THE CURIOUS JOURNEY OF CURIOUS GEORGE

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The little storybook monkey had many big adventures, but none so dramatic as what his German Jewish creators experienced, writes Erica Grieder ...

Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE

The little monkey had a happy life in Africa—eating bananas, swinging on vines. When he was captured, by a man in a yellow hat, his distress was written on his face. He gaped at his body, clearly shocked to find it trapped in a brown sack, winched at the neck. But the little monkey quickly recovered his equanimity. By the time he boarded the rowboat, he was sad to be leaving Africa, but a little curious, too.
 
Thus began the adventures of Curious George, one of the most popular and enduring children’s characters of all time. During the course of seven original stories by H.A. and Margret Rey, he moved to America, joined the circus, and became an astronaut. Those are big adventures for a little monkey. But none was quite as dramatic as what had happened to his creators in real life. “Curious George Saves the Day”, an exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco through March 13th, makes that much clear.
 
Hans Augusto Reyersbach and Margarete Waldstein were German Jews from Hamburg. Hans, born in 1898, lived near the zoo and taught himself to draw there (also, how to bark like a seal). After the first world war he tried to scrape together a living drawing posters for the circus, but soon packed up and moved to Rio de Janeiro. He was there, selling bathtubs, when Margarete arrived. She was working as a photographer, and knew Hans as a family friend.
 
Hans and Margarete married in 1935, and shortened their name to make it easier in Portuguese. The next year, they packed up their pet marmosets for a honeymoon in Paris. Louise Borden, in her short biography of the couple, mentions that the marmosets died during the cold and rainy crossing, even though Margarete knitted them a pair of sweaters.
 
They planned to stay for two weeks. That turned into four years. The Reys, working together, were becoming established as the authors of children’s books. He drew the pictures, and she wrote the text (and occasionally modelled the animal poses). The monkey who would become world-famous made his first appearance as Fifi, in stories about a giraffe called Raffy who made friends with nine little monkeys. There was a brave one, a strong one, a good one; all were without tails, the Reys explained, because the illustrations were already cluttered with the monkeys and the gangly giraffe. Fifi was the curious and clever one. The Reys decided he should have his own book.
 
As the decade drew to a close, no Jews in Europe felt safe. The Reys were working, but in letters to his publisher H.A. made it clear that progress had slowed. In September 1939 the couple left Paris for the Chateau Feuga, tucked away in the Dordogne region. "It feels ridiculous to be thinking about children's books," wrote H.A. Rey. At one point French police turned up at the castle—they were suspicious about what the strangers were up to—but finding the illustrations scattered around, left them in peace.
 
The Reys returned to Paris several months later to find that the situation had grown more ominous. Refugees were streaming into Paris, and streaming out for safer destinations farther south. Ms Borden describes the preparations the Reys made for their escape: they tried to buy bicycles, but the only one they could find was a broken tandem. Hans bought spare parts, and spent an anxious few days fixing up a couple of single bikes. On June 12th 1940, the couple left Paris. The Nazis arrived less than two days later.
 
The Reys made their way to the south of France, and spent several weeks in a makeshift refugee camp in a high-school gymnasium before proceeding to Lisbon. From there they arranged passage to Brazil, and months later to New York. They carried with them the first drawings for the Curious George books, and showed them to police as proof of their occupation. The first book, "Curious George", was published in 1941. The little monkey arrives in New York and strolls off of the ship with a smile, holding his papers in one hand and a little red valise in the other. A policeman salutes in welcome.
 
Curious George has his share of troubles in America. For example, he had to go to the hospital after swallowing a puzzle piece. The emotional clarity of Hans’ illustrations is brilliant in these scenes of setback. Sitting alone in his hospital bed, with a single fat tear rolling down his cheek, the little monkey is the picture of distress. And he is occasionally naughty. The exhibition displays a hand-written list, from Hans, of Curious George’s infractions: obstructing traffic by sitting on a light, escaping from jail, monkeying with the police.
 
But these were just bumps in the road. George’s intentions are never malign, and order is quickly restored from chaos—sometimes with an assist from the man in the yellow hat, sometimes with reassurance from other understanding adults. Over time, George becomes fully integrated. He goes to Hollywood. In 1957 he travels to outer space, just weeks before Laika became the first animal to actually do so. He visits the circus, an interesting venue. Janet Davis, a sociologist, has explored the circus as a place where 20th-century Americans worked out some of their feelings about social and cultural change. George’s adventures there bring out his status as both outsider and insider. He’s a monkey, sure, but he’s also a hero, and a highly relatable character.
 
The Curious George stories were an international hit, allowing for a few cultural variations. In Britain his name is given as Zozo; the publishers thought it would be disrespectful to have a mischievous monkey named after the sitting king. Whatever the case, children around the world were taken with George’s unwitting mischief, and charmed by the cheerful, brightly coloured illustrations. But his story of travel, migration and cultural collision has a paradigmatically American dimension.
 
Against the backdrop of the Reys’ own dramatic travels, these children’s stories assume a poignant cast. The Reys became American citizens in 1946, and moved to Cambridge, Massachussetts in 1963*. They never talked much about their narrow escape, and even today the story is not widely known. This is perhaps because, despite the direct biographical parallels, the Curious George stories give so little indication of their dark historical backdrop. The outlook is resolutely cheerful. George explores his new world fearlessly, and his confidence is justified. Strangers are kind to him. Authority figures are corrective, not punitive. The inevitable misunderstandings are quickly sorted out and forgiven. He is just a fictional monkey. But those would be good standards to help any newcomer feel at home.
 
"Curious George Saves the Day: The Art of Margret and H. A. Rey" was organised by the Jewish Museum in New York. It is on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco until March 13th
 
 

Erica Grieder is the South-West America correspondent for The Economist. Picture credit: Curious George, and related characters, created by Margret and H. A. Rey, are copyrighted and trademarked by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. © 2010 by HMH. 

* Correction: This piece originally stated that the Reys spent the rest of their lives in New York. We were mistaken.