Nom de Plume

Nom de PlumeI am currently reading Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms by Carmela Ciuraru, and I highly recommend it. Ciuraru’s writing style is very inviting, and the stories she tells are fascinating. Though you may not be familiar with some of the authors (such as Fernando Pessoa, Henry Green, and Romain Gary), others (including Mark Twain, O. Henry, George Eliot, George Sands, and George Orwell) will be quite familiar.

One of the most fascinating chapters is about a writer named Roman Kacew who was born in Vilna, Russian on May 8, 1914. He was raised by his single mother a former stage actress named Nina Owczinski. Nina, a Francophile, and Roman moved to Nice, France in 1928. She considered Roman a genius in every way even as he failed at one thing after another. For instance when he informed her one day that he had made another zero in math, she thought for a while, and then stated that his teacher didn’t understand him. She convinced him that her assessment of him was accurate, so he believed that he would achieve greatness one day despite his real-world setbacks.

In fact, he did eventually become a well-known writer using the pseudonym Romain Gary, but that wasn’t enough for him. So he wrote books under other names and did his best to keep anyone from finding out who the real authors were. One novel, Les têtes de Stéphanie, was attributed to “Shatan Bogat” who was born in Oregon to Turkish immigrant parents. One review stated that Bogat’s style was “100% American, both explosive and relaxed, but with an appreciation of the Persian Gulf’s local color that is not from the eye of a tourist.” In another case he wrote a book under the pseudonym Émile Ajar, and convinced his cousin to pretend to be Ajar. He and his cousin had a wonderful time with their little game, and went to ridiculous extremes to keep the press and others from discovering the truth. Even in a supposed memoir he included information about himself that was untrue or misleading. He couldn’t help himself.

Romain Gary

Romain Gary and Jean Seberg

Why he felt that he had to play those games is a mystery because in real life he was a World War II hero (he was a pilot in the Free French Forces), a ping-pong champion, a film writer and director, and a diplomat as well as an award winning author. And he was married to the American actress Jean Seberg from 1963 until 1970. Even after their divorce they remained very close friends.

Ciuraru discusses Seberg’s life after her divorce from Gary in Nom de Plume, and it is a sad, sad story. What I write below is supplemented by additional information from outside the book.

Jean Seberg was a political activist who gave money to a number of civil rights organizations such as the NAACP, and some Native American school groups. She also provided financial support to the Black Panthers – which greatly disturbed the FBI which was directed by J. Edgar Hoover at the time (he was the FBI’s first director). So they decided to destroy (“neutralize” is the term they used) Seberg’s reputation and career. The attacks were spearheaded by the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO). In 1970 Seberg was pregnant, and the FBI started a rumor (which made the gossip columns and magazines) that the baby’s father was a Black Panther leader, and not the child of her husband Romain Gary. Seberg was devastated by the rumors and attempted suicide. She survived, but she went into labor and delivered the baby girl prematurely. Her baby died two days later.

Thereafter Seberg was continually harassed by the FBI – wiretapping, surveillance, break-ins, and such. On August 30, 1979 Seberg’s decomposing body was found in the backseat of her car. She had been missing for eleven days. Her death at age 40 was ruled a suicide.

Romain Gary was crushed by the news of Seberg’s death. On December 2, 1980 he committed suicide in his Paris apartment by shooting himself in the head. He was 66 years old. He left behind a note in which he claimed that his suicide had nothing to do with Seberg, but that’s hard to believe. Though Gary’s works are little known in the United States, 35 years after his death he is still very popular in France.

If you have enjoyed the above, I think you will love Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms.

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