Friday, March 19, 2010

Curious George Escapes The Nazis

Original Artwork Of "Fifi" AKA "Curious George," by H.A. Rey, Circa 1939.
(All images courtesy of the de Grummond Children's Literature Collection.)

He's the world's most notorious mischievous monkey. A scapegrace simian forever in hot water, desperate for yet another bail-out from his nameless pal, The Man In the Yellow Hat. (Wasn't that guy the hero in a bunch of Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Westerns?) But even rabid readers who have held their breath as Curious George is saved by the skin of his banana in adventure after adventure, remain in the dark when it comes to his greatest escape. Back in 1940, when he was a mere infant, the perpetually peril-prone primate narrowly escaped the Nazi invasion of France. Now thanks to a new exhibit at New York City's Jewish Museum, featuring materials from the de Grummond Children's Literature Collection at the McCain Library and Archives of the University of Southern Mississippi, Curious George's most harrowing--yet least known--tale is in the spotlight.

Author/Illustrators Margret And H.A. Rey.

Curious George's creators were husband and wife team H. A. Rey (1898 - 1977) and Margret Rey (1906 - 1996). In all, the Reys wrote and illustrated over thirty books, most of them for children. Seven of these featured Curious George. Since his first appearance in print in 1941, George has became a global celebrity, appearing under various noms de plume in countries outside of the US: "Peter Pedal" in Denmark, "Nysgjerrige Nils" in Norway, "Nicke Nyfiken" in Sweden, "Hitomane Kozaru" in Japan, "Choni Ha'Sakran" in Israel and "Jorge el Curioso" in Spain and Latin America. In the United Kingdom, George debuted as "Zozo," to avoid offending King George VI. In total, his books have sold 30 million copies and have been translated into 16 languages, including Yiddish, Afrikaans, and Braille. Still few know the full details of Curious George's early years, which were fraught with peril, and in which the smiling monkey actually saved the day for his creators not once but three times.

Fifi As A Supporting Player: The French Edition of Raffy And The Nine Monkeys, Gallimard, 1939.

George was born in France in the mid-1930's. He started out as a minor character, improbably name "Fifi." Fifi didn't even get title billing, he was just one of the crowd in Raffy and the 9 Monkeys, published by Gallimard in France, and Chatto & Windus in Great Britain, in 1939. This first book did have a huge impact on the simian's appearance, however. It is the reason that, unlike other monkeys, he doesn't have a tail. H.A. Rey explained: "the giraffe’s long neck and legs plus the tails of all nine monkeys made the drawings look like spaghetti." This should once and for all end speculation that the tailless George is actually a member of the ape family.

Both H.A. Rey (born Hans Augusto Reyersbach) and Margret Rey (born Margarete Elisabeth Waldstein) were German Jews raised in Hamburg. They met in the early 1920's, when H. A. attended a party at her parent's home. He was dating her older sister at the time, and his introduction to Margret was preceded by her sliding down the banister. (Margret's lighthearted personality and childlike gestures served as a model for George. She once remarked:"All my life I spent standing behind Hans at his drawing board. I made all of the movements that George made.") The eight-year age gap between H.A. and Margret meant romance would have to wait a few years.

H.A. Rey At A Paris Cafe, Circa 1940. (Photo By Margret Rey.)

The two did have much in common. Both were from upper-middle-class families with a strong emphasis on educating their children. Hans studied the classics, learning Latin, Greek, French, and English. He later added Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian to his laundry list of languages. Art was not a part of his studies, but he loved to draw, and frequently sketched zoo animals. (He earned a living for a brief time as a designer and lithographer of circus posters.) Margret studied photography and art at Germany's famed Bauhaus School. She worked as a layout artist in advertising firms and as assistant in photographic studios.

Hyperinflation, combined with political unrest and violence, caused Hans to leave Germany in 1924. He moved to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, taking a job with his brother-in-law's import-export company. For 12 years he delivered bathtubs and kitchen sinks to isolated areas along the Amazon. Monkeys were ever-present in the jungle, and he began keeping marmosets as pets. In 1935 Margret also moved to Rio, where she looked up her old friend Hans. Dismayed to find Hans was wasting his artistic talent, she convinced him to leave the import-export business.

An Advertising Poster From The Rey's Agency In Rio, Circa 1935.

Together they founded Rio de Janeiro's first advertising agency. The business partnership soon became personal, and Hans and Margret married on August 16, 1935. And in a move that proved critically important, the couple became Brazilian citizens as well. (This is the point at which the Reyersbachs legally became the Reys--it was an easier name for Portuguese speakers to pronounce. Margret also adopted the simplified spelling of her first name, and Hans began to publish under "H.A. Rey.")

Margret Rey In Paris, Circa 1940. (Photo Attributed To H.A. Rey.)

The newly married Reys worked in their adopted homeland for the next year. Margret wrote, and H. A. illustrated, stories for Rio's newspapers. They also published work in local magazines, sometimes with Margret's photos alongside her husbands drawings. H.A. also found steady employment with pharmaceutical giant Hoffmann-LaRoche, producing their direct mail ad campaigns. In 1936 the hard-working duo decided to treat themselves to a long overdue honeymoon in Paris.

H.A. and Margret sailed for Europe along with two of their pet marmosets. The tiny monkeys were clad in sweaters hand-knitted by Margret to keep them warm. (Sadly these beloved pets did not survive the journey.) The couple fell in love with The City of Light, and settled down in the famed artsy neighborhood of Montmartre. Here they began their life's work: co-producing children's picture books. The extraordinary quality of their writing and illustrating enabled them to find a French publisher right off the bat. The publisher, Gallimard, preferred that the books be attributed to "H.A. Rey" alone. As Margret remembered, "Our publisher suggested we use my husband’s name because the children’s book field was so dominated by women. They thought it would sell better. After a time, I thought, 'Why the devil did I do that?'" In fact the collaboration was so tight the co-authors tended to forget who did what: "We worked very closely together, and it was hard to pull the thing apart," Margret later said. (In later years her name appeared alongside her husband's on the title page.)

Fifi Wins The Starring Role, Undated Print By H.A. Rey.

In late 1939 the Reys began work on a sequel to Raffy and the 9 Monkeys, centered around the break-out monkey star, Fifi. He had been the smallest, and most troublesome, of the supporting cast of simians in Raffy, so naturally he was the favorite of young readers. The new volume was to be called Fifi: The Adventures of a Monkey, and was part of a multi-book contract the Reys had with Gallimard. Luckily for the soon to be endangered couple, that contract included a significant cash advance.

Adolph Hitler had already begun the Nazi expansion through Europe by the end of 1939. Czechoslovakia and Poland had been invaded and annexed by the Third Reich, and occupations of Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, and Belgium followed within a few short months. France was at war with Germany, but antisemitism was on the rise even in Paris. In 1939 French authorities were tipped off that the Reys were using their Montmartre home as a clandestine bomb factory. A raid on the grounds turned up numerous drawings and stories concerning the exploits of Fifi, none of which could be linked to manufacturing explosives. The Reys remained free thanks to the little brown monkey who later became Curious George. It was the first time George saved his creators, but not the last.

The Reys began to suspect Paris was becoming dangerous for them, and twice left the city for the quieter French countryside areas of Gers and Normandy. On May 25, 1940 Hitler ordered his troops to resume their advance into Belgium and France. The Reys had seen refugees fleeing Northern France for Paris, and then fleeing Paris for areas near the coastline or the Spanish border. The Jewish couple knew that to survive they must become two more of the millions of displaced persons abandoning France. They packed up a few cherished belongings, including their unpublished manuscripts and drawings, and the remainder of the cash advance from Gallimard. Public transportation was jammed, if it was running at all. And like most Parisians, the Reys didn't own a car. Bicycles were worth their weight in gold, and were being sold at such exorbitant prices they might as well have been made of it. The resourceful H.A. Rey scoured Paris for cast-off spare parts and broken two-wheelers, and hastily cobbled together a couple of makeshift bikes. On June 12, 1940 the Reys left Paris with their vitally important Brazilian passports in hand.

Now We Know Why George Loves His Bike. Dummy Page For Curious George Rides A Bike, Circa 1951.

As German planes flew overhead (France fell 10 days later), the Reys traveled by bike, and for a short while by rail, to the Basque region. They slept in abandoned farmhouses and stables along the way. The two were determined to escape France for the relative safety of Spain. At the Spanish border they were detained and accused of being spies, due to their German accents. All that saved them were those Brazilian passports and, again, Curious George. Border Guards examining the Rey's papers found their children's stories, and decided they were quite harmless. Their South American citizenship sealed the deal, and H.A., Margret, and George crossed the border into Spain. They sold their bicycles for ready cash, and continued their great escape by rail.

The Reys traveled through Spain to Portugal. In Lisbon they were able to obtain Brazilian visas, buy tickets on a steamer, and sail back to Rio de Janiero. They had lost everything except their unpublished stories, the remainder of the Gallimard advance, and the clothes on their backs. Once in Rio, they used more of their rapidly dwindling cash to book passage to New York City. H.A. and Marget arrived in the US on October 14, 1940. The Reys had been on the road for four months, never knowing when they might be detained, deported, or arrested. Their intrepid simian companion helped them clear one last hurdle in The Big Apple. H.A. and Margret used their manuscripts to prove their occupations and obtain American visas. It was the third time Curious George had saved the day.

Cover Image For The US Edition Of Curious George, Houghton Mifflin, 1941.

The Reys had no U.S. publisher, but Grace Hogarth of Houghton Mifflin bought four of their manuscripts, including The Adventures Of Fifi, within a month of the duo's arrival in New York. She asked for only one change in the manuscript: the name "Fifi" was deemed too precious and feminine for an adventuresome male monkey. Thus was born "Curious George." And the rest is publishing history. The mischief-making monkey became a cottage industry, his image adorning not just a series of books, but toys, games, puzzles, trinkets, clothing, bedding, costumes, party favors, and school supplies. George has been the star of movies, a television series, and even a Broadway-style stage musical. As Margret Rey remarked in an interview: "[Curious George] is the family breadwinner; he has put food on my table for many, many years."

The Rey's dramatic escape from the holocaust, and emigration to the US, is echoed is some of the themes of the Curious George books. The premise of the narrow escape from danger can be seen in the first French book, and in the later books written in New York. Also introduced, the concept of The Man In The Yellow Hat "saving the day" by rescuing George from imminent peril. George has been transplanted from his jungle home to the urban US. He has an insatiable need to experiment with the novelties of his strange new environment: a kite, balloons, a telephone, even a bottle of ether. He plays out the "streets paved with gold" cliches of standard immigrant stories: hitting the headlines in the newspaper, getting a big break in Hollywood, and even being launched into space. The monkey from the African jungle was soon as American as banana cream pie.

Curious George Get Higher Than His Kite.
Illustration From Curious George Goes To The Hospital, Houghton Mifflin, 1966.

(Image Courtesy Of The Comic Treadmill.)

The Jewish Museum's exhibit, Curious George Saves the Day: The Art of Margret and H. A. Rey, opened March 14 and runs through August 1, 2010. On view are eighty original drawings and watercolors, many never before on display, featuring Curious George and other characters. Pre-publication dummy books and photographs by Marget Rey are also part of the show. The Museum curators are especially pleased to include many archival documents charting the Rey's escape from Nazi Europe, most importantly H. A. Rey's handwritten journals detailing the duo's dangerous dash to democracy. One of the Museum's galleries has been converted into a reading room inspired by our hero's antics in Curious George Flies a Kite. A lecture series accompanies the exhibit, including a presentation by Louise Borden, author of The Journey That Saved Curious George: True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey (Houghton Mifflin, 2005), an illustrated children's book which tells the Rey's story. Critic, author and historian of children's literature Leonard S. Marcus will explore the Rey's creative life in bohemian post-war Greenwich Village . There are also free workshops for librarians and educators about incorporating the Rey's life story into the study of World War II and the holocaust.

The Jewish Museum's website offers further information, as well as a wonderful interactive timeline for those unable to travel to New York City. The online timeline of the Rey's life in France from the late 1930s through the summer of 1940, includes an audio interview with the couple, illustrations by H. A. Rey, photographs by Margret Rey, contemporaneous photographs, and historic documentary footage. This virtual exhibit is so intriguing it could even keep Curious George out of trouble for a couple of hours.


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