How a Beloved Children’s Book Was Born of Despair
When Saint-Exupéry and The Little Prince Moved to New York City
Where does the Little Prince come from? If you ask him, he hails from Asteroid B-612, a planet not much bigger than a house—which begs the question of where he stores his extensive wardrobe. His creator maintained that he one day looked down on what he thought was a blank sheet of paper, to discover the tiny figure. “I asked him who he was,” Saint-Exupéry reported. “I’m the Little Prince,” announced his visitor. As for the novel itself, the story is a little more complicated.
Six months after France fell to the Germans, Saint-Exupéry sailed to New York. He arrived on the last day of 1940. Already a best-selling author, he met with a triumphant welcome. Within weeks he claimed the 1939 National Book Award for
The wives of his publishers, Eugene Reynal and Curtis Hitchcock, furnished an apartment for Saint-Exupéry at 240 Central Park South, stocking the bar and equipping the kitchen. Their author had no immediate project. With much prodding, he was persuaded to write a volume on the defeat of France. His publishers and their whip-cracking translator dragged the pages from him one by one. In the end the delay paid off: Flight to Arras arrived in bookstores two months after Pearl Harbor. Rapturously reviewed, it proved the fastest-selling title in Reynal & Hitchcock history.
Saint-Exupéry took a boyish delight in seeing copies of Flight to Arras piled high in Bloomingdale’s windows but was, especially as his stay wore on, disillusioned and disenfranchised. The French community in exile divided into multiple factions; a man of action, Saint-Exupéry had little patience for speechmaking or political posturing. He allied himself with no camp, the result of which was that he was denounced by all. (To the list of accusations would be added, with the publication of
Having narrowly survived a number of airplane crashes over the previous two decades, he was also in poor health, suffering from the high fevers he would lend to his cosmic urchin. He could be toppled in the middle of dinner. Teeth chattering, he woke with chills in the night. He had little love for the United States, in large part because it seemed to him that a country capable of designing a state-of-the-art washing machine might already have applied itself to saving France. He spoke no English, a language he made minimal effort to learn. When asked why, he would growl: “I haven’t finished learning French yet.” He could coax sense from a text but had no idea what people said when they talked. (It helped that he was an accomplished mime.) He could neither visit, fly over, nor ultimately publish in France, where the Germans banned Flight to Arras along with reprints of Saint-Exupéry’s earlier works. He received only sporadic word of friends and family. He was tormented by a wife who—installed in a separate apartment below his—regularly failed to come home at night. He kept long vigils, dispatching irate letters. On one occasion he marked the time across the top of a page at ten-minute intervals, which he spent pacing. The original opening line of
“In early incarnations the character looks like a kewpie doll, a baby puffin, the French actor Jean-Louis Barrault. Occasionally he sported wings. The eyebrows came and went.”
Out of his despair came The Little Prince, proposed as a kind of therapy. In the margins of the Flight to Arras manuscript danced a figure long familiar to Saint-Exupéry intimates. Since the 1930s he had sketched cousins of his petulant hero on letters, tablecloths, menus, bills, drycleaner cardboards. In early incarnations the character looks like a kewpie doll, a baby puffin, the French actor Jean-Louis Barrault. Occasionally he sported wings. The eyebrows came and went. A member of Saint-Exupéry’s French air squadron asked why he so often drew the figure chasing butterflies. He was told that the little man had endeared himself for his pursuit of a “realistic ideal.”
Elizabeth Reynal, the lovely, Francophone wife of Saint-Exupéry’s publisher, asked if he might not be distracted by writing a children’s story about his “petit bonhomme.” Soon enough Saint-Exupéry had bought himself a set of children’s watercolors in a local drugstore and begun to work. The plot emerged fully formed, though he obsessively refined the details. He did not immediately settle on the boa digesting the elephant that opens the tale, instead offering as proof of his artistic ineptitude the drawing of a boat, which a friend took for a potato. He cut the Little Prince’s meeting with a crossword enthusiast in search of a synonym for “gargling”.
The Little Prince’s adventures seem exotic: He leaves his asteroid because of a misunderstanding with a troublesome rose. He makes a speedy survey of adult logic in six visits to neighboring asteroids, each populated by a man more ridiculous than the last. He lands in the Sahara, where he meets the aviator who serves as the book’s narrator, and where he learns a few crucial lessons from a fox, before disappearing into thin air. The book hardly represents a departure for Saint-Exupéry, however. He had been writing of secret gardens, roses, and fairy princes for years. His great philosophical meditation, The Wisdom of the Sands, shares all of the preoccupations of his children’s fable. An airplane in his first novel bears the same number as the Little Prince’s asteroid. In the 1930s he had asked a diplomat friend in Moscow to draw him a sheep; he had himself fallen to earth several times. He had spoken of escape, and of changing planets, for years. In a 1937 essay he had written that the essential remained invisible, but that we strain our eyes for the messenger who might deliver it.
Saint-Exupéry lent the landscape of his travels to his hero, omitting only New York from the book. (It appeared in an early draft but would be replaced by “a small Pacific islet.”) The supporting cast of The Little Prince also traveled around with him for years: They were the relatives, administrators, and bureaucrats who had resisted his winning and unorthodox ways, who had made it difficult for a pilot to become a writer, for a distracted pilot to remain in the air, for a prominent pilot to abstain from taking a political stance. He borrowed as well from his reading, from Hans Christian Andersen and from Tristan Derème’s 1929 children’s collection, Patachou: Petit Garcon.
How much did Saint-Exupéry resemble his hero? “You are an extraterrestrial,” a New York friend informed him several years before the book’s conception. “Yes, yes, it is true, I sometimes go for walks among the stars,” admitted Saint-Exupéry, laughing. Attempting in 1939 to describe him, his publisher allowed that he was basically “a lonely, but an infinitely friendly soul, sophisticated and yet child-like.” His charm too consisted of equal parts diffidence and imperiousness. The tone of the book is entirely that of the flyer who had once reassured a woman who shuddered at the idea of boarding an airplane: “It is without precedent, Madame, that an airplane has gone up and not come down.”
The hulking, balding aviator—he looked, as one reporter had it, like “a slightly battered teddy bear”—and the dapper extraterrestrial with the mop of golden curls all the same made for an odd couple. Where the Little Prince, a disciplinarian of the first rank, religiously tends his planet, his creator was a champion procrastinator. The child-hero is a determined walker. The toast of every Parisian cab driver, Saint-Exupéry was allergic to exercise. The Little Prince demonstrates a firm grasp of a calendar. Six years into his marriage, Saint-Exupéry was unable to recall his wedding date. He had no use for nature. Yet the two remain tangled together, twin innocents who fell from the sky. Saint-Exupéry could not have guessed that he would somehow melt into the Little Prince any more than he might guess he would suffer a fate similar to J.M. Barrie, his massive oeuvre eclipsed by the shadow of Peter Pan.
Saint-Exupéry wrote The Little Prince in the Park Avenue apartment of an adoring girlfriend, Sylvia Reinhardt; at his 23rd floor Central Park South apartment; in a rented home on Northport, Long Island. He laughed aloud as he worked, excitedly sharing his drawings, waking houseguests to solicit their opinions. He coaxed friends to pose. A doll in Sylvia’s apartment modeled for the Little Prince, her poodle for the sheep. At the same time, Saint-Exupéry wrote from a cultural, linguistic, and sentimental no-man’s land, exchanging fire with the practical world. As he explained to Sylvia: “I am in despair over the missed trains, the bungled appointments, the lost addresses, the bills, the unreturned phone calls, the reproaches, the difficult reconciliations, the hurt friends, the headaches when it is time to talk, the vacuum of ideas when it is time to write, the three dinners accepted for the same evening.” He lived on painkillers, writing in long, late-night bursts fueled by coffee and cigarettes, generous traces of which show up on the manuscript. He pelted friends with anguished dispatches. He wished for a visit from an archangel.
“Yes, yes, it is true, I sometimes go for walks among the stars.”
Sylvia Reinhardt nursed him through the project with gin-and-Cokes and with fried eggs and English muffins served by candlelight. She also lent the work some of its most familiar lines. When she complained of his unfailing tardiness, Saint-Exupéry balked. What difference could a few hours make? “My heart begins to dance when I know you are coming,” Sylvia explained. The same was no doubt true of his publishers, to whom Saint-Exupéry had promised
Reynal and Hitchcock knew that a winsome fairy tale was not exactly what readers expected from the virile author of Flight to Arras. In their promotion they took the coy way out: “Reviewers and critics will have a field day explaining to you just what kind of story it is,” they announced. “As far as we are concerned it is the new book by Saint-Exupéry.” Few read
Reynal and Hitchcock played mischievously on the confusion. In ads they boasted of critical unanimity for The Little Prince, running quotes that warned “Not a book for children” over ones that announced “Grown-ups won’t like it, but who cares.” Among the few who immediately embraced the novel was P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins and herself a Reynal & Hitchcock author. She admired its irony, the confession of loneliness at its heart, its “sidewise gleam.” She did not much care to whom the volume appealed, the line between children and adults being, in her opinion, “as imaginary as the equator.”
Nearly every reviewer assumed his narrator to be Saint-Exupéry and wrote of the two as if they were one in the same. (He sketched the aviator-narrator several times but choose not to include him in the final text.) Reynal and Hitchcock did little to disturb that equation. Shortly before publication, Saint-Exupéry managed a return to the front, miraculously rejoining his squadron in Algeria. His publisher announced his departure in a press release, adding: “Although he is in the general neighborhood where the Little Prince appeared to him, he has not seen him again.” In North Africa Saint-Exupéry waved the book around proudly, as if handing over a personal manifesto or his photograph; for a man who, like his narrator, felt he “lived his life alone without anyone I could really talk to,” he was in perpetual need of an audience. He let the volume out of his sight only reluctantly, for 24-hour periods, often on the condition that it be returned with a written critique. He begged his publishers for its news.
Sales remained disappointing—the book spent a single week on the bestseller list—though Saint-Exupéry was never to know. Nor was he to see The Little Prince published in France. In 1944, he disappeared as silently as his golden-haired alter ego had vanished in the desert. Returning to Corsica from a July 31 reconnaissance mission, Saint-Exupéry plunged into the Mediterranean at high speed. Twenty-five days later, Paris was liberated. The aircraft was recovered only in 2004; the cause of the crash is unclear.
The Little Prince read differently when published in France in 1945. A posthumous work, it seemed eerily to predict its author’s death. It was slow in finding its audience. In part it seemed to date from a more innocent era, as indeed it did. At the same time, little had changed. There was every reason why the book should go on to outsell every other on the planet except the Bible. You can read The Little Prince today in 270 languages, including ones that have no word for “prince” and no concept of boredom; it is printed in 26 different alphabets. There is after all nothing remotely dated about a merchant who peddles an anti-thirst pill so that we might save the 53 minutes we waste weekly drinking water. The book’s hero continues to expose the men behind the curtains, to sound the soft, unsettling note of sanity. It remains lonely among men. In 84 crystalline pages, the Little Prince will learn the meaning of the word “ephemeral” while—thanks to a wise fox—we will edge just a little closer to glimpsing the eternal. The narrator of
From the introduction to The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Used with permission of the publisher, The Folio Society. Copyright © 2018 by Stacy Schiff.