A look at the adventurous life and mysterious death of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince.
But for all its glory and many adaptations, there is still a mystery shrouding the beloved story that has never been solved. One year after The Little Prince was first published in 1943, its author and illustrator literally vanished into thin air. Whatever happened to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry?
“Writing is the fruit of experience.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Born in 1900, Antoine Marie Jean-Baptiste Roger, Vicomte de Saint Exupéry (sounds like Sahnt Ex-ZOO-peh-ree), was dubbed Saint Ex. His French aristocratic family had more class than money, and an idyllic château where Saint Ex grew up, a dreamer who doodled, wrote poems, and was obsessed with the miraculous new invention of the airplane. He would tie sheets to poles attached to his bicycle and pedal like a maniac in a vain attempt to fly. He finally touched the sky as a pilot in the French military, and a pioneer of postal aviation, flying mail in a primitive plane with no radio over the Sahara desert and the Andes Mountains. Saint Ex’s daredevil scrapes with death and heroic rescues of fellow downed pilots were legendary. He wrote books about those adventures such as Night Flight and Wind, Sand and Stars that are still revered as lyrical bibles of flying. As Tom Wolfe put it in The Right Stuff, Saint-Exupéry was “A saint in short, true to his name, flying up here at the right hand of God. The good Saint-Ex! And he was not the only one. He was merely the one who put it into words most beautifully and anointed himself before the altar of the right stuff.”
When WWII broke out, Saint Ex embodied the “right stuff” flying reconnaissance missions against the Nazis. But when Paris fell in 1940 and the occupation began, he escaped to America and became an alien in New York. Ironically, the very French Le Petit Prince was born in chic homes on Long Island and in Manhattan, and first published in the U.S.—not France—in 1943. By then, the forces of the French Resistance and the American Allies were fighting hard against Germany; in spite of his advanced age, and crash related injuries, Saint Ex enlisted to fly spy planes again. On July 31, 1944, he took off in a Lockheed P-38 Lightning plane to fly on a mission over occupied France—and disappeared. Was he shot down by enemy fire? Or deliberately crashed his own plane? While it may not solve the mystery, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s most famous book reveals a great deal about his life and mind. Here are 5 points where fantasy meets reality in The Little Prince.
1. THE DESERT –“What! You dropped down from the sky?”
This is one of the first questions the little prince asks the pilot who narrates the story. Saint-Ex knew a little something about dropping down from the sky—hard. At 23, he fractured his skull in his very first crash. Then in 1935, trying to win 150,000 francs by breaking the speed record in an air race from Paris to Saigon, he and his mechanic / navigator crashed in the Sahara desert. They wandered the sand dunes for four days with nothing but “a thermos of sweet coffee, chocolate, and a handful of crackers.” They were dehydrated and hallucinating by the time they were rescued by a Bedouin on a camel who appeared, like the little prince, out of nowhere.
2. THE ROSE – “Go and look again at the roses. You will understand now that yours is unique in all the world.”
The little prince abandons and then yearns for the lone, vain and enchanting rose on his tiny planet. Many believe that rose represents Saint Ex’s wife, the Salvadoran writer Consuelo Suncín de Sandoval. Like the little prince’s flower, she was petite, exquisite, and had a chronic cough, (from asthma not a drafty asteroid). She had been married twice before the 6 foot 2 pilot literally swept her off her feet for a ride in his plane on the night they met. An ex-lover said Consuelo had “a viper’s tongue and a musical body.” Saint Ex’s sister called her a “tart.” It was no secret that Consuelo had extramarital affairs, but then so did Saint Ex. Most notoriously with “la blonde” he called “Nellie” a.k.a. Hélène de Vogüé, a stunning socialite and painter whom the OSS (precursor to the CIA) suspected of being a Nazi spy. But in the end Consuelo had the last word about her husband’s affections in her book titled The Memoir of the Rose.
3. THE FOX – “Words are the source of misunderstandings.”
The fox told the prince he could be tamed without them.
The character of the wise fox was possibly inspired by Silvia Hamilton (later Reinhardt), a budding New York journalist who spoke little French but made a mean scrambled egg. Saint Ex refused to learn English, but night after night in her Fifth Avenue apartment, Silvia tamed his heart through his stomach with intimate suppers of eggs and gin-and-Cokes while he worked on the book. Just before leaving to join the Free French Air Force, Saint Ex gave Silvia a “rumpled paper bag”. Stuffed inside was the original manuscript for The Little Prince replete with coffee stains, cigarette burns, and his hand-painted watercolor illustrations. In 2014, that manuscript was the centerpiece of a special exhibit at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City.
On the other hand, the fox might have been just that—a little fennec Saint Ex found in the desert and kept as a pet.
4. And THE PRINCE? – “I shall look as if I were dead. And that will not be true…”
It’s been suggested that the inquisitive little stranger might be based on Saint Ex’s younger brother who died of rheumatic fever at the age of 15 with the author by his side. Or perhaps he was modeled on the sleeping Polish boy Saint Ex once spotted on a train, about whom he wrote, “What an adorable face!. . .Little princes in legends are not different from this.” But Saint Ex himself had been a child with hair so blonde he was nicknamed “The Sun King.” He was every bit as ravenously curious, bold, and lonely as the little prince, and like his creation, learned the hard way that “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Yet the most haunting similarity between Saint Ex and his little prince is at the end. (Spoiler alert!) Bitten by a snake, the little prince falls into the sand “as gently as a tree falls,” and his body vanishes—whether in death or on his way home we’ll never know. Likewise for Saint Ex. His plane disappeared in 1944 headed for the south of France. In 1998, in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Marseille, a fisherman’s net snared a silver bracelet engraved with Saint-Exupéry’s name. Following that lead six years later, a diver finally brought up the smashed bits of Saint Ex’s plane…but no trace of his body. It was impossible to discern if the plane had been in battle or brought down by the pilot himself. The mystery lives on…
5. THE PROMISE – “In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing.”
Fantasy became reality in 1993 when an asteroid was named after the little prince’s Asteroid B-612. Another was named after Saint-Exupéry. An airport in Lyons also bears his name, along with a number of French language schools in Europe, Canada and Latin America. Before the euro, Saint Ex’s face graced France’s 50-franc note, and a rare blue rose was bred in his honor. Hollywood legends Orson Welles and James Dean had both hoped to make movies from The Little Prince. Singin’ in the Rain director Stanley Donnen succeeded in 1974 with a live action musical that featured Bob Fosse as the snake that bites the little prince, performing a sizzling dance number that clearly influenced Michael Jackson’s signature moves. In one of the first reviews of the book Mary Poppins creator P.L. Travers predicted, “The Little Prince will shine upon children with a sidewise gleam. It will strike them in some place that is not the mind and glow there until the time comes for them to comprehend it.” And so it has.