Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, whose famous “Little Prince” was created to combat the popularity of “Mary Poppins,” died as he had lived most of his life—soaring in an aircraft high above the earth. Saint-Exupéry’s love of flying was matched by his love of literature, and he once exasperated ground crews by circling over an airfield for an hour before landing so that he could finish reading a novel (the title of which is not recorded).
Born June 29, 1900, in Lyon to an aristocratic Catholic family, he inherited the title of count, but no fortune to go with it, after his father le Comte Jean de Saint Exupéry, dropped dead in a train station when Antoine was only three years old. (Saint-Exupéry later added the hyphen to his name to prevent Americans from calling him “Mr. Exupéry.”) He failed out of the French Naval Academy twice, studied architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts, served in the French cavalry, where he took flying lessons, transferred to the air force, and finally snared a job as an airmail pilot.
His experiences flying mail routes across desolate stretches in Africa and South America, and over the South Atlantic, including serious injuries in several near-fatal crashes, provided material for two of his most famous books, Night Flight, a novel, and Wind, Sand, and Stars, a memoir that won the U. S. National Book Award and established him in a lucrative writing career. In between flying assignments, Saint-Exupéry held down jobs as a test pilot, a publicity attaché for Air France, and a reporter for Paris-Soir, while pursuing his literary career.
In 1931 Saint-Exupéry married Consuelo Suncin, a twice-widowed Salvadoran writer and artist, who had the artistic soul of a bohemian and the vicious tongue of a viper. She was both his muse and his nemesis, and their on-again, off-again marriage was marked by many affairs, notably Saint-Exupéry’s with a Frenchwoman named Hélène de Vogüé, who became his biographer and literary executor. The Saint-Exupérys moved to New York in 1941 after France fell to the Germans, and spread their time among dual penthouses on Central Park South, a townhouse in Beekman Place, and a summer home on Long Island. It is rumored that Saint-Exupéry and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of aviator Charles Lindbergh, were lovers during this time.
The wife of Saint-Exupéry’s publisher persuaded him to write a children’s book, in order to capitalize on the popularity of P. L. Travers’ tales of a nanny, Mary Poppins, and the result was The Little Prince, ostensibly for children but really a fable for adults. Drawing on his aviation experiences, it tells the story of a pilot in the desert who encounters a little boy, a prince fallen to earth from an asteroid. The central message of the story, expressed by a fox the prince meets, is, “One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eyes.” The book has sold almost 150 million copies worldwide.
During the height of World War II, in 1943, Saint-Exupéry returned to France and resumed flying with his former squadron in the Mediterranean theatre. Still suffering from injuries that prevented him from dressing himself in his flight suit or turning his head in flight to check on enemy aircraft, he became depressed and began drinking heavily. He wrote a pessimistic work, Citadelle, in which he expressed the view that man’s only reason for living was to be a repository for civilized values.
Despite his disabilities, and although at forty-three eight years over the maximum age for combat pilots, Saint-Exupéry gained permission from General Dwight D. Eisenhower to fly reconnaissance missions. On July 31, 1944, he took off from an airfield in Corsica in an unarmed P-38 to gather information about troop movements in France. He never returned. Sixty years later, wreckage raised from the seabed near Marseille was identified as belonging to his plane. The forty-four-year-old pilot had probably been shot down by an enemy fighter, though the cause of the crash may never be known. After the war, at least three Luftwaffe pilots claimed to have shot him down, but none of their stories has been backed by solid evidence.