Fishing for Saint-Ex

There's something down there. And it may be Antoine De Saint-Exupéry's P-38.

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Not if the family has anything to say about it. “That plane is a sepulchre that must be respected,” says d’Agay. “It’s such a beautiful myth, disappearing over the ocean the way the Little Prince disappeared from the earth. Those divers are just trying to make money from selling photos.”

In discussing the family’s position, one French official, who asked not to be identified, wonders: “Are they acting solely in the interest of his memory, or for more financial reasons?” The descendants hold rights to royalties from all of Saint-Ex’s books, and also sell Little Prince products ranging from pens and watches to stuffed animals and cosmetics. If the mystery of Saint-Ex’s fate is solved, would product revenues be affected? “That’s the stupidest idea in the world,” responds d’Agay. “I don’t need to protect revenues from a book that’s sold 50 million copies.”

Apparently, the family has the ear of the authorities. According to Philippe Grenier de Monner, assistant director for archaeology at the Ministry of Culture: “The defense ministry is against [a salvage attempt], partly because the descendants of Saint-Exupéry are.” The defense ministry itself will only say: “This is considered to be a private affair.”

Almost no other government office will allow its spokepeople to speak on the record. And this being France, there are lots of offices involved. Locally there are the Maritime Affairs Office and the Department of Subaquatic and Underwater Archaeological Research; in Toulon there is the Maritime Prefecture. The final authorities are the ministries of culture and defense in Paris. One official at Underwater Research says, “I can’t tell you what the government’s position is on this because it hasn’t declared one yet, and I think it’ll be quite a while before it does. It’s all very Latin.”

On May 12, 2000, Vanrell officially declared his find to the Maritime Affairs Office in Marseille, which duly forwarded the report to the local Department of Subaquatic and Underwater Archaeological Research, a branch of the Ministry of Culture. Initially, the culture ministry planned to hire Vanrell, Delauze, and others to undertake a 10-day study of the site: mapping, photographing, filming, and raising parts for examination. “We were ready to go,” recounts Delauze, “but suddenly the culture ministry said they’d had a call from the prime minister’s office: ‘Don’t touch it.’ ”

“For us at the culture ministry, this is not a scientific priority, and it would be very expensive,” Grenier de Monner says today. “And if we did excavate it, that could lead to requests by families who lost members during the war for us to do costly excavation of other wrecks. We don’t want to encourage that.”

Philippe Castellano is optimistic about breaking through the bureaucratic inertia. “This has now gone too far for anybody to stop it,” he says. But the ministry of culture’s Grenier de Monner disagrees: “Unless there’s a surprising, high-level political decision,” he says, “I don’t believe this excavation is going to happen.”

The simple quest for historical truth has produced a very complex French affaire. At stake is the future of the myth of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry—and the possibility of ever learning what really happened to him.


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