Last summer, while wandering in Biarritz, I came across a quaint little bookstore two steps away from the glamorous beachfront. Browsing the display tables, an intriguing cover caught my eye. Les Envolés, by Étienne Kern, won last year’s Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman (the equivalent of a National Book Award for a debut novel). It’s a work of fiction but the cover explains that the story is closely tied to the life of Franz Reichelt, a man who in 1912 jumped from the Eiffel Tower in order to test the viability of a parachute suit—one that he himself had created. This slim volume of historical fiction intrigued me and given its acclaim, I decided it was worth further strain upon the zippers of my single carry-on suitcase to bring it back to the U.S.
A New Era of Aviation
The book’s central character, Franz Reichelt, was the son of Austrian hops farmers who decided to break from the family business and become a tailor. Around the age of 20, Reichelt, knowing little French, moved to Paris. Less than a decade later, in 1907, he opened his own shop in an upscale neighborhood near the Palais Garnier, home to the Paris Opera. His clients consisted mainly of rich Austrians visiting the city.
Newspapers of the day frequently led with stories about aviation. News of the first flight of the Wright Brothers had blanketed the globe in 1903. In the summer of 1909, a Frenchman named Louis Blériot became the first man to successfully pilot an airplane across the English Channel. Blériot’s monoplane, which he designed himself, reached an altitude of 250 ft and averaged 45 mph. The daring feat earned him a lucrative £1,000, awarded by Britain’s Daily Mail.
Inventors around the world were exhilarated by the possibilities that lay ahead in the field of aviation. Many constructed their own aircraft and a significant percentage were killed while testing their designs. In 1911, the Aéro-Club de France launched a contest challenging innovators to design a parachute capable of saving the life of a pilot. The author of the winning design would receive 10,000 francs.
A Swing and a Miss
Reichelt, who had zero scientific or engineering training, became obsessed with the idea of designing an all-in-one parachute suit that a pilot could wear. The physics of parachutes was well understood at the time. The first successful jump was made more than a century earlier. In 1797, André-Jacques Garnerin daringly detached himself from a hydrogen balloon 3,200 feet above Paris, landing shaken but unhurt a half mile from the launch site.
Reichelt’s initial design seemed to hold promise, although it’s unclear how much testing he conducted. Reports vary but by some accounts, dummies wearing Reichelt’s suit landed safely after being launched from a 5th-floor window. When Reichelt presented his 70kg (150lb) jumpsuit to the Aéro-Club de France, however, engineers categorically rejected it. The contest stipulated that the suit must weigh no more than 25kg. Not only was Reichelt’s contrivance far too heavy, the canopy of his parachute used less than half the square area of material needed to adequately impede a wearer’s descent.
The Brave Little Tailor
With little reason to believe in his ability to pull off a working prototype, Reichelt persisted in refining his suit. His friends and clients reported that he spoke of little else. It’s mind-boggling to learn that without providing solid evidence that he’d finally arrived at a successful design, Reichelt received permission to try it out from the first stage of the Eiffel Tower—57m (187ft) above the ground.
Reichelt received the green light on February 3, 1912, and wasted no time contacting the local Parisian newspapers. The evening editions of several leading dailies announced the tailor’s scheduled jump for the following morning.
Sadly but not surprisingly, Reichelt’s parachute failed to open. Less than 5 seconds after stepping from the balustrade, he thundered into the Champs de Mars, leaving nothing to show for his years of effort aside from a 15cm deep divet in the frozen turf.
A Sensationalistic Film
There are many remarkable aspects to Reichelt’s story. Perhaps one of the most unsettling, however, is that his death was one of the first to be captured on film. Today, you can easily find the original newsreel that played in cinemas around the world (see below). After Étienne Kern came upon this ghastly clip, he couldn’t stop speculating about the possible rationales and experiences that influenced the ill-suited inventor.
Kern’s grandfather, a man he never met, died after falling from an apartment balcony when the handrail gave way. In Les Envolées, Kern intersperses elements of his grandfather’s death, as well as the suicidal jump of an influential friend, with both verifiable and imagined details of Reichelt’s path to disaster.
Fact Versus Fiction
We’ll never know what may have been in Reichelt’s mind on the day he climbed the 360 steps to reach the famous landmark’s first floor. Unable to reach the top of the balustrade without help, Reichelt and two officials assembled a table and chairs from the tower’s trendy café to mount the railing. A cameraman filmed as Reichelt surveyed the ground below. His gaze fixated downward, Reichelt appears unaware of the Trocadero Palace that lay just across the Seine, as well as the spectators, held back by police, that had come that day to watch a man fall to his death.
Was Reichelt despondent over his limited failed trials and hoping to end his life? Were his debts such that the prize money was worth risking his life? Did he believe that the gods were on his side and that he’d surely succeed? Was there someone in his life that he desperately wanted to impress? Undoubtedly, there were myriad motivations that fueled his footsteps.
In Les Envolés, Kern creates a backstory for Reichelt that is full of facts embellished by fancy. I’m a stickler for reality so I repeatedly found myself turning to Google and Wikipedia while reading. When finished, I read and listened to interviews with Kern, hoping to learn more about what parts of his story were fictive. None of his interviewers seemed to care and in the end, I accept their lack of scrutiny.
I hesitate to admit that while reading the book, I probably watched the notorious video a couple dozen times. Like Kern, I was looking for clues that might reveal something about Reichelt’s frame of mind. Unlike Kern, I came away empty-handed. I can’t claim to admire Reichelt’s tenacity, but nor do I scorn his intellect. I’m glad to have learned a little about his life and in contrast to Reichelt’s final act, my deep-seated fondness for bookstore browsing remains firmly grounded.
A fascinating story!!! I am going to order that book as it sounds a must read!
Glad you enjoyed it. I thought it was well timed with your excellent piece about the tormented tailors of Brittany.
I did!! It is amazing how many hidden stories there are out there that were once well known but have faded away! This is definitely one of them!
Indeed nice story and a good men, coming from aviation background (univ degree) of course I know him. Good write up thus Cheers
Thanks for stopping by. So far, you’re the first person who’s told me they knew about him.
ahh but aviation fly boys stick together ::)
A sad story. He sounds like a man with good intentions whose obsession simply overwhelmed his judgment. That’s not so unusual, but in most cases it doesn’t lead to such a tragic result.
He seemed to hesitate a long time before jumping. Perhaps he was having second thoughts, but felt that at that point he couldn’t face the humiliation of backing down and abandoning the test.
Even if it had worked reliably, it’s hard to imagine his parachute being widely adopted. I can’t see a pilot wearing something so bulky while in his cockpit — and especially with the aircraft of that time, weight was always an issue.
That’s a good theory Infidel, regarding Reichelt’s hesitancy to turn back after he’d already made a big deal about his invention with so many people.
An engineer from the Aero Club had seen the announcements the night before. He arrived at the tower and tried to convince Reichelt to turn back. Reichelt would not cede so the engineer asked the authorities to stop him from jumping. His authorization papers only granted approval to launch a dummy. It’s not clear why they let him proceed but the newspaper announcements had set everyone’s expectations for a man to jump, not a dummy. So, they let him go ahead with it.
Yes! The design was doomed in more ways than one.
I thought so too Emma. History is filled with a limitless supply of amazing stories.
whew! I couldn’t even watch the video & still feel queasy. great post!
One of my daughters was afraid to watch. It’s a very tame film but still, I felt a bit guilty even posting it. Since it’s easily accessible, I decided to put it in the post and let readers decide for themselves whether to watch. I just saved the curious some time.
It is a sad story.
Many have died in the course of “experimenting” human flight…