H.A. and Margret Rey carried the drawing for their first monkey story with them as they fled on bicycles (being German Jews living in Paris), narrowly escaping from the Nazis in 1940. Fortunately they made it to the U.S.
Originally named Fifi, the curious monkey was renamed George because the American publisher (no kidding) didn’t think it was a guy name. In Britain he was called Zozo in order to avoid any appearance of disrespect to then monarch George VI. Personally I wouldn’t have minded being connected with a best beloved, multi-million book selling character, but that’s me.
Hans was the more serious of the pair and the gentler. He was a self-taught artist, who had worked for a while designing circus posters. This makes sense to me, thinking of the colours and composition of the Curious George illustrations. Feisty, spunky, curious, opinionated Margret, who had a formal education, studying art and photography at the Bauhaus School in Germany, was the inspiration for George.
Both loved animals. Hans liked to sketch in zoos, and the couple kept pet marmosets in their apartment in Brazil in the 1930s. Margret even knitted sweaters to keep the tiny monkeys warm on the couple’s cold ocean passage to Europe in 1936, but the creatures didn’t survive the voyage.
(Full story about the exhibit at the Jewish Museum in NY here.)
What gets me, and brought tears to my eyes, is that the Reys, throughout their long career and marriage, transmuted the seriousness (and terror) of their narrow escape from the Nazis into George’s ebullient escapades and narrow escapes.
With simple lines and bright, buoyant colors, the Reys created an imaginary world full of innocence and optimism. No reader would ever discern that their lighthearted, good-natured outlook was entirely at odds with the circumstances they faced in the years leading up to and during World War II.
Both of my children loved Curious George and still do, even at age 8 and 11. As preschoolers, they could recite the books by heart. Had the Reys not managed to escape when they did, had they remained in Paris, even if they had survived, I doubt that they would have been able to write and draw with the same lightheartedness. A narrow escape, however heart pounding, is not the same as living through and enduring. And so they flew past the danger, leaving for us these books that so many children adore.
However I still wonder why the Reys left off the monkey’s tail. Curious George is actually an ape, not a monkey. Gorilla George?