Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Monkey Business: How Curious George Survived Nazi Germany, Rio de Janeiro, Paris and New York

Who doesn’t remember Curious George, that mischievous monkey who always found himself in trouble? Or the Man in the Yellow Hat, the father-figure who loved to leave a wild monkey alone in his house day after day so that he could parade around town in his bright yellow jungle ware? Both lovable characters were created by the writing-illustrating team of Margret and H.A. Rey, a pair of globetrotting Germans who met in Rio de Janeiro, fled invading Nazis in Paris, and eventually settled in New York. As cool as George is, he has nothing on his parents.

Both Margret and Hans Augusto (H.A.) were born around the turn of the century in Hamburg, Germany. Although they met each other briefly in Hamburg when Margret was a young girl (H.A. was eight years older), the two did not see each other again until 1935. The setting was Rio de Janeiro. If this seems odd, consider that at this time about 100,000 Germans were living in Brazil with possibly a million Brazilians being of German descent. Still, the pair was a unique case. When they met, Margret was an art school graduate, freshly arrived from Nazi Germany (both Margret and H.A. were Jews). H.A. was a bathtub salesman, albeit one with some excellent drawing skills. I imagine it wasn’t hard for Margret to convince H.A. to leave his prestigious job inspecting bathrooms, marry her, and move to Paris.

In Paris, H.A. published his first children’s book, Celicily G. and the Nine Monkeys. Curious George must have been king of the monkeys, because he was a hit, while the other eight fell into monkey obscurity. Margret and H.A., encouraged by George’s success, started writing and illustrating a new book dedicated to the monkey in 1940. Unfortunately their important work was interrupted by the Nazi invasion of France. Margret and H.A. knew that they had to avoid being captured by the Nazis and that they had little time to prepare. Perhaps putting his bathtub assembly skills to use, H.A. managed to turn a pile of spare parts into two working bicycles. The Rey’s were on the road literally a few hours before the Nazis reached the city.

After four days of heroically outrunning tanks on bikes (at least in my imagination), the Rey’s reached the French-Spanish border. Trading in their bicycles for train fare, the Rey’s then continued on to Lisbon, Brazil and then New York. Finally at rest, the Rey’s opened their luggage to reveal the five manuscripts they had carried all the way from Paris. One of them would eventually become Curious George.

Margret and H.A. Rey had wills (and legs) of iron. They were also infused with that worldly curiosity that so many travelers share today. Luckily for us, they passed that curiosity on to the world’s most celebrated monkey.

H.A. Rey

An exhibition entitled “Curious George Saves the Day: The Art of Margret and H.A. Rey,” recently opened at the Jewish Museum in New York, New York.

Look here for a review: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/26/arts/design/26curious.html

-Ted Gault, former hostel intern

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