Anne Frank had her diary, and H.A. and Margret Rey had their inquisitive illustrated monkey. The Jewish couple from Hamburg, Germany, created one of the most beloved protagonists in children’s literature over the past century—the tail-less and mischievous Curious George. But taking him from the jungle of their minds to international bedtime story status as the Nazis invaded Europe was an experience far less cheerful than the primary colors that fill the pages of their classic picture books.
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The story of how the Reys brought George to life can now be seen through 80 original works and artifacts, some of which have never been displayed, at a new exhibition at New York’s Jewish Museum, Curious George Saves the Day: The Art of Margret and H.A. Rey. Most of the pieces—original watercolors, dummy books, vintage photographs, private journals—are on loan from the Grummond Children’s Literature Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi, but will remain on exhibit through August 1.
Untrained artist H.A. Rey (né Hans Augusto Reyersbach) and his wife, photographer Margret (née Margarete Waldstein). were on an extended honeymoon in Paris, living in a Montmartre hotel for four years, when they realized the Nazis would soon be marching into the French capital in June 1940. Without much time to escape, the two grabbed their most prized possessions, including watercolors of an impish monkey they created together then called Fifi. But soon after they salvaged the illustrated simian, it was actually he who saved them.
Curious George was inspired by the couple’s time in Rio de Janiero, where Rey worked selling bathtubs for a relative in the late 1920s before Margret joined him. He spent ample time observing and sketching monkeys in their natural habitat. After creating Raffy and the 9 Monkeys, featuring a lonely giraffe and his swinging friends, in 1939, Rey decided that the youngest of the monkeys, Fifi, was worthy of a spinoff. But he kept one of the animal’s typical features off. “The giraffe’s long neck and legs plus tails of all nine little monkeys made the drawings look like spaghetti!” the author/illustrator once said. Margret, known for being quite curious herself, would pose for her husband to help create appropriate monkey-like expressions.
With the Nazi invasion imminent, the couple fled from Paris to the south of France in 1940 to focus on Fifi in a makeshift studio in a castle tower. But after gendarmes grew suspicious of their practices, they sent inspectors to investigate. When they discovered the children’s drawings instead of the anticipated bombs, they left the Jewish couple alone. Curious George aptly saved the day and the Reys were eventually able to make their four-month journey across France, Spain, Portugal, and Brazil, before finally arriving in New York in October of that same year.
With the help Grace Hogarth, an editor with a connection to the publishing house they’d been working with overseas, the Reys Americanized Fifi’s name to the now beloved Curious George and sold four manuscripts to Houghton Mifflin within a month of emigrating. To make the images print-ready, H.A. tediously redrew his watercolor images as color separations, layer by layer. But it was well worth it—the Reys went on to author and illustrate more than 30 books, seven of which star Curious George.
The couple’s story of narrow escape soon became a thread throughout the adventures and misadventures of Curious George, with the monkey always redeeming himself of his roguish ways by the book’s end. With scenes of smiling faces of humans and monkeys alike, it’s difficult to image the hands that drew them may have been quivering with fear of Nazi takeover. “The palette is so vivid, the colors are so cheerful,” says Jewish Museum curator Claudia Nahson of the Reys’ work. “It’s such a sharp contrast to what they were experiencing at the time.”
But that’s the escapism of their art. The couple even sketched themselves into multiple crowd scenes, with H.A.’s signature pipe in mouth and Margret’s ever-present cheek-to-cheek smile. Nahson hopes that through the exhibit, Curious George lovers and those new to his story will see the beauty of the Reys’ struggle. “Their story of escape is so similar to so many people,” she says. “It’s emblematic of sheer survival through creativity and through art.”
Jaimie Etkin is an editorial assistant at The Daily Beast. She has also written for Us Weekly and Radar.