Saint-Exupéry: A Biography
Stacy Schiff
Alfred A. Knopf, NY 1994

Introduction

The predicament of his birth is summed up by one encyclopedia in two words, "impoverished aristocrat": Antoine de Saint-Exupéry began his professional life as a truck salesman. By 1929 he had distinguished himself as a pilot and published a first novel. Before another five years had passed he was unemployed, living hand-to-mouth. In 1939 he won both the American Bookseller Association's National Book Award and the Académie Française's Grand Prix du Roman for Wind, Sand and Stars; he seemed well on his way to a chair at the Académie Française. Five years later his politics — more accurately his lack thereof — made him so much a persona non grata that he lived in disgrace in Algiers, heartbroken and excommunicated, his books censored. That year he became the most famous French writer to go down as a casualty of World War II. He was forty-four years old.

Saint-Exupéry did not so much live fast as die early. Our fascination with him has grown as a result, as it does with all things that end before their time, from the Titanic to Marilyn Monroe. The mystery surrounding his death — so neatly presaged in The Little Prince, whose hero witnesses forty-four sunsets — has further enhanced the myth. To it have been added the eulogies: Saint-Exupéry's generation comes to an end only today, when he has been dead for fifty years. Survived by a great number of eloquent friends he has been flattened under the collective weight of their half century of praise. That avalanche has naturally provoked a second one: those who have labored to remind us that Saint-Exupéry was a man, not a god, have delighted in doing so vitriolically. The detractors have done no more than the keepers of the cult to reveal Saint-Exupéry himself; they have tangled only with the legend, of which the writer is now twice the victim.

Under it all is buried one man, by no means ordinary, but not extraordinary either for the reasons we have come to believe. A pilot of indisputable audacity, Saint-Exupéry was anything but a disciplined flyer. He flew the mails only briefly, less than six years in all. He played a role in the pioneering age of aviation without having been one of its illustrious practitioners; he was more the Boswell of the early days. Relatedly, he was not much dedicated to routine. He displayed a stunning lack of personal ambition, and was a resolute nonjoiner. Disobedience was often to his mind the better part of valor. His friendships were solid but composed of equal parts loyalty and squabbling. His sentimental history is a thorny one. At the same time Saint-Exupéry was a man of tremendous, towering personality, of certain genius. Little of it crept into the tempest-tossed life, however; only a portion crept into the work. He was perhaps at the height of his powers recounting the tale of his near-death by thirst in the Libyan desert at the dinner table, over which his enchanted listeners plainly slumped with sympathetic dehydration. No one who met him ever forgot him.

How could an aviator write, or how could an aviator write as lyrically as did Saint-Exupéry? And how did an aristocrat come to fly as a mail pilot? There was nothing predetermined about either career, and the worlds of letters and aviation were further apart — especially in France in the 1920s — than a man with a foot in each realm might have liked. Generally speaking the two are not professions that go well together. The writer lives with some detachment from experience, which it is his task to recast; a pilot works his trade with a fierce immediacy, perfect presence. One may reshape events, the other must nimbly accommodate them. For Saint-Exupéry the two careers — and with them the life and the oeuvre were inextricably bound. His biographer enjoys no greater advantage. Most of his work is journalism, romanticized, but still autobiographical; what is not journalism pure and simple is easily enough decoded. The pages hold little fiction, limited fantasy, a vast sea of fact. And while Saint-Exupéry could be absentminded — six years into his marriage he could not remember his wedding date — he neither reinvented nor muddied the past. He was not untruthful. He put a gloss on things, but he lived, too, for that gloss, for a quixotism that would be his undoing. The fashion in which he shaped the events he faithfully reported ultimately tells us as much about him as do the events themselves. It makes it possible to begin to imagine the truly critical hours of his life, those he spent alone at several thousand feet, moments no biographer can touch.

While the works are true to the life — the author's mind wanders on the page just as it did in the cockpit; a common literary construction for Saint-Exupéry is "over A I was thinking of B" — they do not entirely stand in for the man. They are simple; Saint-Exupéry was not. The anguished writer of petulant, indignant, downtrodden letters is nowhere to be found in the early books. Here, too, the myths have taken their toll: Saint-Exupéry's biographer commits to addressing the provenance of the Little Prince, that disarming visitor from Asteroid B612, and yet to date the chroniclers of his life have pretended that the man who wrote some of the most tender pages of our time had no private life, only a morass of a marriage. It is not easy to understand the Little Prince if one holds too much to the caped crusader of lore; it is at the same time too easy to write off Saint-Exupéry altogether if one takes him only at his written word. It is a richer life than he let on, poorer as it was in all the transcendent qualities that make the literature soar, so much more earthbound than it appears to have been.

A note on the name, which is pronounced Sant-Exoopairee, with all syllables accented equally: famous men famously change their names. Saint-Exupéry admitted he had "un beau nom" and enough attached to it that he forbade two women who shared it — an elder sister and his wife — from publishing under it. (Both ultimately defied him.) Friends and acquaintances were to take liberties even where he did not: after a childhood of nicknames, he was transformed by others into "Saint-Ex," who became the pilot of legend. He himself made only one concession on this front. When the writer settled in New York after the fall of France he authorized his American publisher to insert a hyphen into his name, so as to discourage those who insisted as addressing him as "Mr. Exupéry." I have retained the late-arriving hyphen here; to do otherwise in English leaves an odd impression. "Is he one of the saints of France?" a confused son of Charles Lindbergh asked his mother in 1940. Laughingly Anne Morrow Lindbergh — who had fallen under the Frenchman's spell the previous year — replied that he was indeed, if not in the usual sense of the word.

Acknowledgments

A great number of people contributed in a great number of ways to this project. No one has been more helpful than the National Air and Space Museum's R. E. G. Davies, whom I initially sought out for his expertise in airline history and who turned out to be a polymath and a grammarian of the first rank, in short the best friend a writer could have. His additions to the manuscript have been invaluable, as have his deletions from it. I doubt I have taught him anything but dearly hope I amused him a little. I stand as well in debt to the prodigious research conducted by Jean Lasserre and Colonel Edmond Petit of the French aviation journal Icare, whose twenty years of documentation often proved difficult to better.

Those interviewed for this volume are too numerous to thank individually but I am indebted to each of them and hope they will accept this collective mention of my gratitude. Many of them are thanked in the notes for their contributions. I should also like to offer collective thanks to the members of the American 23rd Photo Reconnaissance Squadron, who were forced to endure my endless queries. They may all blame Captain Sylvester Bernstein and Colonel John S. Masterson, who passed on their names. For memories, insights, documents of all kinds, and suggestions for further research I am particularly grateful to: Raoul Aglion, Max Alder, Sergeant Richard L. Andrews, Annabella, Paul Barthe-Dejean, Maximilian Becker, Royce Becker, Jean Bénech, Robert and Mary Evans Boname, Pierre and Dorothy Brodin, Anthony Cave Brown, Guillemette de Bure, Pierre Chevrier, Jean-Marie Conty, Aleta Daley, Elizabeth Reynal Darbee, Colonel Frank Dunn, Colonel Raymond Duriez, Colonel Jean Dutertre, Marius Fabre, Stephen Freeman, Norman T. Gates, General René Gavoille, Françoise Giroud, Madeleine Goisot, Colonel Leon Gray, Colonel André Henry, Henry Hyde, Colonel Jean Israël, Colonel Alain Jourdan, Ormonde de Kay, Nikos and Laurie Kefalidis, Mary S. Lovell, Fernand Marty, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Tex McCrary, Yvonne Michel, Colonel Edmond Petit, John Phillips, Silvia Reinhardt, Alain Renoir, Colonel Vernon V. Robison, Selden Rodman, Anne Roque, Richard de Roussy de Sales, Ysatis de Saint-Simon, Henri-Jean de Saussine, Howard Scherry, Arnaud de Ségogne, Dr. Sheldon Sommers, Hedda Sterne, Bikou de Lanux Strong, Joseph Tandet, Robert Tenger, Dorothy Barclay Thompson, Jacques Tiné, P. L. Travers, Claude Werth, and Helen Wolff.

Saint-Exupéry was a gypsy, which puts his biographer at a considerable disadvantage. As he had no fixed address he had no top desk drawer; the clue-rich clutter of a life barely existed for him. That which did has been dispersed throughout the world. He was in the habit of entrusting his papers to the women in his life: many of these pages have survived, though not all of them can be located and the largest portion of those that can are not available to a biographer. For documents of all kinds I am therefore especially grateful to the following individuals, institutions, libraries, and their staffs: The Académie Nationale de l'Air et de l'Espace in Toulouse, where Martine Ségur could not have been more welcoming; the Air Force Historical Research Agency, Maxwell Air Force Base; the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art; the Archives Nationales, with a special thanks to Michel Guillot; Françoise Grimmer and the archives of the Association des Amis de Saint-Exupéry in Paris; the Bibliothèque Nationale and its superbly helpful staff at the Versailles annex; the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University; the Bibliothèque Littéraire Jacques Doucet; the French Cultural Services in New York; the French Institute in New York; Lilly Library at Indiana University and its assistant curator of manuscripts, Rebecca Campbell Cape; the McGill University Library; the Bibliothèque Municipale de Montréal; the Musée Air France; the Musée de la Poste; the Archives Division of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington; the National Archives, where I leaned heavily on John Taylor and Ken Schlessinger; the New York Public Library; the Pierpont Morgan Library, where I owe special debts to Robert E. Parks and to Dr. Ruth Kraemer, who kindly allowed me an early look at her transcription of the manuscript of The Little Prince; the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin; the Service Historique de l'Armée de l'Air in Vincennes and its director, General Lucien Robineau; the University of Alberta Library; Brigitte J. Kueppers at the Arts Library Special Collections, University of California, Los Angeles; Ned Comstock at the Cinema and Television Library, University of Southern California; and the Westmount Public Library in Montreal, which quietly houses what may well be the best collection of Franco-American books in North America.

Special thanks must go to Frédéric d'Agay, Saint-Exupéry's greatnephew, for permission to quote from Saint-Exupéry's unpublished work. I badgered him shamelessly with queries throughout the long course of this project. I should like to express my appreciation to Harcourt Brace as well for having shared with me documents from the Reynal & Hitchcock archives and for allowing me permission to quote from them in the text. Karen Weller-Watson at Harcourt was also unfailingly generous with her time when she had no reason to be.

I have leaned very heavily on my friends and family in writing this book and owe a variety of huge personal debts, chief among them to Nancy Barr, Susan Bergholz, Emmanuel Breguet, Walter Bode, David Colbert, François Cornu, Mary Deschamps, Harry Frankfurt, Mitchell Katz, Elinor Lipman, Maclab Enterprises, Dona Munker, Clarita Puyaoan, Mort and Ellen Schiff, Geri Thoma, Andrea Versenyi, and Meg Wolitzer. The New York University Biography Seminar provided spiritual and intellectual sustenance. I cannot help but thank Apple Computers, over whose wizardry I marveled every day.

For the early enthusiasm of Ashbel Green, my Knopf editor, I am very grateful, as I am to Carmen Callil and Jonathan Burnham. Also at Knopf, Jenny McPhee and Jennifer Bernstein adroitly shepherded this book through the production process. Marc de La Bruyère has proved a model of several rare qualities, none of which was more appreciated in the long course of this project than his unfailing savoir-faire. He read these pages with fierce attention while his home life collapsed around him. Without the constant ministrations of the most extraordinary of literary agents, Lois Wallace, the pieces of that life would have been impossible to fit back together again. Pétain complained that he was called only in a crisis; Lois did not, and kindly refrained from pointing out that the situation at hand rarely ever constituted one.


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