Authors: Studio Saint-Ex
Madame said, “American society has always followed the Parisian aesthetic, not England’s with its colorless sacks. When you brought in your sketches and I saw your butterflies, I thought I
had discovered a motif that captured the American spirit: proud and free. I thought that, in all my years of teaching, I had never seen such a perceptive rendering of
l’esprit de l’époque
“You really did?”
“It was my first mistake. I let desire blind me to the truth. I let myself forget that you are not really American.”
“I am so!” I was born and raised in New York. Only Papa was French: he’d emigrated to Montreal with his parents and brother before both young men moved to New York—first Yannick, to test the market with his locally lauded
, then my father in pursuit of a career in architecture, accompanied by his Canadian bride.
Madame said, “No child of Émile Lachapelle could be anything but French at heart. No wonder you have no idea what Americans want. I have no idea either, not anymore. I was expecting the theater of war to turn American woman into birds of paradise, not dull, defeated brown chickens like the Brits and Canadians.”
But the Canadians weren’t defeated—not the ones in Mother’s Anglophone neighborhood or the Francophone friends I had drunk with in Old Montreal. After two and a half years of sacrifice, Canadians still believed in the cause that drove the war and took their sons. Among them, I had finally allowed myself to grieve my father’s death, after tamping down sorrow through my final school year to impress the likes of Véra Fiche. All of Canada had seemed to understand and share my grief. The proof had surrounded me: in the
’s details of slaughter at a beachhead; in the station one day bursting with uniforms and the next day barren of men; in the red-etched eyes of the floury baker’s wife; in the intensity with which Mother tuned the radio at night. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation delivered news with a chairman’s precision, but the signal whined in pain, the static crackled loss.
I had returned to Manhattan this spring bearing pride in
my country (
U.S. at War!
) and found an abundance of military recruiting stations jostling like street vendors for a corner spot. The city’s dim-out rule was so fresh that New Yorkers were still remarking on the romantic change. It was as though a much-anticipated show had come to town. The city was not under blackout orders, but Bloomingdale’s was selling decorative dark shades for those who strove to be fashionably ahead of the times. The neon on Broadway had been replaced with metallic sequin signs that shimmered seductively in the available light, mesmerizing the eye with the slightest breeze. The markets still offered an array of produce—under posters that advocated moderation—and despite the draft, the streets still bore plenty of young men. Yes, we had shipped dried eggs and powdered milk by the boatloads; we had delivered scores of munitions; we had built ships; but why had Roosevelt not yet pitted our troops against the Germans? Thirty-one months after Hitler invaded Poland, American squadrons had yet to be deployed in Europe.
Madame could say what she liked. The butterfly dress could only be an affront to those who were fighting overseas. It was beautiful in a way that was worse than ugly.
“You won’t receive a better offer,” she said as I picked up my purse. “Not without a portfolio. Not having squandered your chances for an entire year. Think about that, Mignonne.”
I had no intention of thinking about it. I was afraid of what I might decide.
I knocked on dozens of studio doors with my old sketches and samples in hand. No one cared that I’d graduated at the top of my class a year before; most didn’t give me a chance to say a word beyond my name. In some places, among the French expats, it was a name that could open doors—but here in the Garment District, I was just another grad, and of the worst sort: the type that wanted to create her own designs. Wasn’t that the nature of the industry now—American designers developing American styles?
Paris had always dictated the look of each season, from the silhouette down to the details, but American women could no longer visit the Continent for hand-fitted originals. There were no new French originals: none for the Rockefeller set to wear, none for the copyists and factory workers to take apart and recreate in quantity for department store racks. And so in July of ’41, with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt at his side, the mayor of New York had proclaimed his city the fashion center of the universe, “not by accident, not by default of the war in Europe, but by the right of creative talent, skilled mechanics and the best dressed women in the world.” Yet on the sidewalks in the spring of ’42, in the studios and salons, in the backstreet and back alley doors to which I was directed with my portfolio, and in department store after department store where the racks were still fat with made-in-America, faux-Parisian ensembles, proof of the revolution was elusive.
One older gentleman had at least flipped through my drawings.
He considered my signature. “Related to Yannick Lachapelle, the restaurateur?”
“I’m his niece.”
“He’s done well with Le Pavillon. You don’t want to work for him?”
“I’m not interested in food.”
He closed my sketchbook and returned it. “Your concepts aren’t half bad. And your technique is sound.”
“But you have nothing for me?”
“Want to press seams for three years—or five or fifteen? And then maybe move up to beadwork or piping?”
“You wouldn’t make me a junior designer or an assistant?”
“You can get on the cart if you like, Miss Lachapelle, but the wheels turn slowly. You’d be satisfied with tracing and sizing patterns?”
“I want to be a designer.”
He steered me to the door. “You’ll find a way.”
I was a designer who did not design, as Antoine was a pilot who had long been denied flight. When I’d last seen him, a year before, he had still been grounded, decommissioned from the French Air Force, without a posting or a plane. By now, surely, he was airborne again. I was certain he would not still be in New York. There was nothing for him in New York.
I had no cause to think I’d run into him, especially not in the Garment District, yet I looked for him as I had looked for him in the cafés of Old Montreal. I had checked for his letters daily. I’d looked for news of his departure from America in
and for his obituary in the
: it was there that I expected to see him if I was ever to see him again.
I had reread his books in my bedroom at Mother’s, though I’d made a point of leaving my own copies behind in New York.
, which I had first read in French as
Courrier sud. Night Flight
, the story of a pilot fated to disappear.
Terre des hommes
—a title I would have translated as
Land of People
Wind, Sand and Stars
or Expo’s “Man and His World.” Yet
Terre des hommes
was indeed the story of a man. They were all of them restless dramas of men, romantic loners in search of fulfillment, men who put duty above all.
I had sought Antoine in his novels. I had recalled them as adventure tales. But what I found in rereading them was his testament that the noble man was condemned to wander unprotected and alone, his duties denying him a peaceful existence with a loving wife and the joys of settling in a community for longer than the span between missions or mail drops. By the time I received a letter from Antoine—the only letter he would send me in Montreal—I was half in love with his airborne doppelgängers, with their heart-wrenching ideals and their artless bravery. I wept for them and for myself—for I’d let Antoine go. I had forfeited my chance to ease him away from his pursuit of danger and into a quiet, comfortable life with me.
New York, October 11, 1941
My pen wishes to speak of your beauty that presents itself to me in poignant images as I lie in bed and cannot sleep: your blond hair that tries charmingly to conceal the emotions of your eyes; your slender fingers that hold your pencil gracefully and loosely even when your mind fights the productivity of your hand; your nose and lips that pout so prettily that I can hardly take seriously your frustrations and your anger.
My pen wishes, but I coax it to behave responsibly. A girl who has left a man should not be subjected to his morose and heartless nostalgia.
I will admit to this, my sweet Mignonne, and damn me for it if you must: not once did I believe that you did not care for me, nor did I anticipate you would leave me here, stranded, alone in New York. Never mind whether or not you expressed discomfort or misgivings about our friendship. It is a young woman’s fate to be taken lightly. It is the role of her respectable
older gentleman to dismiss his pretty friend’s concerns and to give her a little frou-frou to diminish her worries and calm her nerves.
I am not one for frou-frous. I do not play the role you might expect me to play. And you, too, have admirably broken the rules. You claimed that you were leaving to visit your mother because Madame Lachapelle had requested it and a short jaunt was due. When you then posted a letter within the week, from afar, to sever any expectation that our very tender friendship might continue as it had been, this seemed to me to be beyond comprehension. It has taken me months to understand.
But such is man. To find the grain of fault in another being, he will dig as tirelessly as a child with a sand shovel. (A weak analogy, for the child labors only to see what he might discover. Today’s man digs in the hope of laying bare a core of ugliness at another’s heart.)
Forgive my blindness, Mignonne. It has taken me this long, a full half year of your absence, to understand that the fault lies not in your expectations of me or in my failure to live up to the same, nor in your stubbornness (which I might more graciously call determination, and which I have much admired when it was not directed at my English conjugations or at my refusal to compromise who and what I am). The fault, if there is fault, lies in one simple fact: the world that I have so loved has changed.
It was not long ago that freedom meant more than having a predetermined choice of toothpastes and powders on a drugstore shelf. Soon the sidewalks shall deliver us directly into the store aisles, where shelves laden with mind-numbing extravagances will empty themselves into our complacent hands. Gone are the days when one could rally thirty men from the sidewalks of Paris, as I did upon the fall of France, lead them cheerfully into a stolen plane, and fly to unoccupied North Africa, from whence to stage an attempt to regain our homeland. That the territory proved to be already occupied is
immaterial to the point of my story, which is this: all now is rules and technology. Man stripped of choices is stripped, too, of honor.
How is one to act on the convictions of one’s spirit? “Of course you must,” they tell me, “only first ensure that you meet these criteria”—as they pull out their clipboards. “For your own safety, you understand.”
My friends and my peers in the military have colluded to protect me from myself, volleying an endless stream of concerns to impede my reengagement in the war. “He is too old, he’ll never survive, do you want to go down in history as the man who sent Saint-Ex to his grave? He is a legend, aristocrat, celebrity, source of commissions, the pet of powerful so-and-so, deluded, irrational, at the height of his creative powers, over the hill …” What nonsense they spew in their well-intentioned conspiracy. In preventing the sudden snuffing of my life they only kill me more slowly and painfully from the inside.
If I cannot act, I am not alive. Thought and action must be one—have not I often said so, in one way or another, as we spoke of our beliefs and our dreams? The most worthy of lives can be described without adjectives; the soul of a man can be revealed through verbs alone. If I cannot fly, if I cannot work to free my people, I do not exist.
You did not leave me when you went to Montreal, Mignonne. You left a shell. A man without choices or responsibility is not a man.
I summon the energy to write you now only because life may be starting anew. I have received a letter from a colleague who assures me he will have me reinstated into active duty. He swears the U.S. will join the war before long. I should not allow myself to feel excitement, but it has been months since I’ve seen even a glimmer of promise. Perhaps I may yet catch up to the world that has rushed so heedlessly and heartlessly ahead of me.
I write in careless haste driven by an impulse to tell you,
after all this time and before I depart, that I have come to see your wisdom. You were right to discard the empty casing I had become, and to not permit falsely optimistic thoughts of me to draw you away from your duty to your mother. And you are right to follow your own path without me now, wherever it leads, for I will at last be on my way, too.
I do not ask when you will come back to New York, or what you will do upon your return. I do not ask that you write to me (though should you wish to upon my departure, simply request my overseas address from Lamotte). I only say remember me, and in doing so, let there be no disagreement between your thoughts and your acts.