Articles

Curious George: From Nazi Germany to Bucolic New Hampshire

by Andrea Calabretta

Few readers realize that had it not been for the indefatigable will of his creators, Curious George would have never existed. The Reys, both German Jews, escaped Paris at the eleventh hour – hours before the Nazis occupied the city. And they did so by pedaling away on bicycles that Hans had cobbled together out of spare parts. The couple rode for three straight days, and eventually made their way to the Spanish border, where they sold the bikes to pay for train fare to Lisbon. From there they crossed the Atlantic and ultimately arrived in New York City with six children’s book manuscripts still in their bags.

As a young couple, Hans and Margret lived in Rio de Janeiro, where Hans first sketched the monkeys he saw in trees as he sailed up and down the Amazon River, making a living by pedaling bathtubs and sinks. It was Margret who convinced him to give up the porcelain business and collaborate with her in writing and drawing instead. Hans had been drawing since he was a child, captivated by the animals he saw at a zoo near his home in Germany, and Margret was a fine artist educated at the Bauhaus in Germany. Together they founded the first advertising agency in Rio, worked side by side as professional artists, and kept a menagerie of animals as pet – including a mischievous pair of marmoset monkeys.

The Reys were so enamored of their marmosets that they decided to take them along when they relocated to Paris (where they had spent their honeymoon), and Margret knitted them little sweaters for the voyage. Sadly, neither monkey survived the trip, but their memory inspired a manuscript called The Adventures of Fifi, the story of a lovable but naughty French monkey who would eventually become Curious George.

It is significant that when the couple eventually fled Paris in the midst of World War II, they chose to take their manuscripts with them. Aside from a bit of cheese and bread and the clothes they wore, it was all the luggage they could carry. An undocumented anecdote says that they were stopped along the way by a German officer who searched their bags, found the drawings of Fifi, and let them go because he was charmed by the little monkey.

When the Reys arrived in New York City in 1940, four months after they rode their bicycles out of Paris, an editor at Houghton Mifflin quickly offered them a contract. Curious Georgewas published in 1941 and became an immediate success.

Years later, Hans was at work on another book: The Stars: A New Way to See Them. Needing a good place to star-gaze, the couple built a small cottage in the mountains of New Hampshire. They proceeded to spend summers there, collaborating on their work, and making friends with the animals who lived near the cottage – including one chipmunk who was purported to visit annually. Though they never had children of their own, Hans invited local youngsters to regular “chalk talks” at the cottage, where the kids could watch Hans sketch and help him imagine new adventures for Curious George.

Their home, a small wooden structure known today as the Curious George cottage, exudes the woodsy New England charm that characterizes this area of New Hampshire, nestled in a valley of the White Mountains. Today, Waterville Valley Elementary, a red building with a plume of smoke curling from its chimney on schooldays, stands just next door.

Visitors to the cottage will notice how tiny it seems – a three-room building that looks not unlike a dollhouse. But it was big enough to serve as an office, studio and home for Hans and Margret, who spent hours bent over their shared work, and for Hans to track the constellations he was seeing through a telescope mounted outside. Today, it serves as a meeting place for a local book group, and other community events like snowman-building competitions and nature hikes.

The Margret and H.A. Rey Center, founded in their memory, makes its headquarters above the Nordic Ski Center in Waterville Valley’s Town Square. Its mission is to honor the legacy of the Reys through activities that nurture the mind, body and spirit, and that encourage fellowship, community service and environmental stewardship. In that vein, the director of the center, Nat Scrimshaw, continues the tradition of chalk-talks with local and visiting children every Saturday afternoon. Scrimshaw says, “I remembered being thrilled as a child to be able to visit Hans’ studio and watch him draw.  I thought it would be nice to recreate this experience for a new generation.” The children, rosy-cheeked from a morning of skiing, crowd around his easel to watch him make zebras and bobcats and (of course) monkeys out of lines on the page, and call out their suggestions for a storyline. Each one of them goes home with a drawing.

Asked to speculate about the enduring allure of the Curious George character, Scrimshaw says,

“George has slightly different presentations in different books, and at different moments in a story. At the core of Curious Georgeis the idea and experience of curiosity.  For children, much of the world is new and wondrous – and sometimes frightening.  George always gets into trouble because of his curiosity, but things do end well. A child’s curiosity – an adult’s curiosity, for that matter – can lead to trouble, but it is also what leads to growth and new understanding. George gives us permission to escape the box, climb out of that play-pen, and explore the world. The Man with the Yellow Hat is always there to rescue or help George out of a mess. For a child, he is that loving and secure adult who you always count on to be there.

Sometimes George is pure mischief. This George has a deeper and more universal attraction, I think. He is like a Native American coyote trickster. He’s also like the golem  from Jewish tradition. A golem is human-like, but not human. It is created by humans (often Rabbis) in a manner reminiscent of God’s creation of man, but we are not God, so our creation is an imperfect copy. One defining characteristic of a golem is that it cannot speak (in the books, George never is represented as speaking or making any noise).  In many stories the golem gets out of control, goes beyond the boundaries set by its creator. This is my idle speculation, but I do think that George has something to him that touches a deep part of ourselves.”

It is said that the first time Hans saw Margret, she was a young girl sliding down the banister at a party. That same lively spirit infused their whole life together. Though Hans died in 1977, and Margret many years later in 1996, it’s not hard to imagine the two of them in Waterville Valley, toasting marshmallows in front of the fire, or pulling on their hiking boots to go for a walk in the woods, all the while inventing new adventures for their favorite monkey.