JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. One of the world's most beloved books is "The Little Prince" by Antoine Saint-Exupery. Published in 1943, more than a million copies are sold every year in some 250 languages. If I were to ask you where do you think the French children's book was written, you might say Paris or Marseilles. You'd be wrong.
How about Long Island, as in Long Island, New York? NPR's Margot Adler reports.
MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: 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 of "The Little Prince" in some 30 languages. We sat in a coffee shop in Manhattan.
LAURIE KEFALIDIS: I think it's about life and death and what's important in life and I think he talks about falsehood or untruths or hypocrisy or duplicity in a very charming way actually.
ADLER: Saint-Exupery also wrote the book in Manhattan. The Morgan Library and Museum bought the original manuscript of "The Little Prince" in 1968 and many other drawings, including precursors to what ended up in the book. They had an exhibition on the 50th anniversary of publication 20 years ago, but their new exhibition here 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, she says, was a meticulous craftsman, but his working habits were somewhat chaotic.
CHRISTINE NELSON: 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. 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.
ADLER: Saint-Exupery came to New York in 1940 after the Germans occupied France. Writer and aviator, he left just after the publication of the book and returned to fly reconnaissance missions for the allies. 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 me 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.
NELSON: 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 that appears in the opening lines of "The Little Prince."
ADLER: A flower.
NELSON: And of course a flower and the Little Prince has a beloved flower on his planet.
ADLER: The pictures evolve from an adult that looks like the author with thinning hair and a bowtie to the little prince. There are pages of writing all in French - he never mastered English - of sections that were deleted from the book, including several adventures on Earth and one page on the wall mentions places in New York.
NELSON: I'm going to point out right here a reference to Long Island. Do you see it there? Here's one to Manhattan. It's very tiny, but you see it.
ADLER: These were all deleted from the final text. There's a section where the narrator talks about humans inflated sense of self. He says, she notes...
NELSON: We think we dominate the Earth and yet we really don't take up so much space at all. 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.
ADLER: 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.
NELSON: What is essential is invisible to the eye. It reminds us of that beginning of the story. You know, what's essential is what you can't see; what's inside the snake, what's inside your heart.
ADLER: 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 31st, 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 his name, the address of his publisher, and the words, "NYC, USA." Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.