Antoine de Saint-Exupry: Famed Writer and Aviator
Byon Jun 30th 2016
The man who wore many hats
(although it's possible it was just a snake that swallowed an elephant)
While the name Antoine de Saint-Exupry might not resonate with you right away, there's a good chance that you're more familiar with him-or his work-than you might think.
Ever hear of The Little Prince (or Le Petit Prince, as it was initially published in French)? Statistically it seems likely that you have, seeing that it's the 4th most translated book in the world, was voted the best book of the 20th Century in France, and has become one of the best-selling books ever published.
If it's still not ringing any bells, there's also a stop-motion and computer animated film-it premiered at Cannes in May 2015 and was released in France July 2015. Netflix now has the U.S. distribution rights, and the film is scheduled to be released on the streaming service August 5, 2016. It's starring big names like Rachel McAdams, Paul Rudd, James Franco, Benicio del Toro, and Ricky Gervais, to name a few. Interested now?
The story, filled with watercolor illustrations by the author, is narrated by a pilot whose plane crashes in the Sahara. He encounters a young boy (to whom the narrator refers as the little prince) who has fallen to Earth from a tiny asteroid. While the narrator attempts to repair his plane over the course of 8 days, the prince tells him the story of his life.
So The Little Price is a big deal. And the man behind the story? Yeah, he's kind of a big deal, too.
The Pilot Behind the Prince
Antoine Marie Jean-Baptiste Roger, comte de Saint- Exupry was born June 29, 1900 at No. 8 rue Payrat, Lyon, France to an aristocratic family. He failed his final exams at a preparatory naval academy, but we're not here to judge-he had a difficult childhood (losing a father and a brother) and some believe that he intentionally failed. After abandoning architectural studies 15 months in, Saint-Exupry worked odd jobs until he began his military service in 1921.
He began taking private flying lessons while in Neuhof, and after a year he was offered a transfer from the French Army to the French Air Force (this transfer was a good call, we'd say). Having experiencing his first aircraft crash (it wouldn't be his last), Saint-Exupry yielded to his family's objections and left the air force.
But that couldn't keep him down, and by 1926 he was flying again. He became one of the pioneers of international postal flight (back in the day when aircraft didn't have ultra-fancy instruments) and flew for Aropostale (the predecessor of Air France...not the clothing store).
With the outbreak of WWII, Saint-Exupry returned to service with the Arme del'Air. When France was invaded, he fled to North America for 27 months. He returned to the war in 1943 flying with the Free French Air Force. At 43, he was 8 years over the age limit for pilots in his operational unit, but successfully petitioned an exemption, approved by General Dwight Eisenhower-despite the pain and immobility he suffered from crashes, leaving him unable to dress himself in his own flight suit or turn his head left.
Saint-Exupry's final mission was to collect intelligence on German troop movements in and around Rhone valley. On July 31, 1944, Saint-Exupry took off from Corsica in a Lockheed Lightning P-38 reconnaissance plane. He would never return.
Saint-Exupry seemed to disappear without a trace-until 1998 when a fisherman off the southern coastline of France found a silver identity bracelet bearing the names of Saint-Exupry, his wife Consuelo, and his American publisher, Reynal & Hitchcock. In 2008, a former Luftwaffe pilot named Horst Rippert told a French journalist that he believed he shot down Saint-Exupry's plane, although his account was met with skepticism and remains a hypothesis without further proof; the cause of Saint-Exupry's death remains unknown.
Saint-Exupry's experiences as a pilot certainly shaped his written works.
On December 30, 1935, Saint-Exupry and his mechanic-navigator Andr Prvot crashed in the Sahara Desert during an attempt to break the speed record in a Paris-to-Saigon air race. They survived the crash only to be faced with dehydration-after four days stranded in the middle of nowhere, a Bedouin on a camel saved their lives. This near-brush with death played a large role in his 1929 memoir, Wind, Sand and Stars (National Book Award winner for non-fiction) and is referenced in his 1943 novella, Le petit Prince.
Living a mixed life as an aviator, journalist, author, and Air France, Saint-Exupry produced a great deal of written works, including essays, short stories, novels, and articles, all of which are worth checking out. But for an endearing tale of loneliness, friendship, love and loss, consider perhaps starting with The Little Prince: there's a 99% chance it's available at a book seller near you.