Kate Betts, the Legendary Editor, on Being a Young American in Paris

Kate Betts is an award-winning magazine editor and author who has held top positions at two of the world's most successful fashion magazines, Harper's Bazaar and Vogue. Her lovely and evocative memoir, "My Paris Dream," chronicles her rise through the ranks of the fashion business. She lives in New York with her husband, son, and daughter.

I was determined not to go home for the first year I lived in Paris. I was looking forward to the Christmas season. Big department stores, like Printemps and Galeries Lafayette, decorated their windows with elaborate installations and festooned their façades with ribbons of lights. In every square, a Christmas tree glowed. Rows of stalls at Christmas markets sold chestnuts and wreaths and delicate glass ornaments.

“We’ll come to you!” my mother exclaimed on the phone. I was calling late one night from the phone booth on the boulevard Saint-Germain.

She had it all planned out. I could hear it in her voice: This was not a last-minute, spur-of-the-moment decision. My mother had given me space and time to find my way in my new home, but now she had her chance to breach the divide. She enlisted my older sister to join her. Liz had just moved to New York from Washington and was studying graphic design. She was curious about Paris but less enthusiastic about traveling, particularly with Mom.

I booked a room at the Hôtel des Saints Pères, a small establishment around the corner from the apartment where I rented a room from a young couple, Bibiane and Antoine Deschamps. I met Mom and Liz at Orly Airport, and we shared a taxi into town. Jet lagged, Liz begged off for a nap, while my mother and I caught up over café crèmes on the place de la Croix Rouge. She was tired but didn’t want to waste a minute of her time in Paris. She listened closely to stories of Bibiane and Antoine, the International Herald Tribune where I worked as an intern, and the excitement of meeting new friends. It was such a relief to see her smile, to feel her warmth. I didn’t realize until then, staring at the December rain pelting the window of the café, how much I had missed her.

For the next few days we walked and walked under gray skies and drizzle, stopping for a crème and pillowy croissants at the Café de Flore or for tiny balls of raspberry and lime sorbet at Berthillon on the Île Saint-Louis. My mother complained about the Parisians’ habit of bumping into tourists on the narrow sidewalks.

“Am I bumping into them?” she asked, perplexed. “I feel like such a clumsy American.”

“No, no,” I corrected. “That’s their way of saying hello.”

President Mitterand had recently inaugurated the Musée d’Orsay, and we spent an afternoon reveling in the majesty of Gustave Courbet’s great masterpiece A Burial at Ornans, Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, and Van Gogh’s tiny, jewel-like portrait of his brother Theo. We ordered chèvre salad at the restaurant, under the iconic clock, and I took a picture of my mother sitting on the edge of a bench inside the sleek, modernist interior of the vast museum, a former train station that had been completely gutted and redesigned by the Italian architect Gae Aulenti. I drew out itineraries of different neighborhoods where we could walk and explore and then end up at a museum or restaurant or, better yet, a department store. We shopped, of course, returning several times to Galeries Lafayette, with its huge Christmas tree reaching up to the Belle Époque glass-domed roof. The dressing rooms were hot and small, but I tried on pair after pair of Dorothée Bis pants, oversize Joseph Tricot sweaters, and tiny snap-front Agnès B. cardigans in every color. A midnight blue shearling coat caught my eye and I slipped it on, pulling the fuzzy collar up around my neck. A luxurious cocoon, the best insulation from Paris’s damp winter chill.
“Get it!” my mother urged, wanting to indulge me. “Buy yourself something nice! I’ll pay for it. This is Paris, after all.” She believed in the idea that beautiful clothes could boost your confidence.

“French women know how to accessorize,” she would marvel as we traipsed from one bead store to another on the Île Saint-Louis. “They never buy anything new, they just change the jewelry and the scarves.”

Every night we went to a different restaurant—La Coupole, with its Art Deco columns and worn red leather banquettes; Brasserie Lipp, where the tourists are quickly shuttled upstairs; and Brasserie Balzar, next to the Sorbonne, the only place open on Sunday nights. We feasted on thick pavés of steak with salty frites and fresh avocados filled with shrimp. We were Americans in Paris, retracing Hemingway’s steps, lingering over café crèmes and ambling around the fountains and the alleys of chestnut trees in the Tuileries, Michelin Guide in hand.

On their last night, my mother and sister came to Bibiane and Antoine’s for dinner. Bibiane cooked my favorite French dishes: roast chicken, potatoes dauphinoise, and île flottante—an airy island of whipped meringue floating in rich créme anglaise. We sat at a formal glass table in the corner of the living room. Impressed by my mother’s elegance, the Deschamps made an effort to speak English.

“So, anyway, you know what I mean?” Antoine said, mimicking my expressions. “Your daughter is très French,” he said. “Isn’t it?” These were private jokes Bibiane, Antoine, and I shared.

My mother smiled blankly and sipped a glass of white wine. She looked uncomfortable.

Bibiane must have thought it was up to her to communicate, to move the stilted conversation along.

“Kate is like a second daughter for me! You are like famille! Please, come and stay here if you want-uh. Anytime, vraiment!”

“I think it’s wonderful the way you welcome so many Americans into your home.” My mother was trying to express her gratitude that her daughter had found such a friendly household. And yet I could hear a hesitation in her voice, a resistance to the idea that I could be happy in Paris.

When I think of my mother now, poised on Bibiane’s couch in her turquoise blue Jean Muir sweater, a smile frozen on her face as she nodded, pretending to follow the chaotic conversation, I think about what she must have seen in me at that moment—my fluency in French slang, the BCBG black velvet bow in my hair, the big dangly earrings. I was breaking away. My parents had divorced when I was six and I had developed a habit of looking for refuge in the homes of friends. Throughout my childhood, I spent afternoons and weekends and vacations with friends. In college, my boyfriend’s family in Greenwich became my safe haven. At the time, my mother knew better than I did that I was looking for a happy, whole family to replace mine, the family that had fallen apart.

But the Deschamps family was different, or so I thought. They represented more than a refuge; they were part of my education, accomplices in the creation of my new identity.

With my sister and mother marooned in my new life, sitting tentatively beside me at the Deschamps’ dinner table, I struggled to unite two disparate sides of myself. I was not French, and yet I was becoming less American. I could feel a strange duality growing within me—the great divide between the reality of who I was and the dream of who I wanted to become.

The next morning I picked my mother and sister up in a taxi and accompanied them to Orly Airport. We dawdled over a final crème, and I bought my mother a bottle of Annick Goutal Gárdenia Passion perfume at the duty-free shop. She dabbed a splash of it on her wrist, and the sweet, intense smell of night-blooming flowers filled the space between us. At the customs gate, I hugged them goodbye and, holding back tears, walked away, turning around every few steps to see if they were still there. When my mother rounded the corner and disappeared behind the security checkpoint, I felt a pang of longing and the urge to run and join her.

Follow Kate Betts on Instagram @KatherineBetts, and on Twitter @katebetts. My Paris Dream is available at Amazon.

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1 Response

  1. Kate has written such a poignant description of her time in Paris. She has a knack of breaking right in to her soul, and ours as we read her memories. I am going to get this book right away! This snippet makes me so curious about the rest. As a European girl who moved with her divorced mom to the USA, and then left her once I married to move to Europe for a few years, this touched my heart, and makes me curious to read Kate’s further adventures. Thank you for sharing this!

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