May 21, 1914, is the birthdate of the French novelist Romain Gary, who was as well known for his assumption of multiple identities and his flamboyant personal life as he was for his books – many of which were best sellers and two of which won the prestigious Prix Goncourt.
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Romain Gary was born Roman Kacew, in Vilna, in the Russian empire (today Vilnius, Lithuania). Although he disseminated different versions regarding his lineage (for example, that his father was of Mongol-Tatar background, or, alternately, was the Russian film star Ivan Mozzhukine), his biographer (and onetime lover) Myriam Annissimov determined that he was the son of Mina Owczynska and Arieh-Leib Kacew, both of them Lithuanian Jews.
His father left home when Roman was 10, and Roman and his mother moved to Warsaw, and eventually to Nice, France. A former actress, Mina Owczynska held a wide variety of odd jobs but mainly devoted herself to grooming her son for the fame she was convinced he was destined for.
The young man studied law, first at Aix-Marseille University, and later in Paris. He also learned to fly in the French air force, before fleeing to England after the German invasion of France. There, adopting the name “Romain Gary,” he began flying with the Lorraine Squadron of the Free French forces, attached to the RAF. Proving himself a brave and stubborn fighter, Gary participated in more than 25 bombing sorties, and received both the Legion of Honor and the Order of Liberation.
With the war’s end, Gary began working with the French diplomatic corps, serving in Bulgaria and Switzerland before becoming the secretary of France’s United Nations delegation. In 1956, he became his country’s consul general in Los Angeles; that is also when he became a well-known figure in Hollywood, and met his second wife, actress Jean Seberg.
In 1945, Gary published his first novel, “European Education,” about a Polish boy who joins the resistance during the war. The following year, he wrote the novel “Tulipe,” about a survivor of Buchenwald living in New York.
All told, under his own name and three pseudonyms, Romain Gary published 37 books, the majority of them novels. His first Goncourt prize came in 1956, for “The Roots of Heaven,” a novel about elephant hunting in Africa. By 1975, when he won his second Goncourt, for “The Life Before Us,” Gary was convinced that the literary audience was bored with Romain Gary – as was he. He then began publishing under the name Emile Ajar, for whom he went to great lengths to create an identity, as a far-younger former medical student living in Brazil after botching an abortion in Paris.
The Goncourt’s rules stipulate that it is not to be presented twice to the same writer. Through his lawyer, “Emile Ajar” tried turning the prize down, but was told that “The Goncourt Prize cannot be accepted or refused any more than life and death.”
Toward the end of his life, Gary dealt more directly with Jewish issues in his fiction, in particular in the 1967 “The Dance of Genghis Khan,” an autobiographical fantasy inspired in part by a visit to the site of the Warsaw Ghetto. “The Life Before Us,” one of the best-selling books in French history, was about the relationship, in a Paris slum, between Madame Rosa, an aging Jewish ex-prostitute and survivor of Auschwitz, and a young Arab orphan.
On December 2, 1980, Romain Gary shot himself to death in his Paris apartment. He left behind a note saying that his death was not connected to Seberg’s suicide the preceding August (the couple had divorced in 1970), and acknowledging that he was Emile Ajar.
In the posthumously published memoir “The Life and Death of Emile Ajar,” Gary declared, “I’ve had a lot of fun. Thank you, and goodbye.”