The Little Prince Is a New Yorker

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Mary Poppins’ creator loved it, Anne Morrow Lindbergh found it inspirational, and Orson Welles tried to make it into a movie. The Little Prince, the best-selling classic fable by French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery, was born in New York, we learn from a new exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum.

Saint-Exupery was a reconnaissance pilot. His memoir Wind, Sand, and Stars established him as a celebrated writer after its publication in 1939. In 1940 the German occupation of France forced him into exile, and he spent two years in and around New York City. It was here that his timeless character came to life.

On display in the exhibit, which opened Friday, are the author’s working manuscript and drawings, which the Museum purchased in 1968 from his friend Silvia Hamilton (later Reinhardt). Her Park Avenue apartment was one of several locations where Saint-Exupery worked on the book. He also wrote at an apartment on Central Park South, a house on Long Island, and a friend’s studio that is now the site of the restaurant La Grenouille. 

The Little Prince: A New York Story, housed in a modest gallery painted a warm cobalt blue, is organized chronologically. The first wall is devoted to the development of the character of the Little Prince, who began as a persistent doodle in the margins of Saint-Exupery’s notebooks and letters and slowly evolved into the appealing bow-tied waif with whom we are familiar. On a second wall, early manuscript pages show other familiar figures — the sheep, and, of course, the failed “hat” drawing that is really a boa-constrictor swallowed by an elephant.

The seemingly artless tale of a downed pilot, a lonely Prince, and a tiny planet was the result of constant and chaotic revision, according to Christine Nelson, the Morgan’s Drue Heinz Curator of Literary and Historical manuscripts, who created the show. “[Saint-Exupery] would sit at a table surrounded by mounds of manuscript pages, a cup of coffee or tea, always a cigarette in his mouth," said Nelson, "and you can even see evidence of this on the manuscript—coffee stains—even a cigarette burn on one of the pages.”

Nelson instructed her conservators to preserve these details in the framing — she wanted to emphasize that we’re looking at a work in progress, and visitors will also see elements in draft that were eventually discarded — topical references to New York City, and satirical characters from the Little Prince’s time on Earth that seem to reflect the author’s disillusion with the growing dominance of businessmen and marketers, and the narrow-mindedness of scholars.

In the end, what remained was a story in pictures that tells us, famously, that “what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

The Little Prince: A New York Story, will be on view at the Morgan Library and Museum through April 27th.