On View | Long Live “The Little Prince”
By ADRIENNE GAFFNEY
Exiled from France after the German occupation, the author and pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry spent the early 1940s in Manhattan, where he gave life to the story of a stranded pilot’s friendship with an otherworldly little boy. He wrote and illustrated “The Little Prince” in homes on Central Park South and Beekman Place and at a Long Island summer retreat and the 52nd Street studio of a friend that later became the French restaurant La Grenouille. The slim novella — which is being adapted for an upcoming 3-D animated film voiced by Rachel McAdams, James Franco and Marion Cotillard — celebrated its 70th anniversary last April and is France’s most-read work. But its undeniable New York influences are rarely explored.
John Phillips, courtesy of the John and Annamaria Phillips FoundationAntoine de Saint-Exupéry in Sardinia, 1944.
Underscoring the significance of Saint-Exupéry’s years in the city is the fact that they were his last. He shipped off to war to rejoin his reconnaissance unit one week after the first copies of “The Little Prince” hit shelves in 1943, hastily bestowing the book’s manuscript on a New York friend as a parting gift. One year later, his plane vanished over the Mediterranean, mere weeks before the liberation of Paris. His body was never identified. Present at the Morgan is one of only a handful of “The Little Prince” copies that Saint-Exupéry inscribed, as well as the ID bracelet worn at the time of his disappearance, which bears his name and the New York address of his publisher.
The linchpin of the show is Saint-Exupéry’s original manuscript. Through coffee-stained draft notes and original watercolors, as well as personal letters and rough sketches, the process behind “The Little Prince’s” conception is vividly rendered. Shown are the earliest drawings from which characters like the prince and his pet fox evolved, as well as Saint-Exupéry’s first attempts at capturing the boy’s tiny planet. The manuscript’s 30,000 words of text, which were eventually winnowed to less than half that, reveal references to Manhattan, Long Island and Rockefeller Center, all eventually excised, and a list of evocative phrases weighed by Saint-Exupéry before he settled on what would become the book’s central line: “what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
“A New York Story” is a testament to the enduring impact of the fairy tale’s philosophies, for children and adults alike. Present at the Morgan is one of “The Little Prince’s” first reviews, written by P.L. Travers. With prescience, the “Mary Poppins” author declares, “The Little Prince will shine upon children with a sidewise gleam. It will strike them in some place that is not the mind and glow there until the time comes for them to comprehend it.”
On view at The Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, January 24 through April 27; themorgan.org.