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Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s early sketches for “The Little Prince.” (all images courtesy The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, © Estate of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, photographed by Graham S. Haber, 2013)

You might know how essential it is to keep your asteroid free from baobab tree infestations and how integral it is to sweep your volcanoes but still have no idea that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince was created in New York City.

Now, seven decades from its first publishing, the illustrated French classic that appears like a children’s book but reads of adult melancholy is ubiquitous in over 250 languages. However, its origins remain murky, its creator the lost pilot with his head firmly with his aircraft in the clouds. Last Friday, the Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan opened The Little Prince: A New York Story to plunge a little deeper into the creation of the Little Prince who lives on Asteroid B-612.

Saint-Exupéry came to New York City in 1940 in a self-exile from Nazi-controlled France, lodging at 240 Central Park South. While he’d never learn English, taking only a passing interest in some brief classes, he found a community with the literary and French expats. Before his arrival he’d had great success with works based on his experiences as a pilot, such as Wind, Sand and Stars, a book about his airmail routes. However, he had a habit of drawing a spritely person with a trailing scarf on letters to friends, and this frequent personification of himself would become an explorer of all the corruption and confusion of adults through the “Petit Prince.”

An early illustration draft showing the pilot encountering the Little Prince. Later, any image of the pilot would be cut (© Estate of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)

For those unfamiliar with the book, or its many forms, including a 1974 film with Bob Fosse and Gene Wilder, its plot at its simplest is a pilot crashed in the desert encountering a mysterious blond-haired boy who asks him to draw a sheep to help keep his asteroid home free from baobabs. It turns out he’s come to Earth on a journey through planets variously inhabited by a drunkard, a king whose robes take up all the land, a businessman who tries to catalog the stars, and other tropes of adult foibles. But before meeting the pilot, he encounters a fox who wants to be tamed. It’s this small creature who tells the prince this secret and the book’s theme: “l’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux” — “what is essential is invisible to the eyes.”

A draft illustration of a sad prince shifting his chair to watch the sun set over and over on the asteroid (© Estate of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) (click for full size)

The Morgan exhibition, with 25 pages of the original manuscript and some 43 illustrations, reveals how much Saint-Exupéry labored over the phrase, and every detail of the book as he worked to turn his idle drawings into art. He was no doubt incredibly creative, but you can really see through the evolution of images — like the baobab trees consuming the planet — how painstaking he was with his ideas and craft, going through numerous drafts to cut the book down by almost half. Coffee stains and cigarette burns mar the pages, the remains of late-night toiling. You can also see a snail turn into a fox, and extraneous characters being cut like a whole series of encounters on planet Earth, all refined to the final version.

Some of the book was written at the apartment of Saint-Exupéry’s friend Silvia Hamilton, who helped him along the process, and it’s through her that the Morgan holds this work. After two years in the city, he returned to France to serve with the Allies as a reconnaissance pilot. Arriving at Hamilton’s door, he said, “I’d like to give you something splendid, but this is all I have,” and left a paper bag with the manuscript and illustrations. The materials would be acquired from Hamilton in 1968, just over two decades after its first edition was published in New York in 1943 and the post-World War II edition published in France. While the papers were displayed for the book’s 50th anniversary, and Saint-Exupéry’s centenary in 2000, this is their most complete exhibition yet.

Identity bracelet of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, worn during his last mission with the 2/33 French Reconnaissance Group under the command of the Mediterranean Allied Photo Reconnaissance Wing, 31 July 1944
(courtesy the Estate of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)

His return to the skies would be brief, as Saint-Exupéry went missing on a solo reconnaissance flight in 1944. The Little Prince also meets what seems a fatal end with a snake, although he’d assured the pilot that that if he seemed to be dead it’s just that his body was too heavy to take back home to the asteroid. One wonders if Saint-Exupéry also knew that returning to the war zone would be like letting a snake wrap around his ankle.

The wreckage of his plane was not discovered until 2000, although in 1998 his silver identification bracelet eerily turned up in a fishing net off the coast of Marseille. The worn bracelet is on display just before the main exhibition in the Morgan, and if you look closely you can just make out his name, followed by a New York City address care of his American publisher, Reynal and Hitchcock.

Draft illustration of the Little Prince and the fox (© Estate of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)

The Little Prince: A New York Story is at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Ave, Midtown, Manhattan) through April 27.  

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...