On June 14, 1940, the triumphant German army entered and occupied Paris. It is also the day that, not by coincidence, just a few hours earlier, Hans and Margret Rey left the city on homemade bicycles and headed south into Vichy France. It was a journey that would save the Jewish couple’s lives, and also save the career of the fictional monkey Curious George, whom the two created together.
Hans Augusto Reybach (1898-1977) and Margarete Waldstein (1906-1996) were both Hamburg-born Jews who had met briefly during childhood. Later, they met again in Rio de Janeiro, where Hans, an artist and World War I veteran, had sought his fortune in the 1920s and was now using the city as his base for selling bathtubs along the Amazon River. Margarete, who had left Germany shortly after the Nazis’ rise to power, was working as a photographer.
They married in 1935 and, together with their two pet marmoset monkeys, sailed to Europe for a honeymoon. The monkeys died during the journey, but the newlyweds so enjoyed Paris that they decided to relocate there from Brazil. Crucially, they both had acquired Brazilian citizenship.
In Paris, the Reys – they had simplified the family name, and she had also shortened her first name to Margret – began writing and illustrating children’s books. Their first title was a 1939 book called “Raffy and the Nine Monkeys,” for which Hans did the pictures and Margaret wrote the story. That led to a another work focusing on just one of the characters from “Raffy,” a young simian named “Fifi,” whose boundless curiosity constantly led him into sticky situations.
The German invasion of France and the Low Countries began on May 10, 1940, and by the time the Nazis marched victoriously through Paris, the Reys, like millions of others, headed out of the city. (The story of their flight was told in 2005 in an illustrated children’s book, “The Journey that Saved Curious George,” by Louise Borden, with pictures by Allan Drummond.)
They left on bicycles that Hans had assembled from spare parts, carrying with them five manuscripts and artwork. Hans kept a succinct diary of their journey: They biked for four days through the countryside until reaching the Spanish border. There, they sold the bikes and used the proceeds to buy train tickets to Lisbon. Because they had Brazilian passports, they were able to acquire visas to leave Europe, and sailed to Rio. On arriving, Hans cabled his bank in Paris: “Have had a very narrow escape. Baggage all lost have not sufficient money in hand.”
What was still in hand was the initial manuscript for what was to become “Curious George,” the first in the series of seven books starring the mischievous monkey. (Actually, most commentators have concluded that the tailless George – renamed when the Reys’ American publisher decided that “Fifi” was no name for a male hero – is a chimpanzee.)
In October, 1940, the Reys headed to New York, and by the following year, Houghton Mifflin had published the first of the George books. In it, the little ape is found in an African jungle by the hunter known only as “The Man with the Yellow Hat.” The Man brings George to a zoo in “the big city.” After the animal escapes several time, the Man decides to take him into his own home.
Each of the seven original books tells the tale of another of George’s adventures – that is, of the trouble that George embroils himself in – whether in the circus, on a bicycle, or in the hospital.
Initially, credit for the books went only to H.A. Rey, even though Margaret shared fully in the books’ creation, but eventually both their names appeared on the cover. Over the years, the books have sold some 30 million copies worldwide. They have been turned into TV series and animated films, and the characters licensed for the creation of additional titles in the book series.
Hans Rey died in 1977, and Margret in 1996. The couple, who lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, never had children of their own.