof. Besides, I was a literary girl. I had read epistolary novels. I could easily turn out the kinds of letters that would dazzle with detail while omitting the truth. I had written enough of them from summer camp where the weekly letter home was obligatory, considering how much it had cost the parents to pack the kids off to the Adirondacks for eight weeks.

When I emptied my parents' apartment after their deaths, I found my letters from Paris tied in a little bundle sitting in a drawer next to the letters from my years at Camp Severance. Seeing the two packets of epistolary history, arranged in chronological order, adjacent to each other in my mother's dresser, made me think that for her the two correspondences were comparable objects—and perhaps they were, even if in my mind the experiences, each lasting six years, belonged to entirely different eras, not to say selves. Both sets of letters home seemed designed to produce a certain effect—to make my parents think their daughter was having a good time, and that beyond the long string of items necessary to further survival that only they could supply, I didn't need them or miss them. I was away: a happy camper. Happy at age nine, or twenty.

When I reread the Paris letters, I quickly saw the fatal flaw in my decision to hide what my parents wanted to know. What exactly was I concealing from scrutiny? I sensed, hidden in the landscape of elaborate detail, the traces of the very feelings I passionately wanted to recover in order to reconstruct my past. Naturally, as a writer I loved the documentation: the pale blue sweater I bought at the Galeries Lafayette ("I feel so authentic when I wear it!"); the play by Brecht, the Resnais movie I saw (so avant-garde); the new, darker, "Russian" color of my hair. But if I wanted to know what the hyperbole (wonderful, marvelous, fantastic!!!) and the exclamation marks—my favorite form of punctuation—were masking, I would have to reimagine my life as the American girl I was, except in my own eyes.

I HAD BEEN DESPERATE TO leave home for college and live on campus as most of my friends were planning to do. But with their uniquely Jewish brand of casuistry, their uncanny ability to make me disbelieve my own reality, my parents conned me into accepting their bargain: rather than buy into the expensive clichés of dormitory life—how American!—with the money they would be saving for me, I could study in France after graduation. Wasn't Europe the dream? (Yes.) Didn't that make more sense? (Not really.)

I lived at home and attended Barnard.

How did they convince me that I didn't want what I wanted? The pattern had set in when I was young, and years of being talked out of my desires (patent leather Mary Janes were vulgar; so was tap dancing) had produced the desired effect. Together my parents had planted the seed of self-doubt in me so deeply, that no sooner did they question my wishes than I self-sabotaged. Was going away to school a waste of money? Was I too young? I no longer knew. I was suffering from a kind of Jewish Stockholm syndrome. I had to get away but somehow could not leave my captors, my parents to whom I was overly attached.

Paris was the consolation prize for four years of bitter daily skirmishes over the limits to my freedom.

The fact that only girls lived in Le Foyer International des Ètudiantes made the arrangement acceptable to my parents, who seemed to hope I might still be a virgin, even though they talked as if I were already beyond the pale. Inspired in part by foreign movies and in part by Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the eighteenth-century libertine novel that the more literary boys at Columbia considered a handbook for seduction, I scorned the demi-vierges of our acquaintance, who at Barnard were majoring in virginity, as the phrase went. I set out to lose mine with David in my sophomore year, when I read the novel and declared my major in French. Still, there was a lot to learn. What counted after graduating from virginity was going further. I couldn't have said why—or how.

That was part of the plan for Paris. Finding out.

When I crossed the iron-gated threshold of the Le Foyer, carrying my pale blue matching suitcases, I quickly realized that I could redeem the time of my captivity by becoming someone I could not have become, doing what I could never have done—then.


I WAS ASSIGNED A ROOMMATE, Monique Nataf, who came from a small seaport city in Tunisia.

"It's true that Mademoiselle Nataf is a foreigner," Madame la Directrice admitted reluctantly when I told her I would have preferred a French girl, "but she speaks French perfectly. In North Africa they do, you know," she added in a low voice.

Monique arrived a few days after I had settled into the room. Her first gesture was to cover her side of the room with reproductions of Renaissance paintings, portraits of women, mainly madonnas, looking inward and melancholy.

"Bellini?" I asked.

"I love Bellini, and you?"

"And me?"

"Who is your favorite painter?"

"Chagall," I said, anxious about the madonnas, and wishing I had said Matisse.

"I'm Jewish, too," she said, reading the question behind my answer. I blushed, but it was the first thing my parents had asked about Monique.

Monique had been born in France and lived in the Pyrenees during the Occupation. Her mother was Polish and grew up in Berlin; her father was from North Africa. Because she was born in France, Monique had a French passport, but in the eyes of the French French, we were both foreigners.

We were the same size and wore each other's clothing, playing at being sisters or even twins, despite the fact that Monique was as blonde as I was dark. It was the game of identification we liked. Monique's mother had been a petite main, an apprentice to a famous designer, when she was young. The dresses she made for Monique were a step above what my mother knocked out on the Singer sewing machine that provided the white noise to my childhood, and I coveted them.

One chilly afternoon, a street photographer snapped a picture of the two of us arm in arm. In the photograph, we are strolling down from the Foyer along the boulevard Saint-Michel, where girls were regularly pursued by relentless young men. "Vous êtes seules?" they would ask rhetorically, oblivious to our self-sufficiency. Alone! We're with each other! In the snapshot, Monique is wearing a double-breasted blazer, a straight skirt that falls just below the knee, sheer stockings that show off her slender legs, black pumps, leather gloves, and a perfectly tied scarf. She looks Parisian already and, like French girls, doesn't seem to feel the cold. Our arms are linked, but I'm dressed for another season, wearing the brown tweed wool dress with velvet piping that her mother made that fall (for both of us, we joked) and a beige, baggy corduroy coat I had still not realized was completely out of style in Paris.

The Foyer cast itself as the custodian of our virtue, the guardian of future wives and mothers. Madame Carnot, the cleaning woman, shared the Foyer's mission. One morning she knocked at the door at 7:30 while we were sitting on our beds, facing each other in our long flannel nightgowns. Monique opened the door, cigarette in hand.

Plunging her hands into the pockets of her smock, as she looked past Monique at the books and papers strewn across the floor, Madame Carnot threatened to report us to Madame la Directrice for bad conduct. She shook her head gravely to emphasize her point, and adjusted the little gray scarf she always wore to protect her hair.

I conjured up Jane Eyre's little friend Helen Burns wearing the sign for "slattern" in punishment for her untidy room.

"We are trying to form femmes d'intérieur," Madame Carnot added, unembarrassed by her identification with the directrice, who would have shuddered to share the pronoun. Femmes d'intérieur was one of those expressions that sounded better in French, more glamorous and seductive, but wasn't when you thought about it. We didn't want to be perfect housewives.

"Merci, madame." Monique shut the door, thanking the cleaning woman for the warning.

We didn't want to stay home and receive our husbands' guests. We wanted to read books during the day and go out every night. We wanted to have orgasms when we had sex. We didn't share that desire with Madame Carnot, of course. We barely admitted it to ourselves. But that was the only way in which either of us wanted to be women of the interior.

Nice Girls Don't Whistle

STUDENTS LIKE ME WHO WERE working toward a master's degree with the Middlebury program were required to attend a year of weekly lectures at the Sorbonne on Les Liaisons Dangereuses. The lectures on the novel were meant to provide the background for the mémoire, the research essay that was the cornerstone of the master's degree. We were expected to submit the outline (le plan) for the essay to a tutor early in the semester before starting to write. Unlike the American system in which you discovered what you thought while writing, feeling your way to an idea, in France you were expected to think first. I wasn't used to this.

I had been assigned a tutor who lived on the rue Lanneau, one of those dark streets behind the Pantheon, a short walk from the Foyer. We were encouraged to meet with our tutors once a week for two hours. Normally, those meetings took place during the day in the school offices at Montparnasse, but I had canceled my appointments for weeks because I couldn't find a topic, let alone write an outline. Finally, I was running out of time, and one day, as a special favor, my tutor, Monsieur Petitot, told me to come to his apartment after dinner to discuss the situation. We sat at the long oak table in his living room that served as a desk. Monsieur Petitot looked to be in his thirties, I thought, or maybe older, judging by his receding hairline and his gold-rimmed glasses. When he lit his pipe, I reached for my pack of Disque Bleu filtre and my notebook.

"So, mademoiselle," he began, still puffing on his pipe, "the outline?" I took a deep drag on my cigarette.

"That's the problem, monsieur. I don't have one."

The tutor frowned and played with his pipe. I noticed that his bottom teeth were turning brown at the top edges from the tobacco. I revised my estimate of his age. He must be pushing forty.

"Do you have a topic, at least?"

I said I was thinking about the women in the novel.

"Women aren't a topic."

I explained my idea that each of the three women characters is betrayed by the images others have of them and that they each have of themselves. I wasn't sure you could combine existentialism (that I more or less remembered from summer school) with libertinism (a big subject in the Laclos course), but the tutor nodded imperceptibly and told me to write it down.

As I fleshed out a proposal at the table, asking for approval at each stage before committing it to paper, Monsieur Petitot rose from his chair and walked around the room, pulling books off the shelves of his glass-enclosed bookcases and flipping through the pages, culling references for me as I scribbled. I could feel myself flying off on my own now, speeding, enthralled, dazzled by my insights. As I sat at the table bent over my notebook, I sensed the tutor's presence close to me. Monsieur Petitot came up quietly behind my chair, swiftly opened the first two buttons of my blouse, and cupped my left breast in his hand. I was still holding my pen. It was as if the tutor had taken me for Cécile, the ingénue in the novel, the girl who wore her feelings on her skin, the girl that all the characters manipulated with sickening ease. I was not as dumb as Cécile, but Monsieur Petitot was my teacher, and my whole plan for the future (not just le plan) depended on finishing my degree. What was worse, saying no or saying yes? The hand circled slowly, cleverly inside my bra. I removed the hand.

"Oh, monsieur," I sighed, meaningfully, I hoped. "I have so many ennuis right now . . . I . . ." I trailed off, hoping the "now" would do the temporizing for me, afraid to anger the tutor with a no. He slowly removed his hand and squeezed my shoulder. I tilted my head toward the hand in a gesture of mute sympathy, as if I shared his regret. Monsieur Petitot showed me to the door, handing me my notebook and my copy of the novel. We shook hands politely and I promised to send him a draft in two weeks. When he closed the door behind me, I raced down the stairs and back to the Foyer.

Immediately inside the lobby of the Foyer was a desk with a switchboard and a sullen receptionist, who took messages and a dim view of the girls living there. I crossed the lobby floor to the staircase, whistling under my breath, jubilant with relief. I had a topic for my essay, and I had avoided sleeping with the tutor. The receptionist called me over before I could climb the stairs. "Mademoiselle." I approached the counter with a smile. "Mademoiselle, les jeunes filles ne sifflent pas." Nice girls don't whistle? Smoking in the street, I had already learned, was a jeune fille taboo. Not whistling was a new addition to my education.

Monique didn't think Monsieur Petitot would give me a bad grade, but I had read enough books to know that stories of girls who sleep with their tutors usually didn't end well.

Belmondo's Nose

DOWN ONE FLIGHT OF STAIRS from the Foyer lobby was a restaurant open to all students, male and female—provided you had the carte d'étudiant


On Sale
Nov 5, 2013
Page Count
224 pages
Seal Press

Nancy K. Miller

About the Author

After graduating from Barnard College, Nancy K. Miller sailed to Paris to study French literature and complete a master’s degree. Already in love with the city from movies and novels, she hoped to create a new, more sophisticated identity for her twenty-year-old, nice-New York-Jewish-girl self. Several years of adventures and misadventures later, including marriage to an American ex-pat, Miller returned to New York minus the husband but ready to reinvent herself as an academic and writer.

Now a well-known feminist scholar, Miller has authored and edited more than a dozen books, publishing literary criticism, personal essays, and family memoirs. Her most recent memoir, What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past, won the Jewish Journal Prize for 2012 and told the story of her quest to recreate her family’s lost history. She is a Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center, CUNY, where she teaches classes in memoirs, graphic novels, and women’s studies. Miller lectures widely, both nationally and internationally, and her work is anthologized in popular volumes on autobiography and collections of feminist essays. She also co-edits Columbia University Press’s Gender and Culture series, which she co-founded in 1983 with the late Carolyn Heilbrun.

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