Legends Have It

It is normal in the hyperbolic times we’re living in to call people iconic or legendary. Both “hyperbole” and “iconic” are Greek words, and they were coined in order to separate the normal from the legendary. The trouble is that today the word “legendary” is overused. Untalented performers, bandy-legged footballers, even silver-tongued crooked politicians are referred to as legends by flacks and PR enablers. Legends, of course, become monuments of our own magnificence. The first great and always enduring legend is none other than Homer, whose poetry lifts even the most devastating human events into the realm of the beautiful, and it shows us how vast and serene the mind can be even when it contemplates the horrors of war. Goethe called Homer the most “astonishing human being ever.”

But legends also have defects, and even Homer was thought to be blind. Napoleon was a bit too short and had a small penis—or so his marshals said who had seen him naked while washing after a battle and had laughed about it. The greatest musical genius ever, Mozart, was said to be a coprophiliac, but jealousy of his prodigious talents might have had a lot to do with that particular vicious rumor. Beethoven, also, was known for his terrible temper and dark moods, while poor Robert Schumann’s uxorious nature was said to have made him the butt of jokes among the mauvaises langues of the time. Amazon.com Gift Card i... Buy New $15.00 (as of 03:40 EDT - Details)

Be that as it may, in my profession as a journalist, I have come across very few legends, and the ones I do consider legendary, it is because of momentary acts or reactions they had under stress, especially in battle. General Christian de Castries, defender of Dien Bien Phu, was the scion of a very old and aristocratic French military family. His ancestors had fought for Louis XV, Louis XVI, Napoleon, and so on. When General Navarre assigned him to the lost cause of defending Dien Bien Phu, de Castries named his outposts after his numerous mistresses. There were two Catherines, a couple of Elianes, and so on, but all eleven outpost bunkers were named after his women. Just before the surrender, Cogny, his superior, ringing from Hanoi, managed to connect de Castries to his wife in Paris. She sounded awfully cheerful, and de Castries asked her why: “Because for once I know where you’re going to be in the next few months,” came the answer. Christian de Castries, with whom I share a birthday, August 11, became a legend to me just for that fact alone.

The greatest German fighter pilot of World War II was also the handsomest man to ever fly, with the exception of Charles Lindbergh. Hauptmann Hans-Joachim Marseille was a virtuoso without equal. He built up his score of kills (158) in a very short time and against the RAF. He was a great womanizer and a very hard drinker who often fought aerial duels drunk. After his 100th victory he was flown back to Berlin, where Hermann Göring toasted him and asked him if he would now go for 200 victories. “You mean airplanes or women? Because I’ve passed that number where the latter is concerned,” said Marseille. He was killed bailing out of his JG 27 when he struck the tail and fell to his death. His plane had caught fire but not by the enemy. That, for me, is a legend.

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