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Authors: Consuelo de Saint-Exupery
The Tale of the Rose
Consuelo de Saint-Exupéry
“Of course I love you,” the flower said to him. “It is my fault that you have not known it all the while. That is of no importance. But you—you have been as foolish as I. Try to be happy. . . . Don’t linger like this. You have decided to go away. Go now!”
For she did not want him to see her crying. She was such a proud flower. . . .
The Little Prince
In the decades that followed December 17, 1903, when, on the windy coast of North Carolina, the age-old human dream of taking to the air in a powerful machine at last came true, the aviator emerged as one of the new century’s greatest heroes. The progress of each successive feat—a longer distance covered, a higher speed attained, an ocean crossed in a single flight, two new continents connected—was followed with bated breath, and names like Alberto Santos-Dumont, Harriet Quimby, the “Red Baron” Manfred von Richtofen, Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry echoed around the globe. Frequent disaster only heightened the drama of success; every flyer who made it home safe knew of many who had gone down in fiery, or watery, death.
Even more compelling were the stories of survival against unbelievable odds—that of Saint-Exupéry’s close friend Henri Guillaumet, for example, who crashed in the Andes in 1930 and dragged himself across the mountains alone for seven days before he was rescued, or that of Saint-Ex himself, who, after his plane went down in the Libyan desert in 1936, was only saved days later by stumbling across a group of Bedouin. But the most haunting stories were the most mysterious ones: the disappearances. The radio falls silent. The plane never arrives. No trace is ever found.
No one knew more than Saint-Ex about the fascination of such vanishings: the nameless pilot who narrates his most famous book,
The Little Prince,
has gone down in the middle of the vast Sahara, his whereabouts unknown. He has little hope of survival, and none of rescue. In the end, the fictional pilot manages to save himself and tell his story, but the remoteness of that possibility, his own near certainty of being lost to the world forever, underlies its every word. Then, in 1944, only a year after
The Little Prince
first came out, Saint-Exupéry himself took off from a military base in Corsica on a reconnaissance mission over Nazi-occupied southern France and disappeared. Neither his plane nor his body has ever been found.
WEEK BEFORE THAT,
Saint-Ex wrote a letter to his wife, Consuelo—the last of the innumerable letters he had written her since their first encounter in Buenos Aires fourteen years earlier—to tell her that his only regret if he were shot down would be that it would make her cry. “Consuelo,” he wrote in another letter around that same time, “thank you for being my wife. If I am wounded, I will have someone to take care of me, if I am killed, I will have someone to wait for in eternity, and if I come back, I will have someone to come back to.” Letters were always an essential element of what bound the two of them together, perhaps the most essential element. He would write to her when he was halfway across the globe and when he was in a café around the corner from their home. The first of those letters, a gargantuan missive, became the starting point for his prizewinning novel
and through all their wild nomadic years together and apart, the letters kept coming, voluble and impassioned. They were a way of creating space and distance when he felt marooned on the small asteroid of their marriage, and a way of rejoining her when much of planet Earth lay between them. A failure to write her, an interval without letters, was the one thing Consuelo could not tolerate from him.
In some way,
The Little Prince
itself, written during one of the more peaceful phases of their tumultuous marriage, when they were comfortably ensconced in a large white house in Northport, Long Island, was one of those letters. “One never ought to listen to flowers,” the Little Prince confides to the aviator about his beloved and impossible Rose. “One should only look at them and breathe their fragrance. Mine perfumed all my planet. But I did not know how to take pleasure in all her grace. . . . The fact is that I did not know how to understand anything!” he continues. “She cast her fragrance and her radiance over me. I ought never to have run away from her. . . . I ought to have guessed all the affection that lay behind her poor little stratagems. Flowers are so inconsistent! But I was too young to know how to love her. . . .” Antoine had many names for Consuelo: she was his little girl, his sorceress, his
his bird of the islands, but finally and most of all she was the Rose, unique in all the world, whom the Little Prince could not live with and could not live without.
A year or two after Antoine’s disappearance, when the end of the war had brought no news to banish the agony of waiting and all hope of another letter from him had evaporated, Consuelo began to write a letter of her own, a very long letter, telling the story of their marriage. Perhaps she wrote it in French, which was always harder for her than her native Spanish, because she was writing it for him, and his Spanish was never very good. “Write to me, write to me,” Antoine had pleaded in one of his last letters to her, “from time to time the mail comes and brings springtime to my heart.” She typed some of it, wrote other parts out in longhand, and then went back over the manuscript, correcting it and making changes; the whole process must have taken many weeks, or months. Finally, she had the pages bound in thick, black cardboard, and put the volume away in a trunk.
Interest in Saint-Exupéry and worldwide sales of
The Little Prince
soared in the years that followed, but Consuelo never published her manuscript. Even in 1949, when the wealthy woman who for many years was Saint-Exupéry’s mistress (and source of financial support), Nelly de Vogüé, published the first biography of him under the male pseudonym Pierre Chevrier and, predictably, made scant and dismissive mention of his wife, Consuelo did not release her side of the story. She let it lie, silent and unknown, locked in its trunk. Instead, she sculpted image after image of Antoine and his Little Prince and played her role as his devoted widow, representing him at all the many tributes, memorials, receptions, and conferences held in his honor down through the years. Meanwhile, her trunks, crammed with papers, mementos, bits and scraps of their lives—old flight maps, a life jacket he had used during his experimental flights in a hydroplane before the war, and the manuscript of the book you are now holding—were shipped from New York to Paris and from Paris to the house in Grasse, in the south of France, where Consuelo spent the last years of her life.
When she died in 1979, the manuscript was still buried somewhere in there; it is quite possible that she had forgotten about it. It was his letters that she remembered. “I always tremble when I open the files or trunks where my husband’s letters, drawings and telegrams are piled,” she wrote toward the end of her life. “Those yellowing pages, spangled with tall flowers and little princes, are faithful witnesses to a lost happiness whose grace and privileges I value more strongly each year.”
Two decades after her death, Consuelo’s manuscript finally came to light; José Martinez-Fructuoso, who worked for her for many years and was her heir, and his wife, Martine, discovered it as they were making their way through the trunks’ myriad contents. Alan Vircondelet, the author of a biography of Saint-Exupéry, edited it, smoothing out Consuelo’s French and dividing it into chapters. Its publication in France in 2000, a full century after Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s birth on June 29, 1900, became something of a national event. The great myth of Saint-Exupéry, the heroic fighter pilot, now had to be altered to make room for the impassioned new voice of his wife, who in the fifty years since his death had been virtually airbrushed out of the picture.
ECAUSE SHE WAS TELLING
such a private story, intended for an audience of two, Consuelo left out or alluded only vaguely to a great many things. There was no need to say who she was or what her life had been like before meeting him: why repeat what she had already told him so many times, stories he would sometimes beg her for? Those who knew her had fond memories of her weird and glittering evocations of her childhood in the Central American republic of El Salvador. There was the story of how, as a little girl, she decided to make herself the most beautiful dress in the world, so she rubbed honey all over her naked body and ran into the tropical rain forest, where she was soon arrayed in a rustling, luminescent coat of live butterflies. In a variant on that story, she would say that she was born half-dead and to save her a sorcerer smeared her tiny body with honey, which attracted a swarm of bees whose stings awoke her to life. Not without reason did one of her detractors once sum her up in a letter, cited by Saint-Ex’s biographer Stacy Schiff, as “Surrealism made flesh”—a description Consuelo would undoubtedly have taken as a great compliment.
When Consuelo Suncin Sandoval was born, on April 10, 1901 (though the year carved on her gravestone, in the Père-Lachaise cemetery, is 1907), her parents named her Consuelo, or “consolation,” because they were in need of it: the four sons born before her had each died in early childhood (later there would be two more daughters, Dolorès and Amanda). Her family were Ladinos, of mixed Spanish and Mayan blood, and she grew up within fifteen miles of an active volcano, Izalco, a perfect cone of ash and black lava sometimes known as the Lighthouse of the Pacific, because its red halo was visible to nineteenth-century navigators. Her father, Félix Suncin, a coffee planter and a colonel in the army reserve, was locally renowned both as a brutal authoritarian and as a healer who concocted plant-based potions with which he treated the neighboring campesinos’ ailments. While these two aspects of his character might seem contradictory, they were not: when his youngest daughter, Amanda, developed a white spot on her forehead that was slowly spreading, Félix’s treatment was to take the cigar he was smoking from his mouth and stub it out on his daughter’s forehead. The resulting scar kept the white patch from spreading any further.
During her student days in Mexico City, Consuelo charmed her circle of friends with stories about an earthquake that she lived through as a young girl, a disaster that, according to her biographer, Paul Webster, is unmentioned in the annals of her hometown (though the country’s capital, San Salvador, was destroyed by earthquakes no fewer than seven times between 1854 and 1917). But whatever the truth of her tales, she was a bewitching storyteller, and that, even more than her delicate beauty, seems to have been what captivated the many men who fell in love with her.
José Vasconcelos, a prolific and influential philosopher who was at one point a strong contender for the Mexican presidency, devoted more than twenty-five pages of his autobiography to “Charito” (as he called Consuelo): “Her smile made me dizzy,” he wrote. “She had a music inside her . . . and the key to its melodies was in her voice and her diction. To hear her tell a story was to fall under a spell. The words rose to her lips full of harmony and sensuality. You wanted to put a tape recorder in front of her, to capture her stories in her own precise and melodious expression of them.”
In the aftermath of a first marriage in 1922 to Ricardo Cardenas, a young Mexican army officer she met while studying English in California and who died less than a year after their wedding, Consuelo moved to Mexico City to continue her education. There she soon embarked on a three-year affair with the very distinguished and powerful Vasconcelos, who was in his forties and had a wife and two children. It was, Vasconcelos says, “the mystery of Charito” that inspired him to write one of his most memorable short stories, “La casa imantada” (“The Magnetic House”), the first manifestation of Consuelo’s power as a literary muse. “The most seductive thing about Consuelito,” he commented, forgetting, for a moment, her alias, “was her sincerity. She didn’t lie or lied very little. And she was as likely to talk about things that showed her in a bad light as about what made her look good.”
Late in 1925, Vasconcelos and his family left Mexico to go into exile in Paris, and soon Consuelo wrote him a letter from her family home in Armenia, San Salvador, asking him to send her money for a ticket to Paris. (The Suncins were well-off by local standards, but their funds were no match for Consuelo’s ambitions.) He sent the money. She arrived in Paris in January 1926, and not long after, Vasconcelos and his good friend Alfonso Reyes, a celebrated essayist who was then a minister in the Mexican government, took her to dinner at a fashionable restaurant. Consuelo asked Reyes, “Is this one of the best places? Are the women here the loveliest and most elegant in Paris?” When Reyes assured her that she was indeed surrounded by the
of Parisian society, she turned to Vasconcelos in triumph and said, “Well, I think I can hold my own with them.”