Werth was born in 1878 in the Remiremont, Vosges, in an assimilated Jewish family. His father, Albert, was a draper and his mother, Sophia, was the sister of the philosopher Frédéric Rauh.
He was a brilliant student, a Grand Prize winner in France's Concours général and a literary and humanities CPGE philosophy student at Lycée Henri-IV. However, he abandoned his studies to become a columnist in various magazines. Leading a bohemian life, he devoted himself to writing and art criticism.
Werth was a protégé and friend of Octave Mirbeau, the author of The Diary of a Chambermaid, completing Mirabeau's final novel, Dingo, for him when the author's health failed. He manifested his anti-clericalism as an independently minded anti-bourgeois anarchist. His first significant novel, La Maison blanche, which Mirabeau prefaced, was a Prix Goncourt finalist in 1913.
At the outbreak of the First World War, despite opposing the war and having already done his military service (which he seems to have detested), he mustered as a private and was assigned to one of the worst sectors of the front, where he served as a radio operator for 15 months before being invalided out by a lung infection. Shortly after, he wrote Clavel, soldat, a pessimistic and virulently anti-war work which caused a scandal when it was released in 1919 but which was later cited as among the more faithful depictions of trench warfare in Jean Norton Cru's monumental 1929 survey of French World War I literature.
Werth was an unclassifiable writer with an acid prose, who wrote of the inter-war period as well as advocating against colonialism (Cochinchine, 1928). He also wrote against the colonial period splendor of the French empire, and against Stalinism which he denounced as a leftist deception. He also criticized the mounting Nazi movement.
After the Fall of France, during its occupation, the Werths remained in France despite offers by the Centre americain de secours in Marseille to help them emigrate. In July 1941 Werth was required to register as Jewish, his travel was restricted and his works banned from publication. His wife, Suzanne, was active in the Resistance, crossing the demarcation line clandestinely more than a dozen times and establishing their Paris apartment as a safe house for fugitive Jewish women, downed British and Canadian pilots, secret resistance meetings and storage of false identity papers and illegal radio transmitters. Their son, Claude, continued his studies first in the Jura and then in Paris, later becoming a doctor. Werth lived poorly in the Jura Mountain region, alone, cold and often hungry. Déposition, his diary, was published in 1946, delivering a damning indictment of Vichy France. He became a Gaullist under the Nazi occupation and after the war contributed to the Liberté de l'Esprit intellectual magazine run by Claude Mauriac.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Saint-Exupéry met Werth in 1931. Werth soon became Saint-Exupery's closest friend outside of the flying group of his Aeropostale associates. Werth did not have much in common with Saint-Exupéry; he was an anarchist, his father was a Jew, and a leftist Bolshevik supporter. Being twenty-two years older than Saint-Exupéry, with a surrealistic writing style as well as the author of twelve volumes and many magazine pieces, he was Saint-Exupéry's very opposite. But the younger author admired Werth's writing for having "never deceived," and wrote that Werth's essence was "his search for truth, his observation and the simple utility of his prose." Saint-Exupéry's Letter to a Hostage includes a celebration of Werth's journalism, and in her note on the text, Françoise Gerbod, professor emeritus of French literature at the University of Paris, credits Werth with having been Saint-Exupéry's literary mentor.
Saint-Exupéry dedicated two books to him, (Letter to a Hostage and The Little Prince), and referred to Werth in three more of his works. At the beginning of the Second World War, while writing The Little Prince, Saint-Exupéry lived in his downtown New York City apartment, thinking about his native France and his friends. Léon Werth spent the war unobtrusively in Saint-Amour, his village in the Jura, a mountainous region near Switzerland where he "was alone, cold and hungry", and which had few nice words for French refugees. Saint-Exupéry returned to the conflict by joining the Free French Air Force in early 1943, rationalizing, "I cannot bear to be far from those who are hungry... I am leaving in order to suffer and thereby be united with those who are dear to me."
At the end of the Second World War, which Antoine de Saint-Exupéry didn't live to see, Léon Werth said: "Peace, without Tonio (Saint-Exupéry) isn't entirely peace." Leon Werth did not see the text for which he was so responsible until five months after his friend's death, when Saint-Exupéry's French publisher, Gallimard, sent him a special edition. Werth died in Paris on 13 December 1955.
The Little Prince dedication
- To Leon Werth
- I ask children to forgive me for dedicating this book to a grown-up. I have a serious excuse: this grown-up is the best friend I have in the world. I have another excuse: this grown-up can understand everything, even books for children. I have a third excuse: he lives in France where he is hungry and cold. He needs to be comforted. If all these excuses are not enough then I want to dedicate this book to the child whom this grown-up once was. All grown-ups were children first. (But few of them remember it.) So I correct my dedication:
- To Leon Werth,
- When he was a little boy
Saint-Exupéry's aircraft disappeared over the Mediterranean in July 1944. The following month, Werth learned of his friend's disappearance from a radio broadcast. Without having yet heard of The Little Prince, in November, Werth discovered that Saint-Exupéry had published a fable the previous year in the United States, which he had illustrated himself, and that it was dedicated to Werth.
33 jours posthumous publication
33 jours (33 Days) is Werth's memoir of l'exode (the exodus) during the Fall of France. The title refers to the period of time he, his wife and their son's former nanny spent on the road during their flight from Paris to their summer home in Saint-Amour in the Jura region. (His son Claude, then 15, and teenage friends covered the distance in less than a day by leaving several hours earlier, thus avoiding the detours mandated by the French army that are described in 33 jours; the couple had no news of their son until they were all reunited a month later in Saint-Amour.) With poetic economy and journalistic precision, Werth recounts his experiences as one of the estimated 8 million civilians who fled the advancing German army's invasion of Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and France in May–June 1940, possibly using notes set down during the event, as he did in the trenches in World War I (which he used for his novels "Clavel soldat" and "Clavel chez les majors." Werth gave the manuscript to his friend Saint-Exupéry in October 1940 to smuggle out of France, write a preface for and publish in the U.S. The New York publisher Brentano's bought the rights (for a military parcel of cigarettes, gum, chocolates and water-purification tablets) and publication was planned for 1943, in expectation of which Saint-Exupéry referred to it as "un grand livre" (an important book) in his 1942 novel Pilote de guerre. For reasons unclear it was never published, and the manuscript effectively disappeared.
When Saint-Exupéry realized that an English translation of 33 jours was not forthcoming, he extensively revised the preface (excising Werth's name to protect him) and published it as a stand-alone essay. Letter to a Hostage is an affecting meditation on home and exile set during the escape from France via Lisbon to the U.S. (he was on the same vessel as Jean Renoir) that enabled the pilot to continue his struggle against the Germans from abroad.
It was not until 1992 that Viviane Hamy found and published the missing manuscript. In 2002 a student edition was produced, and 33 jours became part of the syllabus in French secondary schools. Hamy led a rediscovery of Werth, republishing many of his works in the 1990s and 2000s. 33 jours was finally published in English in 2015 as 33 Days in a new translation by Austin Denis Johnston.
Various events were organized in 2005 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Werth's death.
- 33 jours
- Clavel chez les majors
- La maison blanche
- Clavel soldat
- Le destin de Marco
- Le monde et la ville
- Saint-Exupéry, tel que je l'ai connu
- Caserne 1900
- Déposition / Journal 1940 - 1944
- Voyages avec ma pipe
- Une soirée à L'Olympia
- Claude Monet
- Un soir de cirque
- Pierre Bonnard
- Les amants invisibles
- Chana Ourloff
- Cour d'assises
- Danse, danseurs, dancings
- Dialogue sur la danse
- Dix-neuf ans
- K.X. Roussel
- Impressions d'audience : le procès Pétain
- Meubles Modernes
- Le monde et la ville
- La peinture et la mode
- Pijallet danse
- Yvonne et Pijallet
- Une soirée à l'Olympia, livre electronique
- Léon Wert on the website of Viviane Hamy Publishing house
- Left french newspaper Politis, january 2006
- Events in the Pompidou Center Library in Paris
- Pierre Michel, Octave Mirbeau et Léon Werth.
- Heuré, Gilles (2006). L'Insoumis. Paris: Éditions Viviane Hamy.
- Heuré, op. cit., p. 145
- Heuré, op. cit. Werth, Léon, Caserne, Editions Viviane Hamy, Paris, 1993.
- Heuré, op. cit.
- Cru, Jean Norton, War Books, trans. by Stanley J. Pincetl, Jr., San Diego State University Press, 1988, p. 163.
- Heuré, op. cit. pp. 251–258
- Heuré, op. cit., pp. 266–69
- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The Little Prince, New York City: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1943.
- Heuré, op. cit., p. 272.
- 33 jours.
- Diamond, Hannah (2007). Fleeing Hitler. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 150.
- Heuré, op. cit., pages=245 ff.
- Werth, Léon (2002). 33 jours. Paris: Editions Magnard. p. 8.
- Letter To A Hostage, AntoineDeSaintExupery.com website.
- Werth, Léon (2002). 33 jours. Paris: Éditions Magnard. ISBN 978-2-210-75437-9.
- Werth, Léon (2015). 33 Days. Brooklyn (New York City), and London: Melville House. ISBN 9781612194257.
- Gilles Heuré, L'insoumis: Léon Werth, 1878-1955, Paris: éditions Viviane Hamy, 2006, ISBN 2878582195, ISBN 978-2878582192