Youth and aviation
Birthplace of Saint-Exupéry in the Presqu'île
section of Lyon
, on the street now named after him, in blue at lower left.
Saint-Exupéry was born in Lyon to an aristocratic Catholic family that could trace its lineage back several centuries. He was the third of five children of the Viscountess Marie de Fonscolombe and Viscount Jean de Saint Exupéry (1863–1904).[Note 2] His father, an executive of the Le Soleil (The Sun) insurance brokerage, died of a stroke in Lyon's La Foux train station before his son's fourth birthday. His father's death affected the entire family, transforming their status to that of 'impoverished aristocrats'.
Saint-Exupéry had three sisters and a younger blond-haired brother, François, who at age 15 died of rheumatic fever contracted while both were attending the Marianist College Villa St. Jean in Fribourg, Switzerland, during World War I. Saint-Exupéry attended to his brother, his closest confidant, beside François' death bed, and later wrote that François "...remained motionless for an instant. He did not cry out. He fell as gently as a [young] tree falls", imagery which would much later be recrafted into the climactic ending of The Little Prince. At the age of 17, now the only "man" in the family following the death of his brother, the young author was left as distraught as his mother and sisters, but he soon assumed the mantle of a protector and took to consoling them.
After twice failing his final exams at a preparatory Naval Academy, Saint-Exupéry entered the École des Beaux-Arts as an auditor to study architecture for 15 months, again without graduating, and then fell into the habit of accepting odd jobs. In 1921, Saint-Exupéry began his military service as a basic-rank soldier with the 2e Régiment de chasseurs à cheval (2nd Regiment of light cavalry) and was sent to Neuhof, near Strasbourg. While there he took private flying lessons and the following year was offered a transfer from the French Army to the French Air Force. He received his pilot's wings after being posted to the 37th Fighter Regiment in Casablanca, Morocco. Later, being reposted to the 34th Aviation Regiment at Le Bourget on the outskirts of Paris, and then experiencing the first of his many aircraft crashes, Saint-Exupéry bowed to the objections of the family of his fiancée, future novelist Louise Lévêque de Vilmorin, and left the air force to take an office job. The couple ultimately broke off their engagement and he worked at several more odd jobs without success over the next few years.
By 1926, Saint-Exupéry was flying again. He became one of the pioneers of international postal flight, in the days when aircraft had few instruments. Later he complained that those who flew the more advanced aircraft had become more like accountants than pilots. He worked for Aéropostale between Toulouse and Dakar, and then also became the airline stopover manager for the Cape Juby airfield in the Spanish zone of South Morocco, in the Sahara desert. His duties included negotiating the safe release of downed fliers taken hostage by Saharan tribes, a perilous task which earned him his first Légion d'honneur from the French Government.
In 1929, Saint-Exupéry was transferred to Argentina, where he was appointed director of the Aeroposta Argentina airline. He surveyed new air routes across South America, negotiated agreements, and even occasionally flew the airmail as well as search missions looking for downed fliers. This period of his life is briefly explored in Wings of Courage, an IMAX film by French director Jean-Jacques Annaud.