I thought it fitting to devote my first post for No Man Walks Alone to Romain Gary, a man of the world who was many men, in more ways than one: fighter pilot, diplomat, glittering celebrity, immigrant, intellectual, and the only person to win France’s greatest literature prize twice, under two very different identities. He did so with dash and vigor, conviction and charm earned under fire.
Born in what is now Lithuania, by his teens Gary had lived in Russia, Poland and France, where he became a naturalized citizen. He was one of five out of an original 200 Free French airmen to survive World War II, earning distinction for successfully carrying out a bombing mission despite being badly wounded by enemy fire (which also blinded his pilot). Writing his first novel before the war’s end, he quickly created a reputation as a man of both thought and action like his contemporary André Malraux, except that unlike Malraux, he wasn’t up his own ass about it.
Gary also represented his adoptive country in Eastern Europe, at the UN and in Los Angeles as Consul General, where he met and married the New Wave actress Jean Seberg. Marrying Seberg led Gary to leave diplomatic postings for the café society lifestyle, and to become probably the only man to challenge Clint Eastwood to a duel (Eastwood declined – he must not have felt lucky). At the same time, Gary also began publishing novels about the unpopular and disfavored – the lonely, the orphaned, ethnic and religious outsiders – under a pseudonym for which he ended up creating a complete new persona, which won the second of his national literary awards. His real identity wouldn’t be confirmed until after his death.
Through it all, he carried off military uniforms, consular finery, his RAF bomber jacket and beautiful mufti with panache, leaving a legacy of patterns at half-remembered grand shirtmakers, the flourish of casual swagger, and the spellbound attention of audiences worldwide for the enigmatic man of, not a thousand faces, but multifarious personae. An artist, a rebel, possibly a dandy, he inhabited his clothes; his clothes never inhabited him. He lived, and died, on his own terms. For no man walks alone – we carry our different identities and capabilities with us and bring them to bear on life’s new changes and challenges.