'The Little Prince' at 75: The Fascinating Stories Behind Saint-Exupéry's Classic
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This week marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of “The Little Prince,” one of the world’s most cherished books. It’s narrated (in disarmingly simple language) and illustrated (in fanciful watercolors) by a lonely pilot who recalls getting marooned in the Sahara Desert and meeting a towheaded, planet-hopping prince — a sojourner on Earth from Asteroid B-612. As the pilot works to repair his broken-down plane, the prince shares stories of his travels through space, and the two become friends. In the end, the prince returns home, and so, sorrowfully, does the pilot.
The best way to celebrate “The Little Prince”’s anniversary is, of course, to read it. You shouldn't have too much trouble finding a copy: With more than 140 million of them in print, there's one for every 50 people on Earth.
Want to know more about “The Little Prince” and its author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry? Explore our tribute below.
Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveThe author’s friends called him Saint-Ex.A penniless French aristocrat, daring aviator, and renowned author, Saint-Exupéry led a remarkable life. He was born in Lyon in 1900 and grew up in a world just beginning to take wing: The Wright Brothers made their historic run at Kitty Hawk when he was three, and one of the Wroblewski Brothers (lesser-known pioneers of flight) took Saint-Exupéry up for his first airplane ride when the young nobleman was 12. He served five years in the French air force, flew airmail around the world with Aéropostale, and immortalized his adventures in a series of books that earned him literary fame on both sides of the Atlantic. He disliked his title (“Count”); friends called him “Saint-Ex.” (Pictured: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry arriving in New York in 1938.)
He nearly died in a desert plane crash.In 1935, Saint-Ex was flying from Paris to Saigon when he and his engineer, André Prévot, crashed their plane in the Sahara. They wandered the desert for four days, battling exhaustion and dehydration, before they were rescued. (Pictured: Saint-Ex and Prévot on a runway, circa 1935 [left], and Saint-Ex in a cockpit, circa 1936 [right].)
Hansel Mieth“The Little Prince” was Saint-Exupéry’s first book for children.“The Little Prince” isn’t a children’s book, exactly, but it’s a book that generations of children have grown to love. Before publishing “The Little Prince” in 1943, Saint-Exupéry was known to English readers as the author of the novel “Night Flight” (1931) and the memoirs “Wind, Sand and Stars” (1939) and “Flight to Arras” (1942), all based on his experiences as an aviator. (Pictured: Saint-Ex, seated center, with a copy of “Wind, Sand and Stars,” circa 1939.)
Saint-Exupéry was living in New York when he wrote “The Little Prince.”Saint-Ex fought against the German invasion of France in 1940, but when the country fell, he and his wife Consuelo fled to New York, where they lived until 1943. They spent most of that time in Manhattan, where — at the suggestion of Elizabeth Reynal, the wife of one of his American publishers, Reynal & Hitchcock — Saint-Ex began writing a story about a cartoon figure that he’d been doodling for years, le petit prince. (Pictured: Saint-Ex aboard the ship that carried him and Consuelo from Europe to America in December 1940 [left], and a row of houses on Manhattan’s Beekman Place in 1936 [right], with number 35, one of the Saint-Exupérys addresses in the city, just visible on the left edge of the frame.)
Keystone-FranceConsuelo de Saint-Exupéry may have been the inspiration for the little prince’s rose.The little prince embarks on his journey to get away from a beautiful-but-demanding rose that’s blossomed on his tiny asteroid home, and he only returns after a wise fox teaches him that he has a special bond with the rose, and a responsibility to care for her, torment him though she may. Many have read this as a not-entirely-flattering allegory of Saint-Ex’s tumultuous marriage to Consuelo — including Consuelo herself, apparently. Her posthumously published memoir was titled “The Tale of the Rose: The Love Story Behind the Little Prince.” (Pictured: the Saint-Exupérys, circa 1935.)
Popperfoto/Popperfoto/Getty ImagesInitially, “The Little Prince” didn’t make much of a splash.The first reviews of “The Little Prince” were mixed. One New York Times reviewer said it was “a fascinating fable for grown-ups but of conjectural value for boys and girls of 6, 8, and 10”; another said that children would find it “as fascinating as any of the best ‘Once upon a time’ fairy stories.”
Possibly the kindest review came from P. L. Travers, author of the Mary Poppins books, who felt that the “The Little Prince” would “shine upon children with a sidewise gleam” and “strike them in some place that is not the mind and glow there until the time comes for them to comprehend it.” Despite Travers’ blessing, the book didn’t sell as well as Saint-Ex’s others — at least, not at first. (Pictured: P. L. Travers circa 1968.)
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“The Little Prince” had admirers in Hollywood.Orson Welles (pictured above, left, in 1943) was a fan of Saint-Ex’s flight stories, and moved quickly to secure the rights to “The Little Prince,” which he hoped to adapt for the screen with the help of Walt Disney. Welles and Disney met to discuss the project, but Disney allegedly brought the meeting to a quick halt, fuming “There is not room on this lot for two geniuses.”
Kim Novak (right) seems to have liked Saint-Exupéry’s book almost as much as Welles. In 1956, LIFE photographer Leonard McCombe snapped a shot of the actress reclining in a train compartment while her publicist read her “The Little Prince” as a bedtime story.
John Phillips/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesAfter publishing “The Little Prince” in the United States, Saint-Exupéry returned to Europe.A week after “The Little Prince” appeared in American bookstores, Saint-Exupéry left New York for Algiers, where he hoped to rejoin the fight against the Nazis with the Free French Air Force. Though old for flying and unfamiliar with WWII fighter planes, he was welcomed back to his former unit. (Pictured: Saint-Ex and his fellow pilots, circa 1944.)
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He gave a manuscript to a friend as a parting gift.As he prepared to ship out to Algiers, Saint-Ex visited the Park Avenue apartment of Silvia Reinhardt, a close friend who’d supported him through the writing of “The Little Prince,” and who may have been the fox to Consuelo’s rose. Before leaving, he placed a brown paper bag containing a manuscript of “The Little Prince” on her entry table. Later, Reinhardt donated the pages to the Morgan Library in New York. (Pictured: an exhibition of “The Little Prince” manuscripts at the Morgan Library & Museum in January 2014.)
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Saint-Exupéry died mysteriously in the war.On the morning of July 31, 1944, Saint-Ex set out from Corsica on a reconnaissance mission over Southern France; he never returned. For decades, there was no trace of the missing pilot, but in 1998, a fishing crew turned up a silver bracelet that had belonged to him. A few years later, the wreckage of Saint-Exupéry's plane was finally located, approximately 200 feet below the surface of the Mediterranean. (Pictured: Saint-Ex in 1944 [left], and his bracelet in 2007 [right].)
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He became a hero in France.Before his death, Saint-Exupéry was a controversial figure in France, denounced by Vichy collaborators and the Gaullist resistance alike; after his death, he became a mythic figure, a martyr to the French cause. “The Little Prince” was published in France in 1946, and soon became a cultural fixture — a book known and loved by millions, and the basis of Saint-Exupéry’s enduring reputation. In 1967, Saint-Exupéry received a commemoration in the Paris Panthéon; in 1993, the author and his most famous creation were honored with a 50-Franc note; and on the centenary of Saint-Exupéry’s birth in 2000, his hometown of Lyon honored him with a statue in Place Bellecour.
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“The Little Prince” lives on.To date, “The Little Prince” has been published in more than 200 languages and dialects, and adapted dozens of times — into movies, radio and television shows, plays, operas, ballets, and more. (Pictured: German [left] and Amazigh [right] editions of “The Little Prince.”)