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Before He Fell To Earth, 'The Little Prince' Was Born In N.Y.

One of the world's most beloved books is The Little Prince by Antoine Saint-Exupery. Published in 1943, almost two million copies are sold every year, in about 250 languages.

If asked where you think the book was written, you might say Paris. You'd be wrong. Try Long Island — as in Long Island, N.Y.

When the late Nikos Kefalidis bought the house on Beven Road in Northport, Long Island, in the late 1970s, he knew that 30 years before, Saint-Exupery had written and illustrated part of Le Petit Prince in that house.

It was something known in the community, but not in many other places. His wife, Laurie Kefalidis, has stood in the room where Saint-Exupery wrote, and is happy about the book's connection to her house. She has copies ofThe Little Prince in some 30 languages.

"I think it's about life and death, and what's important in life," she says. "I think he talks about falsehood, or untruths, or hypocrisy, or duplicity in a very charming way, actually."

A New York Story

Saint-Exupery also wrote the book in Manhattan. The Morgan Library and Museum bought the original manuscript of The Little Prince in 1968, along with many other drawings, including precursors to what ended up in the book.

The museum had an exhibition on the 50th anniversary of publication, 20 years ago, but a new exhibition, open until May, looks at the author's creative process.

The curator of the show, The Little Prince: A New York Story, is Christine Nelson. Saint-Exupery, Nelson says, was a meticulous craftsman, but his working habits were somewhat chaotic.

"Wherever he went, he had stacks of onionskin paper with him, and always a cup of coffee or tea by his side, always a cigarette hanging out of his mouth," she says. "The manuscript we have here even has stains on many of the corners of the pages. One of the drawings even has a cigarette burn, which we've left for people to see."

From Pilot To Prince

Saint-Exupery came to New York in 1940, after the Germans occupied France. A writer and aviator, he left just after the publication of the book, returning to fly reconnaissance missions for the Allies.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery in 1944.
John Phillips / Courtesy of The John and Annamaria Phillips Foundation
Courtesy of The John and Annamaria Phillips Foundation
Antoine de Saint-Exupery in 1944.

Before he left, he took his drawings and writings, many of which were deleted from the final book, and gave them in a brown paper bag to a friend, Silvia Hamilton. Nelson shows an extraordinary letter Saint-Exupery wrote and illustrated for a friend in 1940, when he was still in France. A man looking very much like the author is standing on a cloud.

"Of course in the book, it becomes a planet, and then all of this is floating above an image of Earth, and what do we see on Earth but a little sheep that looks very much like the sheep in the opening of The Little Prince, and of course a flower, and the Little Prince has a beloved flower on his planet," Nelson says.

The pictures evolve from an adult who looks like the author, with thinning hair and a bow tie, to the Little Prince. There are pages of writing, all in French — he never mastered English — all sections of the book that were deleted, including several adventures on Earth.

One page mentions places in New York. Nelson points to references of Long Island and Manhattan; "It's very tiny, but you see it."

These were all deleted from the final text. There's a section where the narrator talks about humans' inflated sense of self.

"We think we dominate the Earth, and yet we really don't take up so much space at all," Nelson paraphrases Saint-Exupery. "He says, 'If we got everyone on Earth together for a big meeting, we could fit everyone onto a small Pacific Island.' But in the manuscript, instead of a Pacific Island, it's Long Island."

Endings Left To The Imagination

When you ask people their favorite part of The Little Prince, so many talk about the boa constrictor eating the elephant, how adults only see it as a hat; or the final drawing of a sheep, just three holes in a box; and the secret told to the Little Prince by the fox.

"What is essential is invisible to the eye," Nelson says. "It reminds us of that beginning of the story: What is essential is what you can't see, what's inside the snake, what's inside your heart."

In the end we will never know if the Little Prince makes it back to his planet or dies. One year after the book came out, Saint-Exupery also disappeared into thin air, during a reconnaissance mission on July 31, 1944.

Years later parts of the plane were found, and a fisherman near Marseilles found a silver bracelet in his net, a bracelet that's in the exhibit. It has Saint-Exupery's name, the address of his publisher, and the letters NYC USA.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Margot Adler died on July 28, 2014 at her home in New York City. She was 68 and had been battling cancer. Listen to NPR Correspondent David Folkenflik's retrospective on her life and career

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