Romain Gary was the most glamorous of literary conmen. He wrote novels under many names, won major prizes and married an iconic actress.
David Bellos in The Telegraph:
In November 1945, France’s national philosopher, a bespectacled gnome named Jean-Paul Sartre, took Simone de Beauvoir to a café on Boulevard Saint-Germain to meet a young man whose first novel had just won a literary prize. He told her he wanted to find out who had written such a moving, metaphorical defence of the Resistance.
The couple found a tall, black-haired and handsome stranger wearing an RAF bomber jacket that was not a fashion accessory. Romain Gary was only 31, but he had already run through several lives, and, in a literary career built on spectacularly creative lies, would go on to make false selves something of a signature.
Born under a different name in Russia, he had been brought by his ambitious mother to Nice when he was just 14. On first seeing the sunlit Med, the boy from the gloomy East decided that French would be his mother tongue.
He spoke Russian and Yiddish as native languages and had acquired Polish properly, too. (Vilna, where Gary was born in 1914, was part of Poland between 1921 and 1939.) He knew German because he’d taken it at school, but at his lycée in Nice he’d won first prize in French composition, and had in his youth drafted countless French novels, now lost.
More here. [Thanks to Ahmad Saidullah.]