Antoine de Saint-Exupéry , officially Antoine Marie Jean-Baptiste Roger, comte de Saint Exupéry (29 June 1900 – 31 July 1944), was an aristocrat French writer, poet and pioneering aviator. He became a laureate of several of France's highest literary awards and also won the U.S. National Book Award. He is best remembered for his novella The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince) and for his lyrical aviation writings, including Wind, Sand and Stars and Night Flight.
He was a successful commercial pilot before World War II, working airmail routes in Europe, Africa and South America. At the outbreak of war he joined the Armée de l'Air (French Air Force), flying reconnaissance missions until France's armistice with Germany in 1940. After being demobilized from the French Air Force he voyaged to the United States to convince its government to quickly enter the war against Nazi Germany. Following a 27-month hiatus in North America, during which he wrote three of his most important works, he joined the Free French Air Force in North Africa, although he was far past the maximum age for such pilots and in declining health. He disappeared over the Mediterranean on his last assigned reconnaissance mission in July 1944, and is believed to have died at that time.
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Prior to the war he had achieved fame in France as an aviator. His literary works, among them The Little Prince, translated into over 250 languages and dialects, propelled his stature posthumously allowing him to achieve national hero status in France. He earned further widespread recognition with international translations of his other works. His 1939 philosophical memoir Terre des hommes became the name of a major international humanitarian group, and was also used to create the central theme (Terre des hommes–Man and His World) of the most successful world's fair of the 20th century, Expo 67 in Montreal, Canada.
Youth and aviation
Saint-Exupéry was born in Lyon to an aristocratic family which could trace its lineage back several centuries, the third of five children of Marie de Fonscolombe and comte Jean de Saint Exupéry. His father was an executive of the Le Soleil (the Sun) insurance brokerage, who died of a stroke in Lyon's La Foux train station before his son's fourth birthday. His father's death would greatly impact the entire family, changing their status to that of 'impoverished aristocrats'.
Saint-Exupéry was the third of five children, with three sisters and a younger blond-haired brother, François, who at age 15 would tragically die of rheumatic fever contracted while both were attending a Marionist school in Fribourg, Switzerland during World War I. Saint-Exupéry attended to his brother, his closest confidant, on his death bed, and later wrote that François "...remained motionless for an instant. He did not cry out. He fell as gently as a [young] tree falls", an imagery which would much later be recrafted in the climactic ending of The Little Prince. At age 17 and now the only 'man' in the family, the event left the young author as equally distraught as his sisters, but he soon assumed the mantle of a protector and took to consoling them.
After failing his final exams at a preparatory Naval Academy (intentionally, some believe), Saint-Exupéry entered the École des Beaux-Arts as an auditor to study architecture for fifteen months, again without graduating, and then fell into the habit of accepting odd jobs. In 1921, he began his military service with the 2e Régiment de chasseurs à cheval (2nd Regiment of Light Cavalry) and was sent to Neuhof, near Strasbourg. While there he took private flying lessons and the following year was offered a transfer from the French Army to the French Air Force. He received his pilot's wings after being posted to the 37th Fighter Regiment in Casablanca, Morocco. Later, being reposted to the 34th Aviation Regiment at Le Bourget on the outskirts of Paris and then experiencing the first of his many aircraft crashes, he bowed to the objections of the family of his fiancée, future novelist Louise Lévêque de Vilmorin, and left the air force to take an office job.
The couple ultimately broke off their engagement and he worked at several more odd jobs without success over the next few years.
By 1926, Saint-Exupéry was flying again. He became one of the pioneers of international postal flight, in the days when aircraft had few instruments. Later he complained that those who flew the more advanced aircraft had become more like accountants than pilots. He worked for Aéropostale between Toulouse and Dakar, and then also became the airline stopover manager for the Cape Juby airfield in the Spanish zone of South Morocco, in the Sahara desert. His duties included negotiating the safe release of downed fliers taken hostage by hostile Moors, a perilous task which earned him his first Légion d'honneur from the French Government.
In 1929, Saint-Exupéry was transferred to Argentina, where he was appointed director of the Aeroposta Argentina airline. He surveyed new air routes across South America, negotiated agreements and even occasionally flew the airmail as well as search missions looking for downed fliers. This period of his life is briefly explored in Wings of Courage, an IMAX film by French director Jean-Jacques Annaud.
The author near Montreal, Canada in May 1942 on a speaking tour in support of France after its armistice with Germany. Despite his appearance he had been beset with stress and bedridden with cholecystitis.
Saint-Exupéry's first novella, "l'Aviateur" (the aviator), was published in a short-lived literary magazine le Navire d'argent (The Silver Ship). In 1929, his first book, Courrier sud (Southern Mail) would be published; his career as an aviator and journalist is about to burgeon, and that same year he flew the Casablanca–Dakar route.
The 1931 publication of Vol de nuit (Night Flight) established him as a rising star in the literary world. It was the first of his major works to gain widespread acclaim and became the winner of the prix Femina. The novel mirrored his experiences as a mail pilot and director of the Aeroposta Argentina airline, based in Argentina.
That same year, at Grasse, Saint-Exupéry married Consuelo Suncin (née Suncín Sandoval), a twice-widowed Salvadoran countess, writer and artist, who possessed a bohemian spirit and a "viper's tongue". Saint-Exupéry, thoroughly enchanted by the diminutive woman, would leave and then return to her many times –she was both his muse and over the long term the source of much of his angst. It would be a stormy union, with Saint-Exupéry travelling frequently and indulging in numerous affairs, most notably with the Frenchwoman Hélène de Vogüé (1908–2003), known as 'Nellie' and referred to as "Madame de B." in Saint-Exupéry biographies. De Vogüé became Saint-Exupéry's literary executrix after his death, and also wrote her own Saint-Exupéry biography under a pseudonym, Pierre Chevrier.
On December 30, 1935 at 02:45 a.m., after 19 hours and 44 minutes in the air, Saint-Exupéry, along with his mechanic-navigator André Prévot, crashed in the Sahara desert. They were attempting to break the speed record in a Paris-to-Saigon air race (called a raid) and win a prize of 150,000 francs. Their plane was a Caudron C-630 Simoun, and the crash site is thought to have been near the Wadi Natrun valley, close to the Nile Delta.
Both miraculously survived the crash, only to face rapid dehydration in the intense desert heat. Their maps were primitive and ambiguous, leaving them with no idea of their location. Lost among the sand dunes, their sole supplies were grapes, two oranges, a thermos of sweet coffee, chocolate, a handful of crackers, and a small ration of wine. The pair had only one day's worth of liquid.
They both began to see mirages and experience auditory hallucinations, which were quickly followed by more vivid hallucinations. By the second and third day, they were so dehydrated that they stopped sweating altogether. Finally, on the fourth day, a Bedouin on a camel discovered them and administered a native rehydration treatment that saved their lives. The near brush with death would figure prominently in his 1939 memoir, Wind, Sand and Stars, winner of several awards. Saint-Exupéry's classic novella The Little Prince, which begins with a pilot being marooned in the desert, is in part a reference to this experience.
American and Canadian sojourn and The Little Prince
Saint-Exupéry continued to write until the spring of 1943, when he left the United States with American troops bound for North Africa in World War II. During the war, he initially flew a Bloch MB.170 with the GR II/33 reconnaissance squadron of the Armée de l'Air. After France's 1940 armistice with Germany, he voyaged to North America, escaping through Portugal and arriving in New York on the last day of 1940 with the intention of convincing the U.S. to quickly enter the conflict against Nazi Germany. On January 14, 1941 at a Hotel Astor author luncheon attended by approximately 1,500, he belatedly received his National Book Award, won a year earlier for Wind, Sand and Stars while he was occupied witnessing the destruction of the French Army. Consuelo followed him to New York several months later after a chaotic migration to the southern French town of Oppède, were she had lived in an artist's commune.
Between January 1941 and April 1943 the Saint-Exupérys lived in New York City's Central Park South in twin penthouse apartments, the The Bevin House mansion in Asharoken on Long Island, NY, as well as a townhouse on Beekman Place in Manhattan. It was after his arrival in the United States that the author adopted the hyphen within his surname, as he was annoyed with Americans addressing him as "Mr. Exupéry". It was also during this period that he authored Pilote de guerre (Flight to Arras)—which earned widespread acclaim—and Lettre à un otage (Letter to a hostage), dedicated to the 40 million French living under Nazi oppression, plus numerous shorter pieces in support of France. The Saint-Exupérys also resided in Quebec City, Canada for several weeks during the late spring of 1942, during which time they met a precocious eight year old boy with blond curly hair, Thomas, the son of philosopher Charles De Koninck, whom the Saint-Exupéry's resided with.
Saint-Exupéry wrote and illustrated The Little Prince in New York City and Asharoken in mid-to-late 1942, with the manuscript being completed in October. It would be first published months later in early 1943 in both English and French, but only in the United States. It would later appear in his native homeland posthumously, after the liberation of France.
Return to war
In April 1943, following his 27 months in North America, Saint-Exupéry departed with an American military convoy for Algiers, to fly with the Free French Air Force and fight with the Allies in a Mediterranean-based squadron. Then 43, soon to be promoted to the rank of Commandant (Major), he was far older than most men tasked to combat status. Although eight years over the age limit for such pilots, he had petitioned endlessly for an exemption which had finally been approved by General Dwight Eisenhower. However Saint-Exupéry had been suffering pain and immobility due to his many previous crash injuries, to the extent that he could not dress himself in his own flight suit or even turn his head leftwards to check for enemy aircraft.
He was assigned with a number of other pilots to Lockheed P-38 Lightnings, which an officer described as "war-weary, non-airworthy craft". The Lightnings were also more sophisticated than models he previously flew, requiring him to undertake seven weeks of stringent training before his first mission. After wrecking a P-38 through engine failure on his second mission, he was grounded for eight months, but was then later reinstated to flight duty on the personal intervention of General Ira Eaker, Deputy Commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces.
After Saint-Exupéry resumed flying he also returned to his longtime habit of reading and writing while flying his single seat F-5B variant (a specially modified fighter-bomber). His prodigious studies of literature gripped him, and on occasion he continued his readings of literary works until moments before takeoff, with mechanics having warmed up and tested his mount for him in preparation for his flight. On one flight he circled the airport for an hour after returning, so that he could finish reading a novel, to the chagrin of his colleagues awaiting his arrival. Saint-Exupéry frequently flew with a lined notebook (carnet) during his long solitary flights, and some of his philosophical writings were created during such periods when he could reflect on the world below him.
Prior to his return to flight duties with his squadron in North Africa the collaborationist Vichy Regime unilaterally promoted Saint-Exupéry as one of its members—coming as a shock to the author himself. Subsequently, French General (later, French President) Charles de Gaulle, whom Saint-Exupéry and others held in low regard, publicly implied that the author-pilot was supporting Germany. Depressed at this, he began to drink heavily. Additionally, his health, both physically and mentally, had been deteriorating. Saint-Exupéry was said to be intermittently subject to depression and there was discussion of taking him off flying status.
Saint-Exupéry's last assigned reconnaissance mission was to collect intelligence on German troop movements in and around the Rhone Valley preceding the Allied invasion of southern France ("Operation Dragoon"). Although he had been reinstated to his old squadron with the provision that he was to fly only five missions, on 31 July 1944, he took off in an unarmed P-38 on his ninth reconnaissance mission from an airbase on Corsica. To the great alarm of the squadron compatriots who revered him, he did not return, dramatically vanishing without a trace. Word of his disappearance shortly spread across the literary world and then into international headlines.
A French woman reported much later having watched a plane crash around noon near the Bay of Carqueiranne off Toulon. An unidentifiable body wearing French colors was found several days after his disappearance, east of the Frioul archipelago south of Marseille, and buried in Carqueiranne in September.
Discovery at sea
In September 1998 Jean-Claude Bianco, a fisherman, found, east of Riou Island, south of Marseille, a silver identity bracelet (gourmette) bearing the names of Saint-Exupéry and of his wife Consuelo and his American publisher, Reynal & Hitchcock, hooked to a piece of fabric, presumably from his flight suit. The recovery of his bracelet was an emotionally laden event in France where Saint-Exupéry had by then assumed the mantle of a national icon, and some disputed its authenticity as it was found far from his intended flight path, implying that the aircraft may not have been shot down.
In May 2000 Luc Vanrell, a diver, found the partial remains of a P-38 Lightning spread over thousands of square metres of the seabed off the coast of Marseille, near to where the bracelet was previously found. The discovery galvanized the country, which for decades had conducted searches for his aircraft and speculated on Saint-Exupéry's fate. The remnants of the aircraft were recovered only in October 2003, due to a two year delay imposed by the French Government.
On 7 April 2004, Patrick Granjean, head of the French Ministry of Culture, Captain Frederic Solano of the French Air Force, plus investigators from the French Underwater Archaeological Department confirmed that the remnants of the crash wreckage were, indeed, from Saint-Exupéry's P-38 F-5B reconnaissance variant. No marks or holes attributable to gunfire were found; however, that was not considered significant as only a small portion of the aircraft was recovered. In June 2004, the fragments were given to the Air and Space Museum in Le Bourget, Paris, where Saint-Exupéry's life is commemorated in a special exhibit.
The location of the crash site and the bracelet are less than 80 km by sea from where the unidentified French soldier was found in Carqueiranne, and it remains plausible, but has not been confirmed, that the body was carried there by sea currents after the crash over the course of several days.
Speculations in 1981 and 2008
In March 2008, a former Luftwaffe pilot, 85-year-old Horst Rippert (the brother of the singer Ivan Rebroff), told La Provence, a Marseille newspaper, that he engaged and downed a P-38 Lightning on 31 July 1944 in the area where Saint-Exupéry's plane was found. Rippert, who was on a reconnaissance mission over the Mediterranean sea, said he saw and engaged a P-38 with a French emblem near Toulon. Rippert, who said he saw the P-38 crash into the sea, was the second Luftwaffe fighter pilot to publicly state this, after Robert Heichele reported in 1981 that he had shot down Saint-Exupéry's plane.
Two books were published by French and German researchers discussing the alleged Saint-Exupéry shootdown. Rippert's and Heichele's stories are unverifiable, possibly self-promotional, and have met with criticism from German, French and British investigators
Contemporary archival sources, including intercepted Luftwaffe signals, strongly suggest that Saint-Exupéry was not shot down by a German aircraft, although an American Lightning flown by Second Lieutenant Gene Meredith was shot down the previous day on 30 July. By contrast, there were no claims on file from either of the Luftwaffe pilots, Heichele or Rippert, for a Lightning on 31 July 1944, nor any supporting Allied signals intelligence or radar reports for that area on that date. Rippert's explanation that he and his Luftwaffe squadron colleagues immediately 'covered up' the shootdown after-the-fact due to Saint-Exupéry's stature was met with extreme skepticism, as the Allies had made no mention of the author's status for two to three days after he failed to return from his mission.
While not precisely autobiographical, much of Saint-Exupéry's work is inspired by his experiences as a pilot. One notable example is his novella The Little Prince, a poetic tale self-illustrated in watercolours in which a pilot stranded in the desert meets a young prince fallen to Earth from a tiny asteroid. The Little Prince is a philosophical story, including societal criticism, remarking on the strangeness of the adult world. One biographer wrote of his most famous work: "Rarely have an author and a character been so intimately bound together as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and his Little Prince", and remarking of their dual fates, "...the two remain tangled together, twin innocents who fell from the sky".
During the 1930s Saint-Exupéry led a mixed life as a flyer, journalist, author and publicist for Air France, Aéropostale's successor. His journalistic writings for Paris-Soir and other newspapers covered events in Indochina and the Far East (1934), the Mediterranean, Soviet Union and Moscow (1935), and the Spanish Civil War (1936–1937). Saint-Exupéry additionally wrote a number of shorter pieces, essays and commentaries for various other newspapers and magazines.
Notable among those during WWII was An Open Letter To Frenchmen Everywhere, which was highly controversial in its attempt to rally support for France against Nazi oppression. It was published in The New York Times Magazine in November 1942, and also in its original French in Le Canada, de Montréal at the same time and in Pour la Victoire the following month.
Censorship and publication bans
Pilote de guerre (Flight To Arras), describing the German invasion of France, was slightly censored when it was released in its original French in his homeland, by removing a derogatory remark made of Hitler (which French publisher Gallimard failed to reinsert in subsequent editions after WWII). However shortly after it was released in France, Nazi appeasers and Vichy supporters objected to the book's praise of one of Saint-Exupéry's squadron colleagues, Captain Jean Israël, who was portrayed as being amongst the squadron's bravest defenders during the Battle of France. In support of their German occupiers and masters, Vichy authorities attacked the author as a defender of Jews (in racist terms) leading to the praised book being banned in France, along with prohibitions against further printings of Saint-Exupéry's other works. Prior to France's liberation new printings of Saint-Exupéry's works were made available there only by means of covert print runs, such as that of February 1943 when 1,000 copies of an underground version of Pilote de guerre, were printed in Lyon.
A further complication occurred due to Saint-Exupéry's and others' view of General Charles de Gaulle, who was held in low regard. Early in the war de Gaulle became the leader of the Free French Forces in exile, with his headquarters in London. Even though both men were working to free France from Nazi occupation, Saint-Exupéry viewed de Gaulle with apprehension as a possible post-war dictator, and consequently provided no public support to the general. In response, de Gaulle struck back at the author by implying that the author was a German supporter and having his literary works banned in France's North African colonies. Saint-Exupéry's writings were, with irony, banned simultaneously in both occupied France and Free France.
Extension of copyrights in France
Due to Saint-Exupéry's wartime death, his estate received the civil code designation Mort pour la France (English: Died for France), which was applied by the French Government in 1948. Amongst the law's provisions is an increase of 30 years in the duration of copyright; thus most of Saint-Exupéry's creative works will not fall out of copyright status in France for an extra 30 years.