While millions know and love Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, in which a boy from a tiny asteroid planet travels the galaxy in search of friendship, not many know how the book itself came to be. (It didn’t crash into the Sahara desert in a plane, like its narrator did, as some enchanted readers might expect.) At the height of World War II, after France fell to Germany, Saint-Exupery, a pioneering aviator, fled to New York City. Far from home, in a place where he didn’t speak the language, he began to create whimsical watercolor illustrations of snakes speaking in riddles, baobab trees curled around planets, and stars blooming with flowers. These would later turn into one of the best-selling books of all time.
A new exhibition at The Morgan Library, The Little Prince: A New York Story, provides a behind-the-scenes look at the author’s creative process, featuring his original working manuscript and watercolor illustrations, as well as his personal letters and photographs. “Out of a sense of anguish and isolation, Saint-Exupery managed to create a work of art suffused with hope,” curator Christine Nelson tells Co.Design. “This is what I find most astonishing.”
The Little Prince still sells 1.8 million copies per year, and has been translated into 250 languages, including braille. It’s inspired operas, plays, and an entire cultish museum in Japan.”How has one little book inspired everyone from James Dean to Mr. Rogers?” Nelson says. “The Little Prince contains heartbreak, humor, social criticism, and hope–all in a deceptively simple package.”
Before leaving the states to rejoin his squadron in North Africa, the author visited his friend, Silvia Hamilton, whose Manhattan apartment he often visited, and whose black poodle he used as inspiration for the book’s sheep character. “I’d like to give you something splendid,” he said, “but this is all I have.” He presented her with the original manuscript and drawings for The Little Prince, which the Morgan Library & Museum acquired from her in 1968. Nelson got to know this manuscript well during her curation process. “I was struck by his creative discipline,” she says. “On the one hand, he had a clear vision for the shape, tone, and message of the story. On the other hand, he was ruthless about chopping out entire passages that just weren’t quite right.”
Also on view for the first time is the only copy of The Little Prince that the author gave as a gift to a young person–Hamilton’s 12-year-old son. It bears the endearing inscription, “For Stephen, to whom I have already spoken about the The Little Prince, and who perhaps will be his friend.”
Saint-Exupery didn’t live to see the publication of this masterpiece in France–in 1944, his plane went down over the Mediterranean during a reconnaissance mission, and his remains were never found. But in 1998, in a turn of events as magical as The Little Prince itself, a fisherman off the coast of Marseille discovered in his net a silver identification bearing Saint-Exupery’s name and that of his wife, Consuelo. That bracelet is now on view at the Morgan, too.
The Little Prince: A New York Story is on view at the Morgan Library and Museum until April 27.
[All photography by Graham S. Haber for The Morgan Library and Museum, 2013]