Romain Gary

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Romain Gary
Gary in 1961
Gary in 1961
BornRoman Kacew[1]
(1914-05-21)21 May 1914
Vilnius, Vilna Governorate, Lithuania
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
France (since 1935)
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)
(m. 1944; div. 1961)

(m. 1962; div. 1970)

 Literature portal

Romain Gary (pronounced [ʁɔ.mɛ̃ ga.ʁi]; 21 May [O.S. 8 May] 1914 – 2 December 1980), born Roman Kacew (pronounced [kat͡sɛf], and also known by the pen name Émile Ajar), was a French novelist, diplomat, film director, and World War II aviator. He is the only author to have won the Prix Goncourt under two names. He is considered a major writer of French literature of the second half of the 20th century. He was married to Lesley Blanch, then Jean Seberg.

Early life[edit]

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] The couple broke in 1925 and Arieh-Leib 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 illegally 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 was he 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, Éducation 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]

As Émile Ajar[edit]

In a memoir published in 1981, Gary's nephew Paul Pavlowitch claimed that Gary also produced several works under the pseudonym Émile Ajar. Gary recruited Pavlowitch to portray Ajar in public appearances, allowing Gary to remain unknown as the true producer of the Ajar works, and thus enabling him to win the 1975 Goncourt Prize, a second win in violation of the prize's usual rules.[12]

Gary also published under the pseudonyms Shatan Bogat and Fosco Sinibaldi.[12]

Literary work[edit]

Place Romain-Gary, located in Paris' 15th arrondissement

Gary became one of France's most popular and prolific writers, writing 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.[13] Gary also published as Shatan Bogat, René Deville and Fosco Sinibaldi, as well under his birth name Roman Kacew.[14][15]

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),[16] 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.[17]

Diplomatic career[edit]

After the end of the hostilities, Gary began a career as a diplomat in the service of France, in consideration of the services rendered for his release. In this capacity, he held positions in Bulgaria (1946–1947), Paris (1948–1949), Switzerland (1950–1951), New York (1951–1954) — at the Permanent Mission of France to the United Nations, where he regularly rubs shoulders with the Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin, whose personality deeply marked him and inspired him, particularly for the character of Father Tassin in Les Racines du ciel—in London (1955), then as Consul General of France in Los Angeles (1956–1960). Back in Paris, he remained unassigned until he was laid off from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1961).

Personal life and final years[edit]

Plaque to Gary and his first wife Lesley Blanch in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin on the Côte d'Azur; they lived there in 1950–57.

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."[18]

After learning that Jean Seberg had had an affair with Clint Eastwood, Gary challenged him to a duel, but Eastwood declined.[19]

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.[20]

Gary was cremated in Père Lachaise Cemetery and his ashes were scattered in the Mediterranean Sea near Roquebrune-Cap-Martin.[21]


The name of Romain Gary was given to a promotion of the École nationale d'administration (2003–2005), the Institut d'études politiques de Lille (2013), the Institut régional d'administration de Lille (2021–2022) and the Institut d'études politiques de Strasbourg (2001–2002), in 2006 at Place Romain-Gary in the 15th arrondissement of Paris and at the Nice Heritage Library. The French Institute in Jerusalem also bears the name of Romain Gary.

On 16 May 2019, his work appeared in two volumes in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade under the direction of Mireille Sacotte.

In 2007, a statue of Romualdas Kvintas, «The Boy with a Galoche», was unveiled, depicting the 9-year-old little hero of the Promise of Dawn, preparing to eat a shoe to seduce his little neighbor, Valentina. It is placed in Vilnius, in front of the Basanavičius, where the novelist lived.

A plaque to his name is affixed in the Pouillon building of the Faculty of Law and Political Science of Aix-Marseille where he studied.

In 2022, Denis Ménochet portrayed Gary in White Dog (Chien blanc), a film adaptation by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette of Gary's 1970 book.[22]


Several Romain Gary works in Bulgarian translations.

As Romain Gary[edit]

As Émile Ajar[edit]

As Fosco Sinibaldi[edit]

As Shatan Bogat[edit]


As screenwriter[edit]

As actor[edit]

As director[edit]

In popular culture[edit]


  1. ^ a b c 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. ^ a b c d Marzorati 2018
  9. ^ "Romain Gary: The greatest literary conman ever?".
  10. ^ "Ordre de la Libération". Archived from the original on 26 November 2010. Retrieved 11 February 2013.
  11. ^ a b c Bellos, David (2010). Romain Gary: A Tall Story. pp. ??.
  12. ^ a b Prial, Frank J. (2 July 1981). "Gary won '75 Goncourt under Pseudonym 'Ajar'". The New York Times.
  13. ^ Gary, Romain, Vie et mort d'Émile Ajar, Gallimard – NRF (17 juillet 1981), 42p, ISBN 978-2-07-026351-6.
  14. ^ 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. Vol. 318. Rodopi. pp. 141–163. ISBN 978-90-420-2426-7.
  15. ^ Di Folco, Philippe (2006). Les grandes impostures littéraires: canulars, escroqueries, supercheries, et autres mystifications. Écriture. pp. 111–113. ISBN 2-909240-70-3.
  16. ^ Romain Gary on the IMDb website
  17. ^ "Berlinale 1979: Juries". Retrieved 8 August 2010.
  18. ^ Paris Match No.3136
  19. ^ Bellos, David (12 November 2010). "Romain Gary: au revoir et merci". The Telegraph. UK.
  20. ^ D. Bona, Romain Gary, Paris, Mercure de France-Lacombe, 1987, p. 397–398.
  21. ^ Beyern, B., Guide des tombes d'hommes célèbres, Le Cherche Midi, 2008, ISBN 978-2-7491-1350-0
  22. ^ Maxime Demers, "«Chien blanc»: le goût du risque d'Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette". Le Journal de Montréal, November 2, 2022.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]