Awesome Men Throughout History: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
I’m going to hazard a guess that we all had to read The Little Prince for school at some point, although most of us don’t remember anything from it except asteroids and baobabs. It’s a pity, because it really is a good book.
More to the point, the book’s author—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry—was a total BAMF whose life was as devoted to flying planes as it was to writing. He was a pretty awesome guy, all told, and absolutely worthy of an Awesome Men Throughout History column.
Saint-Exupéry was born in Lyon to an aristocratic family that went broke when his father died, and stayed broke when his older brother died several years later. A teenaged Saint-Exupéry became the man of the house, tasked with providing for his mother and three sisters by working a string of odd jobs.
He also joined the Army, but transferred to the French Air Force after taking private flying lessons. Flying became a huge part of Saint-Exupéry’s life, and he struggled whenever he found himself unable to fly for extended periods of time. Most of his written work was inspired by his flight experiences, and at least two of his novels are basically autobiographical accounts of his life as a pilot.
And I mean, a certain amount of that is warranted. In his prime, Saint-Exupéry was a pioneers of international postal flight, and loved the challenge of flying between countries with few navigational instruments. He worked for Aéropostale (no, not the clothing label) and also spent time in Morocco, where he negotiated a hostage release and earned himself a Légion d’honneur, which is the French version of America’s Medal of Honor.
In 1935, Saint-Exupéry famously crashed a plane near the Wadi Natrun valley while trying to break a speed record in a Paris-to-Saigon race. Stuck in the desert with sub-par maps and less than a day’s worth of liquid (his total supplies were grapes, two oranges, a thermos of coffee, chocolate, a handful of crackers, and some wine), he and his mechanic somehow survived for four days, hallucinating their way through the Sahara until they were found and rehydrated by a Bedouin passerby.
Wind, Sand and Stars, his 1939 memoir, talks about this experience in detail, and the beginning of The Little Prince, in which a pilot gets marooned in the desert, also references his desert crash.
Saint-Exupéry disappeared in 1944, taking off in an unarmed plane on what was supposed to be a recon mission collecting intelligence on German troop movements around the Rhone Valley. He’d taken to drinking by then, and had been suffering from depression (both of which are typical for writers).
Decades later, his silver identity bracelet and the remains of his Lockheed P-38 Lightning were found off the coast of Marseilles, in 1998 and 2000 respectively. Whether he was shot down by Germans or not is still in dispute, but his awesomeness isn’t. Saint-Exupéry was one of a kind, a literate and introspective man’s man, and those are sadly rare today.
Colleen Mondor over at Bookslut talks about how often his work is overlooked, and makes the case that he should be read much more widely than he is these days. Read her review and then look him up on Amazon. You won’t be disappointed.
About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.