Before she was a fashion-magazine titan and before she was an author writing critically acclaimed books on the First Lady, Kate Betts was just another new college grad looking to find her place in the world. She could have worked on Wall Street or she could have taken a cross-country road trip, but instead she packed her bags and with nothing resembling a plan she took off for the City of Lights.
Looking back now, Betts says her move—which coincided with a wave of terrorist attacks on the city—was an essential part of becoming the person she wanted to be.
“I had saved all of this stuff,” Betts says of the journals and ephemera she consulted in order to write the book, “and I felt like it was an incredible window into fashion in Paris in the 1980s. It seems almost unbelievable to describe the way a fashion writer used to cover fashion in those times, and I wanted to tell that story. I wanted to tell my story.”
And what a story it is. Betts arrived in Paris knowing no one but soon enough found herself working in the Paris office of Women’s Wear Daily, where she was not only covering the world’s most famous designers but also the up-and-coming crowd that would lead the charge in changing the business of fashion. It wasn’t all ball gowns and baguettes, however, as Betts struggled to find her place in and out of the office and attempted to navigate an industry whose rules were never clearly explained.
“I feet like a lot of times in my career people have said, ‘Oh, she went to Princeton then worked at Women’s Wear, then Vogue, then Harpers Bazaar,” Betts says over breakfast at Manhattan’s very French Lafayette restaurant. “They make it sound so easy and it wasn’t easy. I wanted to show the bumps and bruises along the way.”
From homesickness to heartbreak, she does. My Paris Dream shares not only the story of a driven young woman in the trenches of fashion, but that of an American girl 3,600 miles from home who’s never quite as sure of herself as she wants people to believe. The way Betts writes about her time in France, a reader doesn’t only root for her, he also relates to her. For the author, creating a book like this was an entirely new experience.
“I really had to teach myself how to write again,” she says. “I had written my first book, so I knew I had to write at length, but I also had to tell a story and see myself as a character.”
The experience required a lot of research.
“I read almost every memoir I could get my hands on,” Betts explains. “My husband would make fun of me when a ton of boxes would arrive from Amazon every day, but I really did learn to write again in a totally different way.”
The completed book is a pleasure to read. In addition to the writer’s own compelling story, it includes ‘80s fashion snapshots, images of business cards from before the age of email and even recipes for Betts’ own French favorites (try making the chocolate cake; I did and wasn’t sorry). But does that mean she’s finished with the topic of Paris? It seems unlikely.
“You could write forever about Paris,” she says. “Just the other day I was wondering whether having written this book meant I was done with Paris. Have I gotten all of that out of my system? I don’t think I have.”