Seventy years after an enigmatic French author and aviator disappeared over the Mediterranean Sea, one New Yorker is obsessively determined to keep Antoine de Saint-Exupéry alive.
“Do you have an iron?”
Howard Scherry is overjoyed when his neighbor Susan responds in the affirmative. He washed his aviator’s scarf the night before — “the kind the pilots wore in the 1920s in the open cockpits” — so that he can wear it next week, but it needs to be pressed. Will Susan iron it?
“Sure,” she says with a smile.
Scherry’s smile stretches even wider, excitement shining in his light blue eyes. He gushes his thanks and promises to take Susan out to lunch at the senior center around the corner. Even dinner, if she prefers – at Hamilton House it costs all of $2. “I’ll be generous,” he says, before turning back to me. “You must get to be sixty years old, you must, quickly! It’s fantastic! You want a human interest story, you come to the senior center and see it operate. It is absolutely delightful, because of the cast of characters there. You couldn’t find such a cast. I’m one of them!”
Seventy-six years old, this cast member happens to be the leading American scholar on French author and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, best known for Le Petit Prince, or The Little Prince.
It is the story of a pilot who befriends a young prince from another planet with the simplest of gestures — drawing the prince a picture of a sheep in a box, and then leading him on a tour of the desert they meet in — and there is an evident parallel between The Little Prince and Scherry’s first encounter with the man he describes as his “mentor” Saint-Exupéry.
“It was as if Saint-Ex took me by the hand and said to me, ‘You will follow me young man; you will accompany me for the rest of your life,’” recalls Scherry, of his first time encountering the author’s writing. “Those prophetic words date from 1956. I have never abandoned my mentor. I have never been far from his shadow.”
By 1956, Saint-Exupéry had been silent for twelve years, having disappeared over the Mediterranean Sea in 1944, when Scherry was just six years old. In the dozen years before that, however, he wrote several bestsellers. Night Flight, published in the U.S in 1932, and Southern Mail (1933) were personal meditations on aviation and mankind, exquisite for their honesty, clarity and lyricism. In the first, Saint-Exupery turned flying into poetry:
“Fabien, the pilot bringing the Patagonia air mail from far south to Buenos Aires, could mark night coming on by certain signs that called to mind the waters of a harbor — a calm expanse beneath, faintly rippled by the lazy clouds — and he seemed to be entering a vast anchorage, an immensity of blessedness.”
In Southern Mail, he described the Sahara Desert’s arid hospitability, again from experience:
“Dune by dune the Sahara unfolded itself beneath the moon. Its light, falling on our foreheads with the pallor of a lamp which blends the softened forms, enveloped every object in its velvet sheen. Under our soundless footsteps the sand had the richness of a carpet.”
Saint-Exupéry loved flying, and loved France; his passion made his words, imagery and insights addictive. His wife famously abhorred large social gatherings because he would dominate the evening with a story that took hours to tell, but the general public, who had access only to his printed words, luxuriated in their animation.
As a teenager in the U.S, Scherry fell under Saint- Exupéry’s spell as well.
Scherry was a “protected kid from the Bronx” when he visited the three universities that accepted him back in 1955: the University of Virginia, Duke, and the University of North Carolina. Scherry knew he was good at Spanish, and planned to pursue it in college. But when he got to UVA, the first person he met was a doctoral student named Fitch. “I don’t know his first name. He was a WWII veteran,” Scherry recalls. “Spoke impeccable French and he had been a translator in France after WWII. The man impressed me so.” After an impromptu conversation with him, not unlike the pilot’s first meeting with the little prince, Scherry made up his mind to attend UVA and study French. Instructor Fitch was “the most magnificent, and his French was extraordinary and impeccable,” he recalls. “And I parroted his every move.”
“Practically every one of the faculty had been in some way in World War II. Remember, this is 1955! World War II is only ten years old,” says Fitch. “To me, they were all heroes. It was incredible. ROTC was all over the country — nowadays you can hardly ever get ROTC; ‘down with the military.’ It was a different America, but the French department was fantastic. I had professors — I’ll never forget their names. Ever, ever, ever. Isn’t that something?”
And so this New Yorker took to French and its masters. In 1956, in an intermediate French course, he read an excerpt from Saint-Exupéry’s Wind, Sand and Stars, or Terre des hommes:
So in the heart of the desert, on the naked rind of the planet, in an isolation like that of the beginnings of the world, we built a village of men. […] We told stories, we joked, we sang songs. In the air there was that slight fever that reigns over a gaily prepared feast. And yet we were infinitely poor. Wind, sand, and stars. The austerity of Trappists. But on this badly lighted cloth, a handful of men who possessed nothing in the world but their memories were sharing invisible riches.
— Chapter II. The Men / Les Camarades. Section I.
Stunned by this “sublime passage,” Scherry traced Saint-Exupéry’s words back to the writer’s childhood in Grenoble and his adulthood in Paris. His curiosity led him further than the page into a post World War II reality while he studied abroad in France.
The country had been “bled dry,” according to Scherry, and “Charles De Gaulle was of course the hero waiting for the call. And he was asked by the French government to become President. He gave a lecture in September, and it was an incredible event. It was at Place de la Republique. You know, ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité.’ I actually saw de Gaulle, maybe seventy-five yards away.”
Scherry returned to America inspired. He graduated with honors from UVA and completed a master’s in French at Stanford. Three years later, Stanford was poised to offer him a teaching position to continue his research into Saint-Exupery, but he knew he would not make it through more years of study.
“They were going to offer me a teaching position, an instructorship. And I said ‘no, I don’t like this place.’ I’m failing. I’m not gonna get the PhD; I just sense it.”
Whatever premonitions Scherry had, he heeded them.
* * *
Doubt still hovers over Saint-Exupéry’s last days: Was he too old to fly? Was he emotionally stable enough to fly again? But the world will never know. On the afternoon of July 31, 1944, Saint-Exupéry never returned from his reconnaissance mission. He was assumed dead, although it was only in 2000 that debris from his plane was dredged up from the Mediterranean, off the coast of Marseille. Scherry insists that Saint-Exupéry’s disappearance – not death; “there’s a nuance there” – is still a mystery.
Nineteen years later, Manhattan real estate was the new mystery. Scherry reminisced about the summers he had spent at his Aunt Blanche’s apartment on the Upper West Side: “I would come back from California during ‘60 to ‘63 and I would always stay in Blanche’s apartment. She gave me a key. She was living with her brother who didn’t like to sleep alone at night — Uncle Larry — whatever that frailty is called where people don’t like to be alone at night. I love to be alone at night! I don’t want to be with anybody. You get more done that way. You don’t have to compromise.”
He called home. “I said to Mother, please ask Aunt Blanche to inquire if there could be an apartment available” in her building. “In one week, she reported to my Mother, ‘yes, apartment 505 will be available October 1.’ ”
Scherry moved in – at a monthly rent of $73.02.
“God bless Blanche!” he says, looking around the lobby of the building he has lived in since 1963.
Is it a coincidence that Saint-Exupéry had an influential aunt, Tante Tricaud, with whom he, too, spent summers? Is it a coincidence that she lived in “the big chateau” in Saint-Maurice? Is it a coincidence that Saint-Exupéry visited the nearby Ambérieu-en-Bugey Air Base the summer he was twelve, and had his “baptism of flight”? Saint-Exupéry fell in love with flying and made it his profession, his philosophy, and his literature; half a century later, Scherry has made Saint-Exupéry his profession, philosophy and literature.
The first thing Scherry did after moving back to New York was sign up to be a member of the French Institute/Alliance Française de New York. “And who gives a lecture?” he says. “This is incredible.” It was Leon Wencelius, whom Saint-Exupéry befriended while grounded in New York during World War II.
In 1970, Scherry sought out Lewis Galantière, the author’s most famous translator. “I looked in the phone book, and picked up the phone! Just out of the blue! Such chutzpah! That’s the word. And I’ll never forget what he said —
By then, Scherry was also in correspondence with Adele Breaux, a French teacher at Northport High School in Long Island, who had been Saint-Exupéry’s English tutor while he was writingThe Little Prince. Over the ensuing decades, Scherry methodically found anyone with a connection to Saint-Exupéry, personal or professional (and often commingled): French or American, young or old. Each one gave Saint-Exupéry life for one more anecdote, one more memory, which Scherry built into a castle he could visit. He met everyone from General René Gavoille, Saint-Exupéry’s squadron leader in World War II, to Lari Weeks who had photographed Saint-Exupéry back in the 1940s.
He supported himself with one temporary job after another. For four years he worked at Burlington Bookshop on 81st Street and Madison Avenue, today called Doyle Crawford. He temped with Arco, a publishing house later bought out by Simon & Schuster. From there he went on to UNICEF. “Temp agencies were all over,” he remembers. “There was no computer; all you had to do was be a good typist, or have a good speaking voice. I was always able to find temp jobs.”
But soon he became restless. It was late 1982, with the fortieth anniversary of The Little Prince approaching the next year. How to publicly commemorate it? How to capture the attention of New Yorkers, and America at large? He had approached the Pierpont Morgan Library, which owned the original manuscripts of The Little Prince – “they hadn’t even thought of it!” – but they rejected the idea of an exhibit. “When I asked him to have a fortieth anniversary, he said, ‘Mr. Scherry, you don’t understand how museums work. They work on a three to five-year basis to have exhibits. They just don’t have exhibits out of the blue. I don’t think we can do it.’ ”
But just like that, out of the blue, a lady walked into Burlington Bookshop.
Natacha Stewart had known Saint-Exupéry when she was a child, wrote for the New Yorker magazine, and volunteered to interview the Morgan Library curatorHerbert Cahoon. She was the trifecta Scherry needed to get the exhibit underway at such short notice, and the Morgan Library has curated two subsequent anniversary exhibitions about Saint-Exupéry. Scherry’s eyes are far away when he recounts this story. “We had met at last, men and women traveling side by side for years in a bookstore, serving each other, each locked up in his own silence, or exchanging those words which carry no freight. Then they stand shoulder to shoulder. They discover they belong to the same family as those who knew, or are devoted to, Saint-Ex.”
Not surprisingly, Scherry’s account echoes Saint-Exupéry’s words from the same chapter of Wind, Sand, and Stars he first read in 1956, and has practically memorized:
We had met at last. Men travel side by side for years, each locked up in his own silence or exchanging those words which carry no freight – till danger comes. Then they stand shoulder to shoulder. They discover that they belong to the same family.
The adventurer wasn’t dead, only disappeared, and Scherry’s role was to continue his guru’s life and legacy. But how to study a storyteller who abruptly stopped telling stories in his mid-forties? How to continue listening to the garrulous Saint-Exupéry in the silence that followed?
By keeping him alive.
In 1983, Scherry founded “Remembering Saint-Exupéry,” (R S-E) an organization whose mission is “to foster and further the memory and message of the man who saw foremost with his heart and gave forever of his body in every noble cause in his relatively short life of forty-four years.” Then he wrote to numerous institutions all over the country, asking to enlighten them on the subject of Saint-Exupéry. He collected thirty-five invitations, bought a Greyhound AmeriPass, and traveled across the country on a self-created lecture tour at “colleges, universities, high schools, prep schools, museums.”
Scherry is president, founder and most active member of R S-E. “I’m a general without an army,” he says. He is used to working alone, and sometimes, he prefers it.
He shuffles the papers in his hands — articles mentioning him in The New York Times; The New Yorker and Lire, a reputed French magazine; photocopies of autographed book covers; an article in the UVA Alumni magazine. They are a fraction of the stacks of papers in his apartment, which include confirmation letters to speak at prep schools and universities all over the U.S.; lecture notes on every book by Saint-Exupéry; speeches given at the New York Public Library, the American Museum of Natural History, the French Institute/Alliance Française de New York; the text he composed for a plaque outside La Grenouille Restaurant. “Since moving in, my R S-E archives have increased immeasurably,” Scherry notes. “My four walls haven’t increased a mere inch.”
“Many French have their residence secondaire,” he jokes. “Mine is Kinko’s.”
He has promised to give me copies of things for the article, but the apartment, which I picture to be overwhelmed with paper, seems to be off-limits. Not unlike Scherry’s own encounter with Saint-Exupéry’s home back in 1957 when he was studying abroad: “That was an opportunity to visit Saint-Ex’s home. Not to go in it! But…I saw it from the outside.” Scherry and I meet only in the lobby of his building; there is a certain formality in our exchanges.
Canadian author Ania Szado sought Scherry’s help on Studio Saint-Ex, a fictional account of Saint-Exupéry’s two years in New York City (during which time he wrote The Little Prince), and recalled to me his warmth as well as his professionalism.
He once said to me, after one of our long walks around New York, “You will always be Ania Szado to me, and I will always be Howard Scherry to you. No first names for us. I’m very French that way.”
Szado was one of the lucky beneficiaries of “long walks” with Scherry, whose walking tour, “In the Footsteps of The Little Prince” earned mention in The New York Times back in 1989:
“In the Footsteps of ‘The Little Prince’ ”…takes tour members through the streets Saint-Exupéry walked at night and past the restaurants and homes he and his wife frequented during a stay in New York City from January 1941 to April 1943. “He’s a New York author, crazy as it sounds,” Howard Scherry said.
Saint-Exupéry, who chain-smoked his way through his projects, generously staining his manuscripts with burns and coffee stains, based the sheep illustration in The Little Prince on his friend’s pet poodle, while he wrote in her Park Avenue home. His own penthouse on Central Park South barely accommodated him and his wife Consuelo, a much more flamboyant personality who made their marriage tumultuous, and when he fled to the French Institute/Alliance Française de New York to avoid her complaints, he gave taxi drivers addresses in French.
During Saint-Exupéry’s two-year grounding in New York City, his heart was squarely back in France, his eyes skyward and awaiting an empty cockpit. Still, he wrote copiously and socialized liberally.
In an interview in 2006, Scherry was asked, ‘What it is about Saint-Ex that makes him stand out?’
“And so I said, let’s call it the five Ds. Les cinq D. Discipline (discipline); Devoir (duty); Dévouément (devotion) — more emotional than devoir, which is moral; Droiture (righteousness and steadfastness) and Don (talent, gift).”
The “five Ds” were published in March 2006 in Lire magazine, “the most prestigious literary monthly” in France. Scherry believed he had tapped into Saint-Exupéry’s humanity, his sense of empathy, his unflagging energy, and, indeed, some of that had entered Scherry. “The article was beautifully received,” he says proudly, although “there were never any inquiries to me directly. It’s a funny thing: people will write if they have something negative to say. But if it’s positive, they let it go, they don’t give you a compliment!” Scherry doesn’t mind, though. “It put me on the map in France.”
So invested in French literature while an undergraduate, Scherry had no interest in Saint-Exupéry’s American contemporaries. (Had the Frenchman had thought similarly by refusing to learn English?) When Scherry’s brother visited him in France in 1958 and asked what he thought of the Beat authors, Scherry was perplexed.
“I said, ‘What does that mean? The Beat generation?’…To me, Kerouac’s On The Road and Ginsberg’s Howl; universities will perpetuate it, they’ll write PhDs, professors will bloviate about all this nonsense. You want poetry? Give me rhyme poetry. Give me people who have something to say.”
Today Scherry spends most of his time on the Upper West Side: at the library, at the senior center, and at the French Church of Holy Spirit/Esprit Français du Saint-Esprit where “the reverend has allowed me generously a platform to lecture from since 2004,” or at home.
When Scherry moved in, age twenty-five, he was the youngest tenant. Now, “Kids live here; I don’t know how the hell they afford the rent. Maybe some of the ladies are kept, maybe some of the men are kept — I don’t know, it’s none of my business. But that’s the story.”
He has lived in the same apartment since then, for more than fifty years. He can get to the library, he eats cheaply at the senior center, and when he needs a scarf ironed for an upcoming celebration of Saint-Exupéry’s work, he knows on whose door to knock.
He is always writing, reading, corresponding, editing, assisting, planning, and interviewing. His book about Saint-Exupéry is still in progress, but that doesn’t faze Scherry. “It’ll be a posthumous publication, like a lot of Saint-Ex’s work. So that’s it.”