Schiff's agent warned her against being too optimistic
about publishing giant Alfred A. Knopf buying her biography of
best known in North America as the author of The Little Prince.
"She wrote me a fax, and she said, 'don't get
all excited, remember that you are writing about a dead Frenchman
with an unpronounceable name who wrote one children's book' —
which is indeed how many people see it," says first-time author
But Knopf did indeed buy the book on the strength of Saint-Exupery's
fascinating double career as an author and an aviation pioneer.
Many Canadians are familiar with The Little Prince — a metaphysical
1943 classic about the intergalactic travels of a Little Prince
who came from a planet that was "scarcely larger than a house."
But in France, Saint-Exupery was celebrated as the author of several
books based on his early flying days. After his 1944 disappearance
during a World War II reconnaissance mission, Saint-Exupery was
posthumously decorated as a war hero.
Schiff says she started work on Saint-Exupery: A Biography after
re-reading Wind, Sand and Stars, one of Saint-Exupery's books on
"I was struck by how beautifully it was written, what an
incredibly lyrical piece of prose it was... I began to think about
how the circumstances of his death were still unsolved and began
to realize there are huge parts of his life no one had examined
before," says Schiff, a Massachusetts native who had been working
in New York as a book editor first for Viking/Penguin, then for
Simon & Shuster. Schiff moved to Edmonton five years ago after
marrying an Edmontonian.
Saint-Exupery was born in 1904 to a downwardly-mobile aristocratic
family in France. His father, who held a succession of short-lived
careers, died when Saint-Exupery was a child, leaving his mother,
Marie Boyer de Fonscolombe, to raise five children.
"It was a very aristocratic family where you generally became
an officer or a diplomat," Schiff explains. "St. Exupery
was a bad student, he was a misdirected soul, and diplomacy and
the military was not in his future, so it was hard for him to find
a place in the world that he did have to make a living."
Fascinated with the aviation boom that took place in France after
a series of flight demonstrations by Wilbur Wright in 1908, St.
Exupery — called Saint-Ex by his friends — looked to
the skies for his future.
"Saint-Ex is lucky enough to come of age when all of that
aviation fever had set in in France," says Schiff, who often
speaks about St. Exupery in the present tense. "He learns to
fly while doing his military service in his early 20s, largely because
he doesn't know what else to do with his life at that point."
Saint-Exupery eventually found a job with Latecoere, a burgeoning
air line which flew mail from Paris to France's colonies in West
Africa and South America. What seems routine in 1995 was a huge
risk in the late 1920s.
"In about 1928, flying down the coast of Africa, you always
flew those days in tandem; two planes went out at the same time
because it was likely that one of them would break down," says
Schiff. "You're flying over an arid coast with fairly bad weather
most of the time: sand storms, fog and things along the coast, and
furthermore with dissident tribes of Moors who live there. They
think that the French are basically flying pouches of gold over
their heads, so they like to try to shoot the planes out of the
air - not with much success. But they do kidnap the French aviators,
and so it's a fairly dicey proposition to get the mail down the
During one of these trips, says Schiff, both airplanes experienced
technical difficulties and land in Mauritania, not far from an isolated
French fort whose sole inhabitant is a French soldier.
"The sergeant throws himself upon them because they for him
are emissaries from the homeland," says Schiff. "He's
a man who lives with very little in the middle of this vast desert.
He looks upon the mother country as something which is years away
because his mail takes so long to get back to France. St. Ex is
so impressed with just the very bare essentials of this man's existence
and his great, overweening love for this country which is so far
away that he manages to write about that night in just about every
one of his books."
Schiff says other accidents are immortalized in Saint-Exupery's
writing. "Of each one of those mishaps, Saint-Exupery manages
to make literature in the end, so we should be grateful that he
was flying such lousy aircraft!"
In fact, Saint-Exupery sometimes wrote about flying while flying:
his friends pointed out that his cockpit was often littered with
crumpled balls of paper.
Despite Saint-Exupery's ability to write about the romanticism
of aviation, he was never able to write about romantic relationships.
In fact, Schiff characterizes Saint-Exupery's love life as being
"He never had a perfectly gratifying affair with anyone.
He had one long-term mistress in France, he had a couple of close
girlfriends when he was living in North America and he had a wife.
None of them was a perfect relationship for him."
And yet, the preservation of Saint-Exupery's work and legend is
due to a number of women in his life. Schiff interviewed Saint-Exupery's
mistress "30 or 40 times" on the condition her identity
not be revealed.
"She (is) the keeper of the manuscripts," Schiff says
of "Madame B". "The actual say for what happens to
them does belong to his sister's children. St. Exupery had no children
of his own, so the actual taking care of the legacy falls to his
sister's children and to their children today. However, in an interesting
twist, his long-term mistress, who is a very powerful woman in France,
was left with the manuscripts, and she has sole care of the manuscripts.
So what happens to the image of St. Ex and what happens to those
manuscripts and those letters are entirely in her hands. It's a
very strange situation where you have essentially two different
parties controlling the legacy."
Schiff also spoke to Silvia Reinhardt, in whose New York apartment
Saint-Exupery wrote The Little Prince during his exile from France
due to the German occupation. Schiff says the years leading up to
his departure from his homeland were bitter ones, marked by unemployment,
destitution and his crumbling marriage to Salvadoran native Consuelo
Gomez Carillo. In America, he found himself outside the community
of other French exiles. Reinhardt's home was an oasis.
"She was with him essentially every day," says Schiff.
"He came to her house at night, she gave him dinner, and he
wrote and he read to her. The charming thing about it was she spoke
no French and he spoke no English, and they had this passionate
relationship without the use of language. When he read her these
passages, he would lie down on the chaise-lounge of her apartment
and she would sit at his feet. He would read to her these flowing
passages, and she didn't understand a word of what he was saying.
She just played along because she was madly in love with him. It
was just a wonderful love story! And then he leaves to go off to
the front and leaves her behind."
Last summer marked the 50th anniversary of Saint-Exupery's disappearance
during World War II, a fact not lost on Schiff's French publishers,
who rushed a French translation of the biography to coincide with
With excerpts of Saint-Exupery: A Biography published in the New
York Times Book Review and the Washington Post, positive reviews
and appearances on American and Canadian media, Schiff's career
as a biographer has taken off. She has already begun work on her
next book, about the 54-year marriage of Vera and Vladimir Nabokov
(Vladamir wrote the novel Lolita). Still, she does not tire of talking
about Antoine de Saint-Exupery.
"It's very hard to get tired of him because I suppose it's
a very sad life and your heart goes out to him at the very end,"
says Schiff. "It was very hard for me to survive without him
for the first few months."