The German-Jewish Refugees Who Created Curious George
"Theirs Was a Life of Exile and, Thereafter, Self-Invention"
Dear Mr. H.A. Rey,
I like monkeys because they eat bananas every day. I am sure they eat bananas every day.
Your friend, Stephanie G.
Let us imagine our hero full-blown, although his gestation was slow. From the first we loved Curious George. He does not speak; he cannot speak; he will not formulate words. Yet his emotions and actions have an intrinsic eloquence: we know what he is thinking, what he delights in or fears. In animated versions everywhere on-screen today, the chattering creature makes himself clear; Hoo-hoo, ha-ha suffices as speech. The mouth turns up, the mouth turns down; we know. In retrospect it seems he’s always been a member of the family; when George does get in trouble, his predicaments are ours.
And more and more, it seems, his behavior is familiar. He ponders, he puzzles things out. While he eats he eats at a table; where he sleeps he sleeps in beds. If attended to in hospital, it’s by a doctor, not vet. Since the ape and homo sapiens may claim a common ancestry, he and his audience are kin. This is not so much a matter of the gene-pool as of attitude: his moods are moods we share. The well-meaning mischievous monkey, the child whom curiosity imperils but cannot kill, the creature from another world so much at home in the human one: George does not change or age.
Which is less than entirely true. For openers his name has been changed, and to begin with he played a supporting not a starring role. George started life as Fifi, one of nine monkeys who befriend a giraffe—called Rafi in France and Cecily in England. Rafi et les Neuf Singes. Cecily G. and the Nine Monkeys. The other members of the family were “Mother Pamplemoose and Baby Jinny, James who was good, Johnny who was brave, Arthur who was kind, David who was strong, and Punch and Judy, the twins.” Of the ten characters in that first “adventure,” Fifi/George is the one who survives; the giraffe and the other eight monkeys have been installed on the shelves of rare-book collectors or perhaps just gone back to the zoo.
In England, moreover, he was called Zozo. The reigning monarch at the time was George VI, and it would have been—to say the least—impolitic to use a king’s name for a monkey, no matter how well-behaved. Further, in British slang of the early 1940s, a “curious” fellow was homosexual, and sex can’t enter in. So the unchanging animal we read about and watch today had several incarnations before he was Curious George. Why he—and not, say, Whiteblack the Penguin or Pretzel the Dog (two more of his creators’ creatures)—should have become so popular is a question well worth asking: Why should X succeed, Y muddle along, and Z fail?
His was in fact neither an instant nor an explosive success; it took years for Fifi-Zozo-George to take his place in the collective consciousness. Few figures in our culture are now more recognizable, but that was not always the case. Slowly, slyly, he caught on. Children responded rapidly; in the fullness of time, so did their own children and then their children’s children. This business of name recognition—Let me read you the book my parents read me—is central to enduring popularity and why, say, The Tale of Peter Rabbit or The Cat in the Hat continues to claim our allegiance. George joins a special company—Mickey Mouse and Babar the Elephant among them—who move through generations yet stay young.
Dear M. REY. Thank you for writing Curious George books. I like them and I read them. By Vanessa
Born in Hamburg, Germany, on 16 September 1898, Hans Augusto Reyersbach left to find work in Brazil. In 1924, in the harsh aftermath of World War One, there was little employment at home, and in any case the young ex-soldier embraced what Germans call a wanderjahre. It grew, though not entirely of his own choosing, into “wander-years.” Skilled in languages and a gifted linguist—he knew Latin and Greek, as well as French and English, a smattering of Russian and, soon, Portuguese—Hans carried his sketchbook and pipe. He had been fond of animals always; always, he wanted to paint.
In his “first recognizable drawing,” made when barely two years old, there were “Men on Horseback.” By his own attestation, “Both men and horse had human faces.” As he put it in an answer to a questionnaire (“The Life of H. A. Rey, told by himself in Chronological Order”): “1924: Matters having gone from bad to worse, I accepted a job offered me by relatives in their import firm in Brazil. I thus found myself composing commercial letters (which I was not allowed to adorn with illustrations) and selling bathtubs up and down the Amazon River. Obviously it was not the right road but it took me twelve years to find that out.”
In 1935 Margarete Waldstein also traveled to South America and, on arrival in Rio de Janeiro, looked up her Hamburg acquaintance. He was eight years her senior and knew an older sister. Before the advent of the Third Reich and its all-leveling horror, the Waldsteins were prosperous people: five children, a house full of books. According to their story, Hans first met Margarete in her large family home when she slid down a banister; that antic disposition stayed with her all her life. Whether she “set her cap” for him or was simply looking for a landsman in a distant land we are unlikely to know.
In the mid 1930s, displacement was the new rule. This would no doubt have deepened their affinity: two strangers in a far-off place who shared a natal home. Both were painters—he self-taught and she with formal Bauhaus training in photography and art. It must have been romantic: alone together in a brave new world, remembering the long cold winters, the River Alster, and the ship-clogged Hamburg port. It must have been difficult also; what information they could glean from Germany was bad and growing worse. The courtship was a rapid one and, in August 1935, they wed.
Restless and ambitious, Margarete persuaded Hans to give up his work in import-export and join her in an advertising venture. As she stated in her own brief cv, “Went to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Started working with H. A. Rey who was to become my husband later. We wrote newspaper articles and advertisements, did posters, photography—anything that came our way.” Her partner described it as a “Turning Point, 1935: A girl from my home town, disliking things in Nazi Germany, showed up under Rio’s palm trees. Before three months had passed I was not only married to her but had said goodbye to commerce.”
All accounts of the couple have them well-matched—he gentle, unassuming, and already balding, she red-haired and freckled and fierce. There are those who see the face he gave to Curious George—bright-eyed, smiling, snub-nosed, broad—as an image of his wife. If so, the portrait she sat for is in equal measure cartoon and homage; the face is portrayed with affection. One early business card (August 1935) is a drawing of a camera and paintbrush with a walking easel. The legend reads Grüsse Von Hans Reyersbach und Frau Margarete, geb. Waldstein (Greetings from Hans Reyersbach and wife Margarete, born Waldstein.) For the convenience of clients, and as a way to forge a shared commercial identity, the couple soon renamed themselves H. A. and Margret Rey.
Intending to spend a brief honeymoon period in Paris, the Reys stayed for four years. As Brazilian citizens and with Brazilian passports, they took lodgings in the Terrass Hotel on the Rue Joseph de Maistre, Apartment 505. Montmartre proved congenial: she took photographs; he drew. As a form of self-expression but with commercial ambitions, they wrote and illustrated children’s books. These were, at best, a marginal success. Not until they settled on a monkey did they settle down and in.
The special magic of Curious George was therefore conjured by a pair of artists who used their own experience to write of innocence. Hans Augusto Reyersbach and Margarete Waldstein—though few now know them by those names—are household figures today. From Hamburg, Germany, where they were born, to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they died, is a long, eventful trip. These lines recount that journey and some stops along the way.
From Tommy Spang, Grade IV, an essay on “My Monkey”: “When I was one year old I got a monkey. His name was Curious George. I got him for my birthday from my mother. I can never go to bed without him! He makes a nice pillow for me. When he was new he was brown and furry. He had a big fat mouth. Now he is flat and holey. He lives on my bed in the daytime and in my bed at night. He has been on an airplane three times with me.”
The travels would continue, as would their travails. When war was formally declared in September 1939, the Reys moved out of harm’s way in Paris, and settled in southwest France. Mistakenly, after four months near the Pyrenees, they thought returning would be safe and went back to their apartment on the Rue Joseph de Maistre. By January 1940, working on Whiteblack the Penguin and The Adventures of Fifi, they had amassed a dossier of drawings and were in touch with publishers, Chatto and Windus in London and, in Paris, the Librarie Hachette and Gallimard. Briefly, they sojourned in Avranches, on the edge of Normandy and near Mont St. Michel. On 23 May 1940, they returned to Paris for a final time: a city under siege. It was declared an “open city,” by which the authorities meant they would make no attempt at defense as the German army approached. By mid-June two million Parisians had fled south, and the Reys completed preparations—acquiring passports, visas, cards of identity, as much cash as they could withdraw from local banks—for escape. From adventurers self-exiled, they became true refugees.
The trains were full, or canceled. They owned no car. The roads were in any case clogged, impassable, and taxis nowhere to be found. For the price of a month’s lodging at the Terrass—1,600 francs—Rey bought spare parts for two bicycles and, under the watchful eye of the owner in the velo store, assembled them. With no prior training as a mechanic, he must have been handy with tools: the tires, the handlebars, pedals, the seat, and gears all had to be properly fitted; it’s the sort of ingenuity George would later on display. Prudentially as well, Rey bought four saddlebags. He was past forty, no longer young, and though there might have been a whiff of adventure in the planned evacuation, it must have been mostly a horror: no sense of when they’d be arrested or where assaulted, no foreknowledge of terrain.
The departure was cold and wet and slow; they slept in barns, depending on the kindness of French strangers, finally crossing the border into Spain. In their saddlebags the couple packed what bread and water they could carry, and also the books they were working on and could not bear to jettison. Once, as they later recalled it, they were stopped by a suspicious border official who, demanding papers, leafed through the series of drawings and decided that the two of them could not be enemy agents or likely to cause harm.
For a publicity brochure for Houghton Mifflin, their American publishers, they later wrote:
In June 1940, on a rainy morning before dawn, a few hours before the Nazis entered, we left Paris on bicycles, with nothing but warm coats and our manuscripts [Curious George among them] tied to the baggage racks, and started pedaling south. We finally made it to Lisbon, by train, having sold our bicycles to custom officials at the French-Spanish border. After a brief interlude in Rio de Janeiro, our migrations came to an end one clear, crisp October morning in 1940, when we saw the Statue of Liberty rise above the harbor of New York and landed in the U.S.A.
Dear Mr. Rey.
I have your four books about C. G. I mean Curious George and Ceciely G. and the nine monkeys, I don’t mean Charles Gibbs. I wrote you once before when I was in fourth grade. Now I am in fifth grade. I am going to Daniel Webster School. I liked the book you wrote, so will you pleas send me a of all the book you wrote, and if you know any books you’er going to write. Thank you for your photo you sent me when you wrote me beofer. Pleas send your first and second name.
Sincerely yours, Charles A. Gibbs 3rd.
[Spelling errors retained.]
The first of the books with Rey’s name on the spine (copyright, 1941) begins: “This is George. He lived in Africa. He was a good little monkey / and always very curious.” The good here is important. Although he causes and routinely gets into trouble, George means well. He’s impish, yes, but not an imp of the perverse. His adventures and wild escapades prove finally harmless, his curiosity nonlethal; the endings are happy ones, always, and each of the problems gets solved. In every one of the volumes, a generous gesture takes stage center: decency abounds. A certain kind of children’s tale—think of the Brothers Grimm, or Hans Christian Andersen—is darker, menace-filled. Others in the German tradition—Till Eulenspiegel, Struwwelpeter (wild-haired Peter), Max and Moritz—deal with troublemakers whose virtue is not unalloyed. But George “was a good little monkey” and he stays that way.
Another signal attribute is his great agility. Because of his simian competence—his ability to leap, scale heights, catch objects on the fly—he can solve problems mere humans cannot: he climbs a tall tree to rescue a bear, a kite gets retrieved from a branch. George can wriggle through apertures where we’d get stuck, can jump from roof to roof. And since his role in the family of man is that of wordless baby, it’s doubly satisfying to his audience that he should also prove skilled. These are tales where, though things go awry, peace reigns. Pandora’s box gets closed. In a world so often threat-filled, it matters to a child that such stories end in dreamless sleep; his adventures conclude in domesticity and always in the end our hero is welcomed back. He creates disorder, then order; out of chaos, he retrieves calm.
The narrative starts with displacement; George has to cross the sea. Born in Africa, he cannot stay. He’s captured and transported and, on the ship, escapes; he survives near-death by drowning when watchful sailors haul him back aboard their ship. The despot with a yellow hat who caught and brought him “home” turns out to be a kindly man who befriends the little monkey and rescues him from peril. That Hans Augusto Reyersbach and Margarete Waldstein, his Jewish co-creators, had a narrow escape from the Nazis, fleeing across the ocean in 1940, is surely no coincidence. That they too reached safe haven and changed their names—becoming H. A. and Margret Rey—is also not an accident. Theirs was a life of exile and, thereafter, self-invention; as German Jewish refugees they left their own dark continent and began anew.
After the first volume in the series, six more “original” texts were published between 1947 and 1966. They are, in order, Curious George Takes a Job, Curious George Rides a Bike, Curious George Gets a Medal, Curious George Flies a Kite, Curious George Learns the Alphabet, and Curious George Goes to the Hospital. Without over-large a critical leap, it’s possible to argue that each of these titles has personal resonance; the Reys escaped from Paris on a pair of homemade bicycles; their “job” had to do with the alphabet, and it was one for which they earned medals. H. A. Rey studied wind-power and taught astronomy if not the construction of kites; he died, beloved of the nursing staff, in a Boston hospital.
That marriage is a partnership has become a truism; that partners should collaborate so closely in creative work is rare. The venture was collaborative, always; always, they made books together. He did the drawings and she told the stories, though it’s difficult to parse with total certainty who did what. Often, both did both. The Reys’ careers were long, their interests various, but curiosity is constant and embodied in their title character.
Who lives on.
From Curiouser and Curiouser. Used with permission of the Ohio State University Press. Copyright © 2017 by Nicholas Delbanco.