Antoine de Saint-Exupéry did not like spending more time on Earth than he had to. He was happiest above it, gliding alone in a small airplane across endless ocean or desert, engrossed in a novel propped against the window of his cockpit.
He wrote pages of his books while barrelling through sky, sometimes immersing too intently, and finding he’d flown several hours in the wrong direction.
Like the beloved fictional character he created, the Little Prince, who hailed from a distant asteroid called B-612, Saint-Exupéry also seemed to come from someplace else.
He was a complicated man who penned a children’s book full wisdom and philosophy that continues to sell millions of copies today. He was tall, awkward and in continuous poor health, yet was one of his era’s famed womanisers. He was a heroic aviation pioneer by the time he became an internationally acclaimed author at the start of the Second World War.
The man immortalised on the 50-franc note was born in Lyon, the third of five children, to an impoverished aristocratic family of provincial nobility. He struggled finding his vocation as a young man, failing his naval exams twice, but started flying after entering the military in 1921. He eventually went to Africa to work for Aéropostale, the early airmail service, delivering packages from Toulouse to Dakar, and it was there he found his rhythm.
It was a lethal gig. Aviation was a primitive trade. But the thrill was part of the allure: the gunslinger-like culture of its pilots, the cigarettes and bomber jackets and freewheeling sense of colonising untouched skies, all struck a chord with Saint-Exupéry.
He crashed into the Sahara with another pilot in 1935. Rations consisted of some grapes, an orange and wine. After four days, hallucinations became intense and death seemed imminent, but a wandering Bedouin found them. Saint-Exupéry would later lament aviation’s modernisation, believing automatic controls dulled the experience. His numerous adventures in flight also became perfect fodder for his writing.
The success of The Little Prince, published in 1943, eclipses Saint-Exupéry’s earlier works, but he enjoyed literary celebrity years before its publication with his awe-inspiring writings on aviation. He took readers to the alien-like environments he encountered while alone in the skies, traversing the Atlantic like a dot, far from radio contact, with storm clouds growling up ahead. He won the National Book Award for Wind, Sand and Stars in 1939, and the memoir remains an adventure classic.
The legend of Saint-Exupéry only swelled in following years. He moved to New York, living in a beautiful apartment on the Upper East Side, writing and drawing pages that would becomeThe Little Prince. As a public figure he became a political lightning rod when he refused to align himself with France’s Vichy regime. He married Consuelo Suncín de Sandoval, a gorgeous Salvadoran who was the daughter of a wealthy coffee plantation owner.
Their romance was tempestuous but they couldn’t stay apart. Suncín was the inspiration for the Little Prince’s rose, who sets the prince on his travels off the asteroid.
Saint-Exupéry was torn towards the end of his life between his fame and the solitude he found in the skies. The stress brought him depression and a drinking problem. At 44 he shouldn’t have been flying. The planes he once pioneered had become complicated machines. He routinely confused feet and metres. Nonetheless, he used his influence to convince a squadron to reinstate him, and in July 1944, he took his last flight, crashing somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea. The plane would not be found for another 60 years when its debris was discovered miles off the coast of Marseille.
Saint-Exupéry’s fate became one of France’s enduring mysteries.
Some argue it was partly because of that mystery his myth ballooned as it did. The plane’s discovery caused national controversy – reality threatened to shatter fantasy. Some had long theorised his death was suicide. Others, that he died a depressed crippled alcoholic. Whatever the truth, the discovery brought unflattering speculations back to the forefront. Without the plane there had been no distinct coda to Saint-Exupéry’s life, and it was easier to avoid difficult questions about a complicated man.
But we know he died flying, alone with his thoughts in the skies, where he loved being the most. Maybe there’s no need to look into it further than that.