NEW YORK — Antoine de Saint-Exupery crafted “The Little Prince” in New York City, mentioning Rockefeller Center and Long Island in one draft of the beloved children’s tale — references he ultimately deleted.
That page is contained in the French author’s original handwritten manuscript, which is the subject of a major exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum celebrating the book’s 1943 publication.
“The Little Prince: A New York Story,” which opens Jan. 24, features 35 of his original watercolors and 25 pages from his heavily revised 140-page text, written in Saint-Exupery’s tiny script.
Some visitors may be surprised to learn that “The Little Prince,” which has been translated into more than 250 languages and dialects, was written and first published in New York.
“It’s well documented that he wrote the book here, but it’s not well known to the general public,” said Christine Nelson, curator of literary and historical manuscripts at the Morgan.
“Because the manuscript brings you back to the moment of creation, we wanted to set the exhibition in the place and time of creation,” she said. “It focuses on the emergence of this work in New York during the war. He was writing it just within miles of where this exhibition is being shown.”
Saint-Exupery, a French aviator and best-selling author, didn’t live to see his book published in France after the war. He died while piloting a reconnaissance flight in 1944, weeks before the liberation of Paris.
“The Little Prince” tells the adventures of a boy who hails from a tiny asteroid no larger than a house. On his way to Earth, he visits other planets and meets a king, a conceited man, a drunkard, a lamplighter and a geographer. On Earth, he encounters a fox who teaches him: “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” The phrase is the book’s central theme and one Saint-Exupery revised 15 times, including the version “What matters cannot be seen.”
Saint-Exupery came to New York after France fell to Germany in 1940. He spent two years living near Central Park and Manhattan’s East Side and renting a summer home on Long Island’s North Shore. Frequently, he wrote at the Park Avenue home of his close friend Silvia (Hamilton) Reinhardt. He entrusted his handwritten manuscript to her before he rejoined his squadron in North Africa.
The Morgan acquired the manuscript from her in 1968, the museum said. Saint-Exupery’s French publisher, Gallimard, has just published a facsimile of the working manuscript.
“This is very much a preliminary draft, a work in progress and yet to anyone who knows the book well it will be entirely recognizable,” Nelson said.
Among the exhibition’s highlights is an unpublished drawing that Saint-Exupery had wadded up and tossed showing the prince wearing his signature yellow scarf floating over Earth. Some of the illustrations are paired with images from the first edition.
The pages on view include episodes from the prince’s time on Earth that were deleted entirely from the final version: a meeting with a storekeeper who gives him a lesson on marketing and an encounter with an investor who has a machine that meets every need with just the push of a button.
“He was a very diligent author. He worked, labored, revised, read out loud to people ... he was very interested in people’s response to the story,” Nelson said.
There’s also a three-page draft of an alternate ending in which the narrator muses about what happened to the little prince after he left Earth.
“It’s much more agonized and melancholy and reads as a war-time text,” Nelson said. “The final version is more open-ended, more mysterious, leaving it up to the reader to conclude how to feel at the end of the prince’s journey.”
The exhibition also features a silver identity bracelet that Saint-Exupery was wearing when he was killed. It is on loan from Saint-Exupery’s Paris estate.
The bracelet, never before exhibited in the U.S., “was recovered in 1998 after it was snagged in a fisherman’s net and bears the author’s name and the New York address of his American publisher” Reynal & Hitchcock, said Olivier d’Agay, the estate’s director.
The exhibition helps “reinforce the bonds of friendship between the French and the Americans through one of the most beloved books of all time,” he added.
The exhibition runs through April 27.