New York City, the Little Prince’s Other Planet

The Little Prince is from Asteroid B 612, a planet “hardly bigger than a house.” But it was in New York City that he sprang from the imagination of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the French author and aviator who lived in the United States during World War II. To celebrate the 80th anniversary of the tiny hero’s creation, a statue will be unveiled opposite Central Park on September 20.
Saint-Exupéry at Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, July 1939. © Hirsch, courtesy of the Saint Exupéry-d’Agay Estate

With his tousled hair and scarf tied around his neck, the little bronze-skinned boy is instantly recognizable. The statue will soon be crossing the Atlantic to take its place on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Perched on a low wall next to the Payne Whitney House, the Renaissance-style building home to the French Embassy’s cultural services, he will look up to the sky and the stars. As if in a dream, he will invite passers-by to stop awhile. Before regaling them with tales of a rose, two active volcanoes, and three baobabs, he might ask them: “If you please – draw me a sheep.”

“It will be as though the character had stepped out of the book,” says the artist. Jean-Marc de Pas, who has created a sculpture garden in Normandy and has produced a dozen works on the theme of The Little Prince, including a bust displayed at the National Air and Space Museum in Le Bourget, was commissioned by the American Society of Le Souvenir Français. “Our mission is to honor the 2,000 or so French soldiers buried on American soil, but also to celebrate the achievements of the French in the United States,” says Thierry Chaunu, the society’s president. “With The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is clearly part of this latter category.”

Saint-Exupéry aboard the Siboney, the ship on which he fled Europe, December 1940. Courtesy of the Saint Exupéry-d’Agay Estate
The statue by Jean-Marc de Pas, cast in bronze, will be installed on Fifth Avenue on September 20. © Jean-Marc de Pas

A Hero in the Making

The man who disembarked from the Siboney on December 31, 1940, was already a legend whose reputation preceded him in America. “This ace, this soldier, this paladin, this adventurer, this knight-errant, this broad-shouldered tendre, the most taciturn man in [Aéropostale] but also its enfant terrible,” wrote his American biographer Stacy Schiff, was welcomed to New York City like “the [Joseph] Conrad of the skies.” Two weeks later, before 1,500 people at the Hotel Astor, he received the National Book Award for Wind, Sand and Stars. Published in the United States in 1939, the novel went on to spend nine months on the best-seller list.

This was not Saint-Exupéry’s first experience in America. In January 1938, he arrived in New York City aboard the Ile-de-France for what was billed as a speed flight and publicity stunt for French aviation: a 9,000-mile journey across the continent to Patagonia. Since the English translation of his novel Night Flight in 1932, praised by the Book of the Month Club and adapted as a movie starring John Barrymore and Clark Gable the following year, the writer and the pilot had become indistinguishable. Each new airborne feat contributed to his literary success.

After stopovers in Washington D.C., Atlanta, Houston, Brownsville, Texas, and Veracruz in Mexico, his Caudron Simoun C635 landed in Guatemala City to refuel on February 16. But due to a miscalculation, the aircraft was too heavy and crashed at the end of the runway just as it was about to take off again. His mechanic André Prévot escaped with a broken leg, while Saint-Exupéry suffered eight fractures and narrowly avoided having his left arm amputated. He spent over a month at the hospital before continuing his recovery in New York.

On the Pan Am DC-3 that flew him back to Manhattan, the wounded author was excited to discover the aircraft’s comfortable interior and its radio guidance system, which enabled blind flights – technology that had not reached France at the time. After landing, he also developed a passion for the gadgets sold in department stores, including an electric razor, a Parker pen, a portable phonograph, and a Dictaphone. This trip was the first of half a dozen that Saint-Exupéry would take, and inspired an unwavering admiration for the United States.

A Giant with Feet of Clay

Captain de Saint-Exupéry was discharged on July 31, 1940. After several reconnaissance missions and France’s painful armistice with Germany, the 40-year-old pilot found himself at a dead end. He struggled to return to civilian life, his marriage was on the rocks, and his financial affairs were in disarray. To make things worse, Gallimard, which had published his books since 1929, was taken over by the Nazis. “There is nothing left to be done here,” he said to a friend. “I’m off.” In December, he set out once again for America, “the answer to France’s humiliation.”

Saint-Exupéry and his friend Bernard Lamotte on the roof of the latter’s New York apartment, ca. 1942. Courtesy of the Saint Exupéry-d’Agay Estate

Upon arriving in New York City, Saint-Exupéry moved into an apartment at 240 Central Park South. The painter Bernard Lamotte, a former classmate from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, introduced him to the small community of French refugees. The pilot delighted his new acquaintances with his exotic adventures and card tricks, but found exile unbearable. Manhattan and its skyscrapers were little more than “hordes of men in their stone pyramids” and the United States was a world power more concerned with manufacturing washing machines than producing weapons to help France. “In this consumerist country, which fascinated and repulsed him in equal measure,” says Olivier d’Agay, his grandnephew, “Saint-Exupéry was unhappy.”

The war of opinion dividing the French diaspora only distressed him further. Supporters of de Gaulle, Pétain, and Vichy all tried to recruit the famous Frenchman, but Saint-Exupéry stubbornly refused to engage with them. This was followed by a long period in the wilderness, punctuated by insults, defamation – he was even accused of being a royalist after The Little Prince was published – and several long stays at the hospital as a result of his accident in Guatemala. In 1941, wrote Stacy Schiff, “he felt more vulnerable physically in America […] than he had when flying through enemy fire in 1940.”

Under pressure from his publishing house, Reynal & Hitchcock, an exhausted Saint-Exupéry completed his fourth novel. Flight to Arras was finished between New York and Los Angeles, where the pilot lived with his friend Jean Renoir and spent his nights writing while suffering from terrible bouts of fever. Published in February 1942, the book was banned by the Vichy government but lauded by American critics, which helped to restore the author to something of his former glory. To cheer him up, his publisher’s wife, Elizabeth Reynal, suggested that he write a children’s book – the adventures of the petit bonhomme who had been floating around in his imagination for years.

The Birth of the Little Prince

The little boy stands on a cloud. Often depicted with wings, he floats above people, chases butterflies, and is threatened by an imp representing a German Messerschmitt plane. This child is none other than Saint-Exupéry’s fictional alter ego. He first appeared in 1939 before regularly featuring in the pilot’s letters, the pages of his diary, the manuscript of Flight to Arras, books gifted to friends, and even on restaurant tablecloths. It was a way for this former daydreaming schoolboy, who only excelled in poetry and drawing, and who distrusted “grown-ups,” to escape the Earth, “this odd planet.” He started writing in June 1942.

Following an accident in December 1935, Saint-Exupéry spent 87 hours in the Libyan desert. This episode inspired the beginning of The Little Prince. Courtesy of the Saint Exupéry-d’Agay Estate
One of the original watercolors for The Little Prince, painted by Saint-Exupéry in New York in 1942. © Morgan Library & Museum
Saint-Exupéry with his publisher Eugene Reynal and the latter’s wife, Elizabeth, in New York, 1942. Courtesy of the Saint Exupéry-d’Agay Estate

“Saint-Exupéry wrote and drew The Little Prince that summer and fall in his usual distracted manner, in long, late-night bursts of energy fueled by coffee, Coca-Cola, and cigarettes,” wrote Stacy Schiff. The original manuscript, kept at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City, bears the marks of this turmoil. The pages are stained, torn, and even burnt in places, covered in thin, erratic handwriting, sometimes in pen, sometimes in pencil. Whole paragraphs are crossed out. The margins are filled with scribbled notes and, in sections written in the dead of night, the lines of text slant sharply like mountains.

This was his most personal book. “The writer put his heart and soul into his work,” writes archivist and historian Alban Cerisier in the introduction to the 75th anniversary edition. But it also drew on major events in his life. Whether the narrator’s plane crash, inspired by an accident in the Libyan desert in 1935, the Little Prince’s relationship with his rose, a reflection of the tensions within the Saint-Exupéry couple, the baobabs of Senegal, or the snowy peaks of the Andes, every page tells a story from the adventurer’s career. Even Long Island, where he spent the summer of 1942 to escape the stifling Manhattan heat, made an appearance in the manuscript. Another New York landmark, Rockefeller Center, was also included, although it was replaced by “a small Pacific islet” in the final draft.

Late into the night, Saint-Exupéry would call close friends to read them yet another version. He wrote and rewrote, throwing away countless pages. For the chapter about the businessman counting the stars in the sky, he asked for help from the planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. He worked on the watercolors in the same obsessive manner, using a set bought at a drugstore on Eighth Avenue. He used Charles Lindbergh’s son, Land, and a blonde doll as models for the Little Prince. His boxer dog Hannibal, given to him by his mistress Sylvia Hamilton, inspired the tiger, while her black poodle Mocha lent his likeness to the sheep! The young woman also motivated the fox’s tirade: “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”

The Legend Begins

The manuscript was finally ready in October 1942. The writer put the finishing touches to the illustrations, but the pilot in Saint-Exupéry had already moved on. In November, the United States landed in Morocco and Algeria, and the French forces in North Africa defected to the Allied side. Eager to get back into the fight, he urged his compatriots to reconcile – a message relayed in The New York Times Magazine, in Le Canada and on NBC – and left New York for Algiers on April 2, 1943. The Little Prince arrived in American bookstores four days later (it would not be published in France until 1946). The author was compared to Montesquieu and Hans Christian Andersen, but at the height of the war, this interplanetary fable hit a false note with the public. By the fall, 30,000 copies had been sold in English, and 7,000 in French. Walt Disney even rejected an adaptation by Orson Welles.

Saint-Exupéry aboard a P-38, the American plane he was piloting when he crashed in the Mediterranean on July 31, 1944. © The John and Annamaria Phillips Foundation, photograph by John Phillips

Saint-Exupéry would never know the fate of his book, which went on to become an international success. On July 31, 1944, his plane disappeared after taking off from Borgo in Corsica for a reconnaissance mission over occupied France. We now know that his aircraft, an American P-38 Lightning, crashed in the Mediterranean Sea. In 1998, a fisherman from Marseille found his silver bracelet caught in his nets. The salt-blackened metal bore an engraving with the author’s New York contact information: “C/o Reynal and Hitchcock Inc., 386 4th Ave., N.Y.C., U.S.A.”

“It’s a symbol,” says Olivier d’Agay, who is also delegate general for the Antoine de Saint Exupéry Youth Foundation, which is supporting the installation of the statue opposite Central Park. “These two years in the United States were the most important in my granduncle’s life. He felt at home in New York.” The Souvenir Français project was approved by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission on May 23 this year, and its members unanimously voted oui to give the Little Prince a permanent throne on Fifth Avenue.

Article published in the September 2023 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.