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Art at the Museums
Reviews of new exhibits at New York City's Best Art Museums and Cultural Institutions
Val Castronovo is a freelance journalist specializing in exhibition and arts-related stories.  She is a former senior reporter at TIME, where she worked for 21 years. Her reviews have appeared on and in a variety of publications at the United Nations.  A native New Yorker and Vassar/Columbia grad, she lives in Manhattan with her husband.
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The Three Tomatoes
   Made in the U.S.A.

  The Morgan Library pays tribute to 
“The Little Prince”—a book, how fitting!

   By Val Castronovo

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

Now through April 27, 2014, The Morgan Library & Museum plays host to “The Little Prince: A New York Story,” a show that explores the American origins of this classic work of French literature, written by best-selling author-aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900-1944) during a two-year self-imposed exile in the city during the Second World War.  

Fans of the yellow-haired prince from Asteroid B-612 who hopped a ride to Earth with a flock of wild birds may be surprised to learn that Saint-Exupéry’s famous philosophical tale was both penned and published in New York (in French and English), three years before it appeared in his native France in 1946.

​ 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

A reconnaissance pilot with an aristocratic background who sought refuge in the city from the Nazi occupation of his homeland in 1940, Saint-Exupéry variously lived on Central Park South, Beekman Place, and Long Island’s north shore, where he summered in a Victorian mansion with his Salvadoran wife Consuelo and toiled away at what would become his most memorable and endearing work.

The Morgan owns the 140-page working manuscript, 25 pages of which are on view—written in French and heavily revised, with coffee stains and cigarette burns lending authenticity—along with 43 original watercolor and ink drawings that the museum acquired in 1968 from Silvia Hamilton, Saint-Exupéry’s close friend. These items, along with letters, photographs, first editions, and an annotated Orson Welles screenplay (never realized) for a film collaboration with Walt Disney, make up the bulk of this well-curated show.

Kudos to Elizabeth Reynal, a French-speaking friend and wife of one of the partners of the New York publishing firm, Reynal & Hitchcock, who encouraged Saint-Exupéry, an inveterate doodler, to write a children’s book using his signature bonhomme scribble as the main character—his boyhood alter ego, many believe. A celebrated author who won the National Book Award for his 1939 memoir “Wind, Sand and Stars,” Saint-Exupéry had never illustrated a book. (The fiction prize-winner for 1939: “The Grapes of Wrath.”)

He set about the task in 1942, holing up in a variety of venues around the city to write and sketch, especially Silvia Hamilton’s apartment on Park Avenue where he spent many long hours refining and polishing his prose. The exhibit pays homage to the creative process, with the walls lined with heavily revised, handwritten drafts and preliminary drawings, a good number of which landed on the cutting room floor.

The outtakes of “baobabs” (those giant trees), the pilot-narrator clenching a hammer, a “svelte” boa constrictor, and the prince appearing to fly above Earth will delight aficionados interested in tracking the development of the fable that has been translated into more than 250 languages and ranks as one of the best-selling books in the world.  

Before he left New York in April 1943 to rejoin the war effort in the skies, Saint-Exupéry showed up at Silvia Hamilton’s apartment and deposited a paper bag with his manuscript and drawings, exclaiming, “I’d like to give you a splendid gift, but this is all I have.” The show boasts an inscribed copy of “The Little Prince” to Hamilton’s 12-year-old son, Stephen, exhibited here for the first time and believed to be the only one he gave to a child: “To Stephen, to whom I have already spoken about ‘The Little Prince,’ and who perhaps will be his friend.”  

Other treasured memorabilia include a diary entry, dated March 29, 1943, from fellow aviator and author Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of pilot Charles Lindbergh. The famous French writer visited the couple in 1939 at their house in Lloyd Neck, Long Island, where Anne and Saint-Exupéry conversed in French about writing and Anne fell in love, according to A. Scott Berg’s 1998 biography, “Lindbergh”, about Anne’s husband. Both remained with their spouses.

Years later, Anne received an advance copy of “The Little Prince,” which she devoured in “one sitting” and pronounced: “so terribly sad…But the sadness is not the sadness of war or tragedy. It is personal sadness—eternal sadness—eternal hunger—eternal searching….I feel for him, but I can do nothing.”  

Some of the show’s New York notation is quite surprising. There is a draft of a manuscript page from Chapter XVII that actually references Manhattan, Rockefeller Center and Long Island—but none of these very specific locales made the final cut in a story about a pilot who crash lands in the Sahara and befriends a little man dressed in princely attire. 

A case outside the main gallery room contains the tarnished silver identification bracelet worn by Saint-Exupéry when he vanished in 1944 while piloting a solo reconnaissance flight over southern France. The bracelet, which is on exhibit for the first time in the U.S., was miraculously discovered in 1998 by a French fisherman, who pulled it up in his fishing net in waters off Marseille. A solemn, chilling artifact, it is engraved with the aviator’s name, his wife’s name (“Consuelo”), and the name and address of his New York publisher, Reynal & Hitchcock: “386 4th Ave, N.YC., U.S.A.” 

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

Fans—even those who have not read the story since grade school—cannot forget certain characters, scenes, and images, perhaps none so much as the long-eared fox, who imparts a critical life lesson (his “secret”) to the prince in Chapter XXI during their fateful encounter: “l’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” (“What is essential is invisible to the eye.”) 

Saint-Exupéry agonized over the phrasing of this key takeaway. Visitors can see the various formulations—more than a dozen—which were sprinkled in a draft of his manuscript and which The Morgan has collected and displayed on a signboard (in French, with English translations). As the author states with exquisite simplicity in the final text: “…the little prince repeated [the secret], so that he would be sure to remember.”

When the book was first published in French and English language editions in April 1943, Reynal & Hitchcock was uncertain how to market it. Was this work with such profound moral significance for children, or was it really for adults? The publisher skirted the issue: “As far as we are concerned it’s the new book by Saint-Exupéry.”

P.L. Travers, whose “Mary Poppins” was published nine years earlier than “The Little Prince” (an early edition is on display at the entrance to the show), perhaps had the best take when she wrote in her review in the New York Herald Tribune:
“Children quite naturally see with the heart, the essential is clearly visible to them. The little fox will move them simply by being a fox. They will not need his secret until they have forgotten it and have to find it again. I think, therefore, that The Little Prince will shine upon children with a sidewise gleam. It will strike them in some place that is not the mind and glow there until the time comes for them to comprehend it. Yet even in saying this I am conscious of drawing a line between grown-ups and children…And I do not believe that line exists.”

Consider the write-up on a dusty book jacket of an edition published by Harcourt Brace (Reynal & Hitchcock’s successor) in this reviewer’s library: “There are a few stories which in some way, in some degree, change the world forever for their readers. This is one.”

“The Little Prince: A New York Story” at The Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street, New York, NY; now through April 27, 2014