Romain Gary

Romain Gary (pronounced [ʁɔ.mɛ̃ ga.ʁi]; 21 May [O.S. 8 May] 1914  2 December 1980), born Roman Kacew (also known by the pen name Émile Ajar), was a French novelist, diplomat, film director, and World War II aviator of Jewish origin. He is the only author to have won the Prix Goncourt under two names.

Romain Gary
BornRoman Kacew[1]
(1914-05-21)21 May 1914
Vilna, Vilna Governorate, Russian Empire
Died2 December 1980(1980-12-02) (aged 66)
Paris, France
Pen nameRomain Gary, Émile Ajar, Fosco Sinibaldi, Shatan Bogat
OccupationDiplomat, pilot, writer
LanguageFrench, English
CitizenshipRussian Empire
Alma materFaculté de droit d'Aix-en-Provence
Paris Law Faculty
Notable worksLes racines du ciel
La vie devant soi
Notable awardsPrix Goncourt (1956 and 1975)
Lesley Blanch
(m. 1944; div. 1961)

Jean Seberg
(m. 1962; div. 1970)

Literature portal

Early life

Gary was born Roman Kacew (Yiddish: רומן קצב Roman Katsev, Russian: Рома́н Ле́йбович Ка́цев, Roman Leibovich Katsev) in Vilnius (at that time in the Russian Empire).[1][2] In his books and interviews, he presented many different versions of his parents' origins, ancestry, occupation and his own childhood. His mother, Mina Owczyńska (1879—1941),[1][3] was a Jewish actress from Švenčionys (Svintsyán) and his father was a businessman named Arieh-Leib Kacew (1883—1942) from Trakai (Trok), also a Lithuanian Jew.[4][5] Arieh-Leib abandoned the family in 1925 and remarried. Gary later claimed that his actual father was the celebrated actor and film star Ivan Mosjoukine, with whom his actress mother had worked and to whom he bore a striking resemblance. Mosjoukine appears in his memoir Promise at Dawn.[6] Deported to central Russia in 1915, they stayed in Moscow until 1920.[7] They later returned to Vilnius, then moved on to Warsaw. When Gary was fourteen, he and his mother emigrated to Nice, France[8]. Converted to Catholicism by his mother, Gary studied law, first in Aix-en-Provence and then in Paris. He learned to pilot an aircraft in the French Air Force in Salon-de-Provence and in Avord Air Base, near Bourges.[9]


Of almost 300 cadets in his class, and despite completing all parts of his course successfully, Gary was the only one not to be commissioned as an officer. He believed that the military establishment was distrustful of what they saw as a foreigner and a Jew[8]. Training on Potez 25 and Goëland Léo-20 aircraft, and with 250 hours flying time, only after three months' delay he was made a sergeant on 1 February 1940. Lightly wounded on 13 June 1940 in a Bloch MB.210, he was disappointed with the armistice; after hearing General de Gaulle's radio appeal, he decided to go to England[8]. After failed attempts, he flew to Algiers from Saint-Laurent-de-la-Salanque in a Potez. Made adjutant upon joining the Free French and serving on Bristol Blenheims, he saw action across Africa and was promoted to second lieutenant. He returned to England to train on Boston IIIs. On 25 January 1944, his pilot was blinded, albeit temporarily, and Gary talked him to the bombing target and back home, the third landing being successful. This and the subsequent BBC interview and Evening Standard newspaper article were an important part of his career[8]. He finished the war as a captain in the London offices of the Free French Air Forces. As a bombardier-observer in the Groupe de bombardement Lorraine (No. 342 Squadron RAF), he took part in over 25 successful sorties, logging over 65 hours of air time.[10] During this time, he changed his name to Romain Gary. He was decorated for his bravery in the war, receiving many medals and honours, including Compagnon de la Libération and commander of the Légion d'honneur. In 1945 he published his first novel, Education européenne. Immediately following his service in the war, he worked in the French diplomatic service in Bulgaria and Switzerland.[11] In 1952 he became the secretary of the French Delegation to the United Nations.[11] In 1956, he became Consul General in Los Angeles and became acquainted with Hollywood.[11]

Literary work

Gary became one of France's most popular and prolific writers, authoring more than 30 novels, essays and memoirs, some of which he wrote under a pseudonym.

He is the only person to win the Prix Goncourt twice. This prize for French language literature is awarded only once to an author. Gary, who had already received the prize in 1956 for Les racines du ciel, published La vie devant soi under the pseudonym Émile Ajar in 1975. The Académie Goncourt awarded the prize to the author of that book without knowing his identity. Gary's cousin's son Paul Pavlowitch posed as the author for a time. Gary later revealed the truth in his posthumous book Vie et mort d'Émile Ajar.[12] Gary also published as Shatan Bogat, Rene Deville and Fosco Sinibaldi, as well under his birth name Roman Kacew.[13][14]

In addition to his success as a novelist, he wrote the screenplay for the motion picture The Longest Day and co-wrote and directed the film Kill! (1971),[15] which starred his wife at the time, Jean Seberg. In 1979, he was a member of the jury at the 29th Berlin International Film Festival.[16]

Personal life and final years

Gary's first wife was the British writer, journalist, and Vogue editor Lesley Blanch, author of The Wilder Shores of Love. They married in 1944 and divorced in 1961. From 1962 to 1970, Gary was married to American actress Jean Seberg, with whom he had a son, Alexandre Diego Gary. According to Diego Gary, he was a distant presence as a father: "Even when he was around, my father wasn't there. Obsessed with his work, he used to greet me, but he was elsewhere."[17]

After learning that Jean Seberg had an affair with Clint Eastwood, Gary challenged him to a duel, but Eastwood declined.[18]

Gary died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on 2 December 1980 in Paris. He left a note which said that his death had no relation to Seberg's suicide the previous year. He also stated in his note that he was Émile Ajar.[19]

Gary was cremated in Père Lachaise Cemetery and his ashes were scattered in the Mediterranean Sea near Roquebrune-Cap-Martin.[20]


As Romain Gary

  • Éducation européenne (1945); translated as A European Education
  • Tulipe (1946); republished and modified in 1970.
  • Le Grand Vestiaire (1949); translated as The Company of Men (1950)
  • Les Couleurs du jour (1952); translated as The Colors of the Day (1953); filmed as The Man Who Understood Women (1959)
  • Les Racines du ciel1956 Prix Goncourt; translated as The Roots of Heaven (1957); filmed as The Roots of Heaven (1958)
  • Lady L (1958); self-translated and published in French in 1963; filmed as Lady L (1965)
  • La Promesse de l'aube (1960); translated as Promise at Dawn (1961); filmed as Promise at Dawn (1970) and again in 2017
  • Johnie Cœur (1961, a theatre adaptation of "L'homme à la colombe")
  • Gloire à nos illustres pionniers (1962, short stories); translated as "Hissing Tales" (1964)
  • The Ski Bum (1965); self-translated into French as Adieu Gary Cooper (1969)
  • Pour Sganarelle (1965, literary essay)
  • Les Mangeurs d'étoiles (1966); self-translated into French and first published (in English) as The Talent Scout (1961)
  • La Danse de Gengis Cohn (1967); self-translated into English as The Dance of Genghis Cohn
  • La Tête coupable (1968); translated as The Guilty Head (1969)
  • Chien blanc (1970); self-translated as White Dog (1970); filmed as White Dog (1982)
  • Les Trésors de la mer Rouge (1971)
  • Europa (1972); translated in English in 1978.
  • The Gasp (1973); self-translated into French as Charge d'âme (1978)
  • Les Enchanteurs (1973); translated as The Enchanters (1975)
  • La nuit sera calme (1974, interview)
  • Au-delà de cette limite votre ticket n'est plus valable (1975); translated as Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid (1977); filmed as Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid (1981)
  • Clair de femme (1977); filmed as Womanlight (1979)
  • La Bonne Moitié (1979, play)
  • Les Clowns lyriques (1979); new version of the 1952 novel, Les Couleurs du jour (The Colors of the Day)
  • Les Cerfs-volants (1980); translated as The Kites ((2017)
  • Vie et Mort d'Émile Ajar (1981, posthumous)
  • L'Homme à la colombe (1984, definitive posthumous version)
  • L'Affaire homme (2005, articles and interviews)
  • L'Orage (2005, short stories and unfinished novels)
  • Un humaniste, short story

As Émile Ajar

  • Gros câlin (1974); filmed as Gros câlin (1979)
  • La vie devant soi1975 Prix Goncourt; filmed as Madame Rosa (1977); translated as "Momo" (1978); re-released as The Life Before Us (1986).
  • Pseudo (1976)
  • L'Angoisse du roi Salomon (1979); translated as King Solomon (1983).
  • Gros câlin – new version including final chapter of the original and never published version.

As Fosco Sinibaldi

  • L'homme à la colombe (1958)

As Shatan Bogat

  • Les têtes de Stéphanie (1974)


As director

  • Les oiseaux vont mourir au Pérou (Birds in Peru) (1968) starring Jean Seberg
  • Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill! (1971) also starring Jean Seberg

As screenwriter

As actor

Further reading

  • Ajar, Émile (Romain Gary), Hocus Bogus, Yale University Press, 2010, 224p, ISBN 978-0-300-14976-0 (translation of Pseudo by David Bellos, includes The Life and Death of Émile Ajar)
  • Anissimov, Myriam, Romain Gary, le caméléon (Denoël 2004)
  • Bellos, David, Romain Gary: A Tall Story, Harvill Secker, 2010, 528p, ISBN 978-1-84343-170-1
  • Bellos, David. 2009. The cosmopolitanism of Romain Gary. Darbair ir Dienos (Vilnius) 51:63-69.
  • Gary, Romain, Promise at Dawn (Revived Modern Classic), W.W. Norton, 1988, 348p, ISBN 978-0-8112-1016-4
  • Huston, Nancy, Tombeau de Romain Gary (Babel, 1997) ISBN 978-2-7427-0313-5
  • Bona, Dominique, Romain Gary (Mercure de France, 1987) ISBN 2-7152-1448-0
  • Cahier de l'Herne, Romain Gary (L'Herne, 2005)
  • Schoolcraft, Ralph W. (2002). Romain Gary: The Man Who Sold his Shadow. University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0-8122-3646-7.
  • Blanch, Lesley, Romain, un regard particulier (Editions du Rocher, 2009) ISBN 978-2-268-06724-7
  • Marret, Carine, Romain Gary – Promenade à Nice (Baie des Anges, 2010)
  • Marzorati, Michel (2018). Romain Gary: des racines et des ailes. Info-Pilote, 742 pp. 30-33


  1. Ivry, Benjamin (21 January 2011). "A Chameleon on Show". Daily Forward.
  2. Romain Gary et la Lituanie Archived 26 June 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  3. Myriam Anissimov. Romain Gary, le Caméléon. Paris: Les éditions Folio Gallimard, 2004. ISBN 978-2-207-24835-5, pp. ??
  4. "Romain Gary". Encyclopédie sur la mort. Retrieved 21 June 2016.
  5. Schoolcraft, Ralph W. (2002). Romain Gary: the man who sold his shadow. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 165. ISBN 0-8122-3646-7.
  6. Schwartz, Madeleine. "Romain Gary: A Short Biography". The Harvard Advocate.
  7. Passports of mother Mina Kacew and nurse-maid Aniela Voiciechowics. See Lithuaninan Central State Archives, F. 53, 122, 5351 and F. 15, 2, 1230. Copies of the documents are in the personal archive of a Moscow historian Alexander Vasin.
  8. Marzorati 2018
  11. Bellos, David (2010). Romain Gary: A Tall Story. pp. ??.
  12. Gary, Romain, Vie et mort d'Émile Ajar, Gallimard – NRF (17 juillet 1981), 42p, ISBN 978-2-07-026351-6.
  13. Lushenkova, Anna (2008). "La réinvention de l'homme par l'art et le rire: 'Les Enchanteurs' de Romain Gary". In Clément, Murielle Lucie (ed.). Écrivains franco-russes. Faux titre. 318. Rodopi. pp. 141–163. ISBN 90-420-2426-7.
  14. Di Folco, Philippe (2006). Les grandes impostures littéraires: canulars, escroqueries, supercheries, et autres mystifications. Écriture. pp. 111–113. ISBN 2-909240-70-3.
  15. Romain Gary on the IMDb website
  16. "Berlinale 1979: Juries". Retrieved 8 August 2010.
  17. Paris Match No.3136
  18. Bellos, David (12 November 2010). "Romain Gary: au revoir et merci". The Telegraph. UK.
  19. D. Bona, Romain Gary, Paris, Mercure de France-Lacombe, 1987, p. 397–398.
  20. Beyern, B., Guide des tombes d'hommes célèbres, Le Cherche Midi, 2008, ISBN 978-2-7491-1350-0
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