Image credits: Shutterstock / Janusz Pienkowski and Shutterstock / catwalker

At the age of 26, I got my first tattoo. It’s a quote from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: the beautiful purple line puisque c’est ma rose, styled in my partner’s handwriting. Neither my partner nor I read the book until our undergrad years, so our appreciation for it is not, primarily, as children’s literature. Instead, what resonates with us is a chronic and subtle melancholy: a troubled soul longing for homeland.

When I moved to New York, I set out to discover how my new adopted home had influenced that sense of tristesse in The Little Prince, which Saint-Exupéry wrote during his 1941–1943 stay in the city. From archival copies of the New York Times, I learned that the 92nd Street Y launched a tour in 1989 retracing Saint-Exupéry’s haunts, and this past fall, I tried to recreate that tour for myself. 

Before The Little Prince, Saint-Exupéry was already a literary celebrity for his writing on aviation. Since his first solo journey in 1921, Saint-Exupéry had been obsessed with flying. A 1923 accident in which he fractured his skull necessitated a brief pause: he returned three years later as a mail pilot for Aéropostale, the predecessor of Air France. Those years flying over the Maghreb and South America honed his deep-rooted love for the vast desert, and he revisited desert settings over and over. During a night race from Paris to Saigon in December 1935, his plane crashed into the Sahara in the middle of the night. Saint-Exupéry and his mechanic wandered aimlessly for days and miraculously survived with little food and drink until they were rescued by a Bedouin. He recounted the experience in his memoir Wind, Sand and Stars; its influence can also be found, of course, in the crash landing that sees the narrator arrive in an unfamiliar landscape of The Little Prince

Though it originated in no-man’s-land, the little book came into shape in a metropolis. In the aftermath of France’s swift surrender to the Nazis in 1940, the author’s publishers, Eugene Reynal and Curtice Hitchcock, orchestrated his departure from France via Lisbon on the USS Siboney. A strong believer in a resilient, united France, Saint-Exupéry had been a reconnaissance flier in the French Air Force from 1939; he refused to serve under the Vichy Regime. (He also resented Charles de Gaulle’s divisive strategies.) He arrived in New York City on the very last day of that year.

He was accommodated at the prestigious Ritz-Carlton Hotel on East 46th Street and Madison Avenue, an establishment TIME magazine later described as a haven “to reward the rich for being rich.” Saint-Exupéry would have been greeted not only as a celebrated author, adventurer, and pilot flying for free France, but as a true aristocrat (which he indeed was). After he passed through its gilded entrance between imposing pseudo-Greek columns, the visitor would have been escorted through the grand ballroom adorned with exotic eucalyptus trees to arrive at the perfumed elevator, which took him to a room from which he could easily summon one of the waiters stationed on every floor for a plate of Chef Félix Diat’s vichyssoise. I couldn’t add the Ritz to my modern itinerary: the hotel met its end in 1950, making way for a new office building. Today, remnants of its opulence can be discovered in antique shops, where a golden doorknob or a glittering chandelier leads a far more modest existence.

Saint-Exupéry, anticipating a brief four-week stay, explored Manhattan like a tourist. One of his favorite novelties was bird’s nest soup, which he’d sampled in his previous visits to New York and excitedly encouraged his friends to enjoy. Despite his limited English, the author attempted to guide the taxi driver to his beloved restaurant in Chinatown. However, the cab driver, familiar with the man and his distinctive accent, promptly turned around, remarking, “I know where you want to go. I took you there four years ago.” 

From left to right: 240 Central Park South; Bernard Lamotte’s studio at 3 East 52nd Street; 35 Beekman Place

As his brief visit extended into a more prolonged stay, Saint-Exupéry and his wife, Consuelo, moved to an apartment in the newly constructed 240 South Central Park Building. I made my way to it from the subway station at 59th Street, heading along the southern side of Central Park. Across the street, two women adorned in lavish brown fur coats atop elegant Audrey Hepburn–style dresses strolled toward the Ritz-Carlton (not the one Saint-Exupéry used to stay in). Groups of tourists lined the dirt path under the red-leafed trees, capturing photos of a duck family leisurely swimming in a corner of the pond.

Had it not been for the Starbucks at the corner of Broadway and Central Park South, I would have missed the building I was looking for, which today is dwarfed by the towering skyscrapers of Billionaire’s Row. In the winter of 1941, Saint-Exupéry might have peered through his apartment windows and glimpsed the snow-covered Columbus statue and the stream of vehicles traversing Broadway, still constant today. 

On certain days, he wandered into the leafless trees and frozen pathways of Central Park just across the street. Occasionally, he met his friend Annabella, the star of the 1936 film Anne-Marie, a drama about a young French pilot. Saint-Exupéry, naturally, wrote the script. I like to think of them sitting on a park bench, two exiles seeking respite from the clamor.

As I walked southward along Fifth Avenue, the Christmas spirit infused the area with bustling energy. Crowded streets hummed with lively chatter; the opulence of Saks Fifth Avenue’s new lighting elicited expressions of awe from passersby. At the corner of 52nd Street, the Cartier flagship store exuded an appearance akin to being wrapped in a red, patterned gift. Visitors congregated, seizing moments beneath grand flags conveying “Merry Christmas” in numerous languages.

A swift turn at the corner guided me to Le Grenouille, a French restaurant nestled at 3 East 52nd Street, a place frequented by Saint-Exupéry during visits to see his artist friend Bernard Lamotte. Today, the room where they once gathered has been transformed into a private dining area. Behind a nineteenth-century Beaux-Arts facade, Le Grenouille enchants diners with sumptuous interiors. I wondered whether it would have evoked the same allure reminiscent of days gone by for Saint-Exupéry that it holds, today, for me.

His prolonged stay in the United States took a toll on his health. In the Central Park apartment, he grappled with injuries from past flights, plagued by recurring bouts of fever. The language barrier heightened his sense of alienation and homesickness, amplifying his physical distress. He knew the British were fighting on French beaches. In New York, still largely disinterested in the war, his fellow French expatriates were busy taking sides with either Pétain or de Gaulle, then hating each other.

Though I’ve never been a soldier, I can empathize with the complex mix of love and frustration that Saint-Exupéry experienced toward his compatriots in the city. As a Vietnamese person, I live amidst the aftermath of the Vietnam War, a conflict that profoundly divided our people. There’s a prevailing myth, passed down from older generations, particularly those who supported North Vietnam, that overseas Vietnamese—many of whom fled after the war—harbor deep hatred toward mainland Vietnamese. My roommate, employed by the government, seldom visits Vietnamese grocery stores in New York’s Chinatown, fearing that her northern accent might provoke violent reactions from shopkeepers. Another acquaintance once inaccurately associated my Fulbright program with the South Vietnamese diaspora and insensitively questioned if I was plotting a coup d’état in Vietnam. 

To most New Yorkers dressing up extravagantly for the holiday season, the war I still live with is a relic—even as it plays out in the everyday lives of Vietnamese New Yorkers. I was troubled by the thought that the divisive war might be a relic of the past, when for me, it is very much alive. I can imagine Saint-Exupéry feeling something very similar, watching an indifferent city go by.

Thankfully, his publishers provided him with a new purpose: writing a new book, which became The Little Prince. This endeavor eased his inner turmoil. Occasionally, his friends would catch the sound of joyful laughter emanating from his rooms. The writing process prompted several relocations. He ventured upstate, then settled at Belvin House, a Victorian mansion rented by his wife on Long Island. In September 1942, he moved into Greta Garbo’s old residence at 35 Beekman Place, in Manhattan’s Turtle Bay, where he concluded the fable-like journey of the prince.

Nestled modestly amidst pre-war buildings and meticulously restored townhouses displaying ornate facades, intricate details, and occasional decorative motifs, the Turtle Bay neighborhood has been home to an array of notable residents, including Garbo, Irving Berlin, Henry Kissinger, and Max Ernst. Today, its residents mainly comprise diplomats employed at the nearby United Nations. Berlin’s former mansion is now known as Luxembourg House, and Garbo’s residence stands adjacent to the Permanent Mission of Tunisia to the UN.

East River as seen from Beekman Place

The gentle breezes from the East River continue to bestow this neighborhood with a distinctive tranquility. Beyond the bustling crowds and the iconic Coca-Cola sign on Long Island lies the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean: further still, Saint-Exupéry’s beloved France. In Turtle Bay, he grappled with the conviction that his duty was to soar his plane into the battlefield, not to seek refuge in exile. 

After spending 27 months in the United States, Saint-Exupéry left the country as part of an American convoy headed to Algiers. He would reunite with his comrades in the Free French Air Forces and fly with them until his disappearance on a reconnaissance mission in 1944. He came to New York City not meaning to stay. His beloved France had fallen. Life in Midtown dipped him into depression; Central Park and the East River offered solace—of all his haunts I visited, their landscape may have changed the least. The Little Prince tells that story—not of Nazis and Fifth Avenue, but of imagining one’s way home, though the journey may be impossible and the place may no longer exist.

As I lingered in Turtle Bay, I noticed a group of Vietnamese students taking selfies by the riverfront. They were engrossed in discussing paperwork and tonight’s Broadway show in Vietnamese. Suddenly, one of the girls in the group noticed my backpack, a renowned local brand in Vietnam. She hastily halted their conversation. Still speaking in Vietnamese, she remarked, “Gosh. Switch to English now, everyone. That guy must be Vietnamese; don’t let him know we are too.” Puzzled by their reaction, I tried to reassure them with a smile, but their response was to hurriedly flee. It was as if they saw me not as a New Yorker or even another tourist, but as a stranger from a distant planet.

Albert Nguyen is an MA candidate in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at the New School for Social Research.

Photographs of New York City are courtesy of the author.