America’s favorite monkey, the irrepressible Curious George, is always in trouble! In a great turn of fate, he helped his creators get out of life-threatening danger. Nearly 80 original drawings for Margret and H. A. Rey’s children’s books and documentation related to their escape from Nazi-occupied Europe are on view.
Curious George, the beloved, irrepressible monkey of children’s book lore, is famous for his ability to “save the day.” Interpreting the role he played in safeguarding his own creators in times of danger as symbolic, this exhibition delves into the remarkable lives and works of Margret and H. A. Rey. The couple fled Paris in 1940 with a Curious George manuscript in their suitcase. During a tense inspection of their belongings by a border official, children’s illustrations were found and they were allowed to continue on their way, eventually reaching the United States.
Featuring nearly eighty original drawings and preparatory dummies for Margret and H. A. Rey children’s books and documentation related to their escape from Nazi-occupied Europe, the exhibition will examine the parallels between the obstacles the Reys faced and the drawings that may have saved their lives. The story of their life in Paris and narrow escape is also told through an interactive timeline.
Appropriate for adults and children, the exhibition includes a reading room inspired by the beloved monkey’s escapades in Curious George Flies a Kite.
“This, the first Curious George, we did in 1939 in the tower of an old castle . . . in the South of France,” stated Margret Rey about the story that made her and her husband famous. Focusing on one of the monkeys first featured in Raffy and the 9 Monkeys, the Reys created their beloved character who is always on the run while they were on the run. The book was likely in process by the time they reached Château Feuga and H. A. Rey completed the illustrations after the couple returned to Paris in January 1940.
The story, which begins with Fifi in the wild and his first encounter with the man with the yellow hat, has biographical undertones. While working in Brazil in the late 1920s and early 1930s, selling goods along the Amazon River, H. A. Rey had ample opportunities to observe and sketch monkeys in their habitat. He would later complain of the tropical heat, which may explain the wide-brimmed head cover worn by the man with the yellow hat, the parental figure in the story, and a self-portrait of sorts. The Reys, who kept two pet monkeys in their Rio de Janeiro apartment, took them along when they sailed to London in early 1936. Fifi’s safe arrival at port in the story after his sea journey from the jungle to the city, suggests a happier resolution to the cold sea voyage of the Reys’ marmosets, which they did not survive. The character’s “narrow escape” after some mischief or mishap would become a constant feature in the monkey’s future adventures, and foreshadows his creators’ flight from Nazi-occupied France.
Above all, what would gain the little monkey so many fans is his curiosity and spunk—traits that many have attributed to Margret Rey’s personality, likely an inspiration and often the model for the character. “All my life I spent standing behind Hans at his drawing board,” she once said. “I made all of the movements that George makes.”
“Among children we were best known as the parents of Curious George, the little monkey hero of our most famous books,” recalled Margret Rey late in life. “‘I thought you were monkeys too,’ said a little boy who had been eager to meet us, disappointment written all over his face.”
Whether falsely alarming the fire department while experimenting with a telephone, going up in the air with a bunch of balloons or a kite, or falling into the water after a failed attempt to fish with a mop, the little monkey is always in trouble, both propelled and undone by his insatiable curiosity and appetite for adventure. As Margret Rey once said, “the soaking in a bathtub, a news item in the papers, a piece of conversation at a party” were all inspirations for Curious George’s new escapades. “We write and rewrite, we draw and redraw, we fight over the plot, the beginning, the ending, the illustrations—as a matter of fact our work is nearly the only thing we do fight about.”
While the idea of the monkey’s narrow escape from danger was introduced in the first Curious George story created by the Reys in France, the concept of “saving the day” is only used in their later books written in the safety of America. By the time the man with the yellow hat comes to his rescue, George’s capers have already been mitigated with some poetic justice, which may be understood as emblematic of the important role the character had played both in saving the Reys’ lives when fleeing Nazi Europe and later helping them rebuild their careers in this country. In turn, the little monkey born in France acts out the fantasies of many immigrants: he lands an acting job in Hollywood soon upon arrival, advances research by traveling in a spaceship, and makes it to the front page of newspapers, all the while getting thoroughly Americanized.
The idea for this picture book first came to H. A. Rey in 1937, when he was working at the Paris World’s Fair for the Brazilian Pavilion, near a penguin display. In the book, Whiteblack, the storyteller of Penguinland, sets out on a globe-trotting pursuit of new adventures. The illustrations, most of which were created by Rey while at Château Feuga, offer a rare glimpse of his playful calligraphy. The manuscript was later dispatched to America for possible placement with a publisher. Drawings for the story were likely carried by the Reys as well, on their escape from Paris. Once in New York, the couple exchanged some correspondence about the book with Ursula Nordstrom at the publisher Harper & Brothers in 1942. The legendary editor’s suggestion that Whiteblack be “shortened, sharpened, and improved,” may have deterred the Reys from further pursuing the project. The book was only published in 2000, after both illustrator and author had died, following the discovery of the vibrant watercolors among the art and papers willed by Margret Rey to the de Grummond Collection of Children’s Literature.
By early February 1940, during the first winter of World War II, as the Reys were trying to figure out a way to reach the safety of America, they embarked on a new project that may have seemed like the perfect antidote: a lift-the-flap book titled How Do You Get There? Featuring bright watercolors, the book’s simple premise—each destination can be easily reached if the appropriate means of transportation is used—stands in stark contrast to the difficulties the Reys experienced as they were approaching foreign embassies, banks, and exchange offices in an effort to flee France. The illustrations were finished by April 1940, with the couple’s British and French publishers promptly agreeing on the publication terms. Despite these successful negotiations and H. A. Rey’s intense efforts to complete the drawings at such a stressful time, How Do You Get There? would not be published in Europe. The Reys likely carried the drawings for the book when they fled, and had it published soon after their arrival in America.