“One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
I didn’t expect to find a story about a stranded aviator and a cosmos-travelling boy in the United Nations bookstore in New York City.
Yet there The Little Prince was, prominently displayed on a table near the door – an easy find in a bookstore dominated by tales of war, genocide and oppression of minorities.
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Is there a special reason why Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s message – of hope, of learning to judge yourself before others, and of keeping a childlike wonder about the world – is embedded in such a place, I wondered?
Purchased book in hand, I turned to the Internet for answers. Turns out the famed author and aviator lived in New York City for a time after escaping from occupied France in 1940. While there, he worked on three books, among them The Little Prince.
As a long-time fan of the book, I decided to go on a self-guided walking tour of his haunts. I only had about a day of tour time available and focused on two places: a restaurant and one of his homes.
La Vie Parisienne (3 East 52nd St.)
On the exterior of the second floor of a Midtown building rests a plaque commemorating Saint-Exupéry. In French and English, the plaque says several chapters of The Little Prince were written in a studio at 3 East 52nd St.
The studio actually was being used by Bernard Lamotte, a Parisian painter. It is said that his circle of artistic friends included luminaries such as actor-sketch writer Charlie Chaplin, actor-singer Marlene Dietrich, and of course, Saint-Exupéry.
Accounts say Saint-Exupéry was a writer who took to the skies to support his talents at the pen. Additionally, he drew on his experiences as an aviator in many of his writings, such as Southern Mail, Wind, Sand and Stars and Flight to Arras.
On the ground floor of the building was La Vie Parisienne (The Parisian Life), a French restaurant. Today, patrons can take in fine French dining at the same location courtesy of the restaurant La Grenouille (The Frog). The plaque is reportedly below where Lamotte’s table sat.
Saint-Exupéry’s residence (240 Central Park South)
Saint-Exupéry actually lived in three locations in the New York City area, but this one was the most accessible to me given time constraints.
Less than 20 minutes’ walk from La Vie Parisienne, Saint-Exupéry would have found the location an easy stroll from where he gathered with his friends. Just across the road from the six-decade-old building is Columbus Circle and Central Park itself, providing a respite from New York City’s busy streets if Saint-Exupéry desired it.
When Saint-Exupéry moved into the building in 1941, it was only a year old and considered to be very modern. Today, the two-tower building still looks very fresh courtesy of a renovation to its exterior a decade ago that among other things, restored the yellow-orange bricks to their former glory.
The Souvenir Français society (which honours members of the French military) initially wanted to place the plaque at this location. The owner denied them because he feared it would bring in tourists.
Saint-Exupéry yearned to defend his country and left for North Africa in 1943. He disappeared forever over the Mediterranean in 1944.
Still, New York City remembers him. As late as last year, a staged production of The Little Prince played at the New Victory Theatre, with the prince himself portrayed by a puppet.
All photos in those post taken by Elizabeth Howell. Historical information in this article, unless otherwise indicated, came from a 2001 article in The New York Times written by Christopher Gray.