PARIS – French aviator and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery became a bestselling French author with The Little Prince, a poetic adventure about a young pilot who crashes in the Sahara Desert.
Born in the French city of Lyon, Saint-Exupery would have turned 120 years old on Monday.
The short philosophical tale which has become a modern classic came to light a year before his death in 1944 and is still the most translated French novel.
In his works such as The Aviator, Land of Men and Flight to War Saint-Exupery reflected on the nature of man and used planes and aviation to navigate and explore the world in a fable-like narrative.
He was born into an impoverished noble family as the third of five children of Count Jean de Saint-Exupery and his wife Marie.
His blond curly locks, just like the protagonist of his story, earned him the nickname of Sun King as a child.
“He came from a very old family that dates back to the Crusades, but they were poor. He was an aviator because he had to earn a living,” says Virgil Tanase, a writer and playwright and author of a biography and Saint-Exupery theatre adaptation.
Despite his poverty, Saint-Exupery’s aristocratic roots did open some professional doors to him.
He did not manage to get into naval school, so he did his military service with the air force and was finally able to fulfil his childhood dream of learning to fly.
After a serious accident in 1923 he abandoned the force at the request of his fiancee but when the relationship collapsed, he returned to his passion and became a commercial pilot with Atecoere company, future Aeropostale, to transport mail between Toulouse and Casablanca, and later Dakar.
The company sent him to Argentina in 1929 where he met and married Consuelo Suncin, a 26-year-old Salvadoran widow who was a writer and artist.
When Germany invaded France in September 1939, Saint-Exupery joined combat with a reconnaissance squadron of the French air force.
After France’s armistice with Germany a year later, he went into exile to the United States.
“He was far above the critical concerns of the war,” says the biographer.
He was first and foremost a writer, Tanase adds.
“He used his experience as an aviator to nurture his literature but he could have been a plumber, a painter or any other thing.”
Aviation, however, was a key part of his life.
In April 1943 Saint-Exupery was desperate to avoid going to battle and serve his country.
According to the Foundation that manages his legacy, he was enlisted again for aerial inspection missions.
On July 31 1944 he took off in an unarmed P-38 at 8.35 am from the French base in Borgo for the last time.
He was in route for his ninth reconnaissance mission over the Rhone Valley.
His plane had fuel for six hours but when no news of the flight emerged, the alarm was raised.
For years his disappearance in Mediterranean waters was the subject of speculation.
Was it a suicide, a plane crash, or, as confirmed decades later, an enemy attack?
The author of the attack, German aviator Horst Rippert, admitted in 2008 that had he known who the pilot of that plane was he would not have shot the plane down.
For the first time, two exhibitions in Lyon and Toulouse will mark the international day of The Little Prince on Monday.
Commemorations set to take place in October will also mark the life of a writer who was ahead of his time and is long owed recognition for his literary legacy, Tanase says.