Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Léon Werth and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Léon Werth was born in 1878 in the city of Remiremont, Vosges, France, in a Jewish family.

He was a brilliant student, a Grand Prize winner in France's prestigious Concours général. However, he abandoned his studies to become a columnist in various magazines. Leading a bohemian life, he devoted himself to writing and art criticism.

At the outbreak of the First World War, despite his visceral opposition to the war, he was drafted as a private and "assigned to one of the worst sectors of the front, where he served as a radio operator for 15 months".

Wherever he was, he would be smoking his favorite pipe(s).

And to his beloved pipes, he dedicated this poem:

Je n'ose dire tout ce que j'en pense. La pudeur qui/ interdit de louer les siens retient ici mon éloge, entre/ deux bouffées. Ce sont des pipes, direz-vous, ce ne sont/ que des pipes. C'est qu'alors vous ne les connaissez pas./ Leur forme ou la précision des belles carrosseries. Leur/ bois qui résiste au feu se pénêtre des plus subtiles/ arômes./ Je ne me conçois plus sans elles. Depuis trop longtemps/ elles sont mes compagnes. Tous mes souvenirs, les bons/ et les mauvais, sont liés à elles. Elles ne m'ont pas/ quitté pendant la guerre. Elles sont avec moi, si je/ travaille, si je voyage, aux heures meilleures encore/ où si je ne fais rien. Je les aime./ Léon Werth.

Courtesy Saint-Denis musée d'art et d'histoire, France

I dare not say everything that I think. The decency which/ forbids to praise one's close friends refrains here my praise, between/ two puffs. These are pipes, you might say, these are/ just pipes. It is only that you do not know them./ Their form or the precision of the beautiful bodies. Their/ wood that resists the fire absorbs the most subtle/ aromas./ I don't define myself without them. For too long/ They have been my companions. All my memories, the good/ and the bad, are linked to them. They did not/ leave me during the war. They are with me, if I/ work, if I travel, during the best hours/ or if i do nothing. I love them./ Leon Werth.

He befriended many artists of his time, including Paul Signac,

The Papal Palace, Avignon, oil on canvas, 1909, Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec,

English Soldier Smoking a Pipe, 1898 (oil card) - Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Maurice de Vlaminck

Self Portrait With Pipe Maurice de Vlaminck

and Pierre Bonnard.

Pierre Bonnard smoking his pipe in the gardens of Grand-Lemps ca 1906. Via Arago

In 1931 he met Antoine de Saint-Exupéry,


 and it was the beginning of a very close friendship.

Saint-Exupéry in Toulouse, France, 1933

In 1943, while in exile in New York, Saint-Exupéry would write Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince)

which he dedicated to Werth who was living in hiding in occupied France.

To Leon Werth

I ask children to forgive me for dedicating this book to a grown-up. I have a serious excuse: this grown-up is the best friend I have in the world. I have another excuse: this grown-up can understand everything, even books for children. I have a third excuse: he lives in France where he is hungry and cold. He needs to be comforted. If all these excuses are not enough then I want to dedicate this book to the child whom this grown-up once was. All grown-ups were children first. (But few of them remember it.) So I correct my dedication:

To Leon Werth,
When he was a little boy 

Saint-Exupéry  disappeared over the Mediterranean aboard his P-38 airplane while on a reconnaissance mission for the the Free France armed forces on July 31, 1944 and a few months before the end of the Second World War.

Wert wrote: "Peace, without Tonio (Saint-Exupéry) isn't entirely peace."

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