Published on May 15th, 2014 | by Heather Chamberlain0
The Little Prince of New York
In a tiny café in Midtown, deep in the heat of a New York July sits a middle-aged man with cigarette hanging out of one side of his mouth. He is squiggling a sketch of a little boy with a crop of curly blonde hair, a red bow tie and a little green jumpsuit. The man has scribbled the same little boy for years. He doesn’t know who the little boy is or why the little boy continues to spring up in his doodles in the most peculiarly subconscious way. Just as the man brings his piping hot cup of coffee up to his lips he pauses for a moment. He is gripped by a sudden but all too familiar sadness. His beloved France is so far away.
The man looks back down at the blonde little boy that he sketched. The man finds deep comfort in the tender innocence of the little mop-head sketch looking back at him. With his little red neck tie and the blank circles the man has given him for eyes, the little boy captures sweetness, loneliness and a fairytale kind of wisdom all at once. It is to this little boy that the man will begin to confide in. A true kismet friendship is budding between the doodle and the man. They would look after each other and learn much from the other.
Each day for several months the man would sit at the same table at this little café. He’d take out his writing tablet, a pad of onion paper, an inconspicuous set of children’s watercolors, a pencil, his cigarettes and he’d order a cup of coffee. Each time he sat down to work, he would learn a little bit more about this fascinating, tiny, blonde boy who came from a tiny planet that is no larger than a house.
This child is the prince and sole inhabitant of his petite planet. The man is the French author, aristocrat, pioneering aviator and philosopher Antoine de Saint-Exupery. The little boy prince became the subject of Saint-Exupery’s most beloved novella, The Little Prince, which posthumously earned Antoine de Saint-Exupery the status of national hero in his homeland France. Many authors and critics have drawn very loose and vague similarities between the narrator of The Little Prince and Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Some have said this novella to be “a tad bit biographical.” However it is becoming more obvious, as we learn about the life of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, that this is a direct account of the author’s inner life. To call The Little Prince “a loosely biographical piece of literature” is painfully understated. It is nearly impossible to have such an emotionally gripping, profoundly beautiful yet severely melancholic body of work without it coming straight from the author’s inner life and experiences at the time of his writing. Saint-Exupery was living in the jungle-like strangeness of New York City, unable to speak English, and living with a wife whose extravagant tastes completely contradicted his own. In a famous quote of Saint-Exupery, when speaking of the house that his wife found for them in New York said, “I wanted a hut but it’s the Palace of Versailles.” Saint-Exupery was emotionally alone, homesick and saddened by the state of his life and the world at the time. Antoine de Saint-Exupery did not originally come to New York City to write The Little Prince. He came here to convince the United States government to get involved in the war against Nazi Germany. By this time, he was as much a celebrated aviator as he was distinguished author. That little child that kept popping up in his doodles was only brought to life by the urging of Saint-Exupery’s close friend, Elizabeth Reynal, when she suggested he make the little cartoon boy into the subject of a series of children’s books. His time in New York was short, barely two years. However, New York City made a lasting impression on his work as a writer. At least, that is the focus of The Morgan Library’s Curator of Historical and Literary Documents, Christine Nelson. It is through her keen observation that visitors to the midtown Manhattan exhibit-which has run through April 27th, 2014-got the chance to spend some time with Antoine de Saint-Exupery and his sweet little prince.
In the large, tightly guarded room of the exhibit hall of the Morgan Library one can view manuscripts, stained with coffee and cigarette burns, as well as many of his original sketches and proto-type sketches of his little blonde boy prince. There are journal entries from his close friends in which Saint-Exupery is discussed intimately, photographs of a jovial Saint-Exupery doing card tricks for his military squadron, and visitors can even see the remains of his military bracelet that was found in 2007.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery did know true friendship here in New York. One example being Peggy Hitchcock who first welcomed Saint-Exupery to New York and even found him his Central Park West apartment (he would later move to ‘the palace’ in Long Island). It was Elizabeth Reynal’s and Peggy Hitchcock’s husbands whose firm, Reynal & Hitchcock, published the first copy of The Little Prince in New York in 1943. It wasn’t for another three years that The Little Prince was introduced to the French public and published in French. Since Antoine de Saint-Exupery did not speak English, his friend, Sylvia Reinhardt Hamilton, is thought to be one of translators of The Little Prince.
One of the more stunning anecdotes told by the Morgan Library tour guide was of an aging (by military standards, that is) Saint-Exupery as he headed off jubilantly back to fight for his homeland France. Upon saying a final goodbye to his dear friend, Syvia Hamilton, he said, “I wish I had something of great value and undying beauty to give you. But, I don’t and so I will give you this.” He dropped a thick and tattered envelope on her coffee table, the contents of which were the full manuscript of The Little Prince-roughly 144 pages, and all of the watercolor drawings that accompanied the book. Hamilton donated all of this to the Morgan Library upon her death and which is now the heart of the collection.
Perhaps it is with selfish pride that we New Yorkers cling to the thought that our city has claimed such a place in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s emotional landscape. It is as if we are saying, ‘if it weren’t for New York, there would not be a Little Prince.’ The exhibit at The Morgan Library in New York City is certainly trying to make this impression on its visitors. And yet, there is very little one can argue over with this claim by The Morgan Library’s curator. The Little Prince is a New York Tale by all accounts. Imagined here, written here, published here. And, if only for a little while, Antoine de Saint-Exupery was one of us. A New Yorker. Even if he never felt like one.