The Servan-Schreiber family has become one of the most illustrious in France since World War II, numbering among its members prominent journalists, authors, filmmakers, and businessmen. The clan's ascent into the French elite stems from the entrepreneurial and social energy of Robert Servan-Schreiber, a son of German Jewish immigrants who founded Les Echos in 1908 as an advertising vehicle for his export business and built it into France's leading business daily.
This fall, Robert's grandson Pierre Servan-Schreiber, an M&A partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP and head of the firm's Paris office, published a memoir that his forebear wrote in 1942 and 1943. "I'm convinced that my grandfather would have liked his book to be published, but that he was too modest to do anything about it," says Pierre, "so it's about completing what he started."
Robert structured his autobiography as a series of vignettes in which Orville Wright, Rudyard Kipling, Albert Einstein and the King of Romania make cameo appearances as the author starts and runs Les Echos with his brother Emile Servan-Schreiber, fights in World War I, marries and raises a family, buys a Provence estate and watches the rise of the Nazis and France's craven response. Pierre, 54, wrote a preface, an afterword and the notes to the autbiography, called simply "Journal," which he describes as a Gallic version of the American Dream.
Like millions of American immigrants, Robert encountered significant prejudice. "At that time, when you're German and Jewish, you're not exactly welcome," says Pierre. "There's always this drive to be more French than the French." That began with Robert's parents, Joseph and Clara Schreiber, who came from Prussia and undertook a "Frenchification" of the family, going so far as to pronounce its last name as if it were of French origin rather than German.
Robert absorbed this ethos. "I wanted to raise myself socially, and I didn't fear a fight," he writes in describing the start of his career, when he took over his father's company. A vacation with his father's wealthy brother in Berlin offered Robert a lifestyle to shoot for. "When I'm grown," he remembers thinking, "I will try to be among those who don't have to weigh each expense before making it. I kept my word." In 1940, he and his family converted to Catholicism out of a desire to assimilate.
Robert spends about a third of the 450-page narrative on his experiences as a fighter pilot in World War I, where he makes good use of his unflagging moxie. Terrified when he's chased by German planes, he calms himself by thinking of attending the opera "Samson and Delilah." He confronts several instances of anti-Semitism head-on, at one point earning the respect of a prejudiced French officer.
After World War I, Robert and Emile relaunch Les Echos, and its success allows Robert to buy an estate in the small town of Montfrin near Avignon in Provence from the Marquis de Monteynard in 1925. Robert's purchase, Pierre says, "is almost like acquiring French roots. My grandfather was buying a heritage at the same time as he was buying an estate." Robert stays afloat through the Depression, though the paper's staff falls from almost 200 employees to 60.
As the Nazis close in on Provence, Robert is told to leave the estate and moves to Emile's house in Megève, a French town near the Swiss border, where Robert writes his journal. Meanwhile, the Germans take possession of Montfrin.
As Robert finished his book, Pierre writes in the afterword, he worried that the Germans would seize him if he stayed at Megève, so he went to Paris to join the French Resistance. After the war, Robert and Emile rebuilt Les Echos, and in 1953 they and their brother Georges Servan-Schreiber, a pediatrician, add Servan -- the middle name that all three brothers gave their children -- to their last name. (Though not entirely certain of that name's origin, Pierre guesses that it comes from Saint-Servan-sur- Mer, a small town in Brittany where Georges vacationed.) A family dispute led to the sale of the paper in 1963. Robert died three years later at 86 and is buried in Montfrin.
Pierre remembers Robert as "quite witty and charismatic." He honored his grandfather by giving all four of his sons Robert as a middle name, a commemorative instinct that figured in Pierre's decision to publish the journal, which one of his cousins gave him in 2008. By publishing it, Pierre says, "I am reaching out to my grandfather, wherever he is, showing my father that I am proud of my lineage and transmitting our values to my children and showing them that these are such universal values that they can, are and should be public."