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Saint-Exupéry at the Morgan

December, 2013
By Christine Nelson & Alanna Schindewolf

Since its publication seventy years ago, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince has captivated millions of readers throughout the world. Remarkably, this French tale of an interstellar traveler who comes to Earth in search of friendship and understanding was written and first published in New York City, during the two years the author spent there at the height of the Second World War.

The Little Prince: A New York Story, a major exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum, will feature Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors and heavily-revised working manuscript. Focusing on the story’s American origins, it is the first exhibition to explore in depth the creative decisions Saint-Exupéry made as he crafted what would become one of the best-selling books of all time – now translated into more than two hundred and fifty languages. The Little Prince: A New York Story will be on view from January 24 through April 27, 2014.
The heart of the exhibition is the display of the author’s working manuscript and drawings, which were acquired by the Morgan in 1968. Also on view will be rare printed editions from the Morgan’s collection as well as personal letters, photographs, and artifacts on loan from the Saint-Exupéry estate, private collections, and museums and libraries in France and the United States.

And I saw there before me an extraordinary little fellow who looked at me very seriously. . . . I said to him, “What are you doing there?”  – draft of The Little Prince

Like many of his compatriots, Saint-Exupéry came to the United States after France fell to Germany in 1940. During his two years in New York, Saint-Exupéry lived on Central Park South and later on Beekman Place, and he and his wife, Consuelo, rented a summer house on the north shore of Long Island. He worked on The Little Prince at various spots around the city, including the Park Avenue apartment of his friend Silvia Hamilton (later Reinhardt), using her black poodle as a model for the sheep and a mop top doll for the title character. On view in the exhibition will be a manuscript page in which Saint-Exupéry made explicit mention of Manhattan, Long Island, and even Rockefeller Center – references that he ultimately deleted from the story. Even the paper Saint-Exupéry used to draft his text reveals that The Little Prince was literally made in America – the watermark, which is visible when the sheets are held up to the light, reads Fidelity Onion Skin. Made in U.S.A.
Saint-Exupéry’s time in America was fraught with personal anxiety, physical ailments, and, above all, the weight of war. After the Allied invasion of North Africa, he was able to rejoin his squadron, leaving New York just as The Little Prince was rolling off the presses in April 1943. As he prepared to leave the city, Saint-Exupéry appeared at Silvia Hamilton’s door wearing an ill-fitting military uniform. “I’d like to give you something splendid,” he said, “but this is all I have.” He tossed a rumpled paper bag on her entry-way table. Inside were the manuscript and drawings for The Little Prince. The Morgan Library & Museum acquired them from her in 1968.
Because Saint-Exupéry left the city hastily to return to war, the author inscribed only a handful of copies of The Little Prince to friends. Exhibited for the first time will be the book he gave to Hamilton’s twelve-year-old son, one of the first young people to hear the story, open to the charming inscription: “For Stephen, to whom I have already spoken about the The Little Prince, and who perhaps will be his friend.” It is the only copy that Saint-Exupéry is known to have presented to a child.
Saint-Exupéry did not live to see his work appear in his native France, where it was published only after the war; he died while piloting a lone reconnaissance flight in 1944, just weeks before the liberation of Paris. The exhibition includes an extraordinarily moving artifact – the silver identity bracelet that Saint-Exupéry was wearing when his plane went down in 1944. Recovered near Marseille in 1998 after it was snagged in a fisherman’s net, it is inscribed with Saint-Exupéry’s name and the address of the American publisher of The Little Prince: Reynal & Hitchcock, 386 Fourth (i.e., Park) Avenue, N.Y.C., U.S.A. The bracelet is on loan from the estate of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.  It has never before been exhibited in the United States.
Along with drawings and letters sent to New York friends, the exhibition includes works that illustrate the profound impact The Little Prince had on American readers. On view will be the manuscript diary of fellow author-aviator Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who felt the work conveyed a sense of “personal sadness – eternal sadness – eternal hunger – eternal searching,” as well as a letter from an Illinois schoolteacher who thanked Saint-Exupéry for providing a thought-provoking story at “a time when we need help in thinking more deeply.” The book even kept Orson Welles up all night reading; he purchased the screen rights the following day, though the film never came to fruition. His annotated screenplay will be displayed.
The Morgan’s 140-page manuscript is the only surviving handwritten draft of The Little Prince (aside from two pages that were sold at auction in 2012) and therefore the most important record of Saint-Exupéry’s creative decisions as he crafted his novel. The exhibition will feature twenty-five manuscript pages – only a handful of which have ever been on public display. A gallery guide will provide complete transcriptions and English translations of the heavily-revised French text on display.
Replete with crossed-out words and multiple versions of nearly every chapter, the manuscript even bears cigarette burns or coffee stains that reflect the author’s working habits. He often wrote late into the night and thought nothing of calling friends at two o’clock in the morning to read a few pages aloud and gauge their reaction.  After completing an early version, Saint-Exupéry may have used his Dictaphone (purchased in New York at the extravagant price of $683) to revise orally before entrusting the work to a typist and, ultimately, the publisher.

The pages on view include familiar passages in their earliest, rawest form, from the story’s opening, in which the pilot-narrator first meets the little prince, to the title character’s unforgettable encounter with the wise fox who begs to be tamed. Visitors will also see an early rendering of the story’s most famous line—“l’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux” (what is essential is invisible to the eye) – a phrase so key to the narrative that Saint-Exupéry went through some fifteen versions before settling on the final wording.

Along with these familiar passages, visitors may examine drafts that Saint-Exupéry discarded altogether, such as an account of the little prince’s vegetarian diet – he tended his own garden, growing radishes, tomatoes, beans, and potatoes (but no fruit – the trees were too invasive for his tiny planet). Saint-Exupéry also tossed out entire episodes that he had written about the little prince’s time on earth, including an encounter with a shopkeeper who handed him a marketing textbook (“it’s full of slogans that are easy to remember”) and an inventor whose contraption could satisfy any desire at the touch of a button – even producing a lit cigarette and placing it between one’s lips.

Finally, a three-page draft of the story’s poignant epilogue, never before exhibited, hints at the author’s agony as he worked on the story while the world was at war and his own country occupied by the Nazis. “On one star someone has lost a friend, on another someone is ill, on another someone is at war,” the narrator laments in this deleted passage. As for the little prince, “he sees all that. . . . For him, the night is hopeless.  And for me, his friend, the night is also hopeless.”

The Little Prince begins and ends with drawings: the first page features an image of a boa constrictor that sparked the narrator’s imagination as a child; the last shows what became, for the narrator, “the loveliest and saddest landscape in the world” after the little prince bid him farewell in the Sahara.

The Morgan’s entire collection of forty-three of the earliest versions of drawings for the book – most in watercolor but a few penned on pages of the manuscript – will be on view. Presented alongside these early drawings will be images from the first edition, allowing comparisons between the two versions. In addition, a newly discovered drawing, never before published or publicly exhibited, will be shown. The drawing is from the collection of Mark Reinhardt, the grandson of Silvia Hamilton, to whom Saint-Exupéry entrusted his manuscript and drawings before leaving New York. It depicts one of the most evocative scenes from the book: the little prince watching sunsets on his tiny planet. The Morgan holds two drawings of the same scene, and viewers will be able to see and compare the three versions.

Some of the drawings depict familiar images from the book: the little prince in the desert, the king alone on his planet, the little prince lying beside a garden after discovering that his rose is not unique in the universe. Others were excluded from the published book, such as a view of the pilot asleep on the sand after his plane has crashed a thousand miles from any living soul. One of the most haunting images – an unpublished drawing of the little prince wearing his yellow scarf and floating above Earth – was clearly wadded up into a ball only to be rescued from the garbage can, flattened and retained.

Also on display will be a deleted passage that underscores the centrality of the drawings to The Little Prince.  The narrator, discouraged from an artistic career by grown-ups who thought he should focus instead on math and geography, explains:

I’ve never told the grown-ups that I’m not from their world.  I’ve hidden the fact that I’ve always been five or six years old at heart. And therefore I have hidden my drawings from them. But I love to show them to my friends. These drawings are my memories.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900–1944) was a French aviator who came of age in the early, heady days of commercial flight. He piloted the mails in North Africa and South America and later served as a reconnaissance pilot with the French Air Force during the Second World War. He wrote of his experiences in a series of novels and essays that turned him into a best-selling author and celebrity both at home and abroad. Saint-Exupéry enjoyed making sketches from the time he was a boy and spent a few unproductive months in architecture school when he was twenty, but had no formal training as an artist and had never illustrated a book before embarking on The Little Prince.

Photojournalist John Phillips (1914–1996), known for his contributions to Life, captured Major Saint-Exupéry with his comrades on the island of Sardinia just weeks before his final mission in 1944. A selection of Phillips’s striking photographs will be shown.