A New York Story

A New York Story

Inspired by the new exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum, The Little Prince:  A New York Story, I reread Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s tale for children and adults yesterday. Which came out on top: the exhibition or the book?

That’s a silly question, I know. But if I say the exhibition, that’s not to snub the book. The Morgan bought Saint-Exupéry’s working manuscript and drawings in 1968, and it is those that are on display on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the book’s publication. To be reminded of Saint-Exupéry’s two-year exile in New York following the fall of France to Germany in 1940 is one thing; to learn that he wrote The Little Prince in New York during that period and that it was first published in New York—in both French and English editions, unheard of before or since—is something else. Like his pint-sized hero, an interstellar traveler who falls to Earth, Saint-Exupéry, an aviator, was a stranger in an alien land. He missed his homeland. He never learned English. Yet he must have found a comfort zone here in which to explore the meaning of life. Heady stuff for youngsters perhaps, yet when revealed as a secret, and by a fox no less, what’s not for them to understand? “Here is my secret,” Saint-Exupéry wrote in the guise of the fox. “It’s quite simple: One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.” Those sentences were reworked at least 15 times, all of which are on view.

In contrast, the exhibition is essential because it is so clearly visible to the eyes. What one sees is the author’s mind at work, with all its deletions, crossing outs, false starts, discarded pages (some of them rescued from a wastepaper basket). The watercolor drawings, too, went through countless permutations. For such a short book, so much endeavor to get it right. And the most poignant artifact? The identity bracelet worn by Saint-Exupéry and inscribed with his name and address: his New York publisher, Reynal & Hitchcock. Saint-Exupéry returned to France in 1943. A year later, he was killed when his plane went down. He was wearing the bracelet at the time, but it wasn’t until 1998 that it was found near Marseille. Saint-Exupéry did not live to see The Little Prince published in his native France.

For children of all ages, this is a must-see, up thru April 27. And the book? That should be obvious: a must-read.

>> The Little Prince: A New York Story, The Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Ave., 212.685.0008

Photos:

1) Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900-1944), The Little Prince (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1943, The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, photo Graham S. Haber, 2013

2) Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900-1944), Drawing for The Little Prince, The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, © Estate of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, photo Graham S. Haber, 2013

3) John Phillips (1914-1996), Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in Alghero, Sardinia, May 1944, silver gelatin print, Collection of Andrea Cairone, New York, © John and Annamaria Phillips Foundation

4) Identity bracelet of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900-1944), worn during is last mission with the 2/33 French Reconnaissance Group under the command of the Mediterranean Allied Photo Reconnaissance Wing, 31 July 1944, Estate of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry