On the rainy morning of June 12, 1940, two days before the Nazis rolled into Paris, Margaret and H.A. Rey fled their home in the city. The husband and wife peddled out of town on bicycles, carrying illustrations Hans had made for children’s books, including one about a very curious monkey.
“We planned to ride a tandem [bike],” Hans later recalled. “The streets were empty because so many people had already left. And we practiced riding it on the Rue de la Paix. But it wasn’t right. So we got two bicycles in pieces and I mounted them and we biked most of the way to Spain.”
“Curious George Saves the Day: The Art of Margaret and H.A. Rey,” a modest two-room exhibition at New York’s Jewish Museum, offers drawings and production materials from numerous books by the couple, who spent their late years in Cambridge, as well as artifacts from their escape.
Margaret and Hans Rey were Jews born in Hamburg, who had lived together in Paris since 1936. Twice after the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939, the couple fled Paris, only to return because the war didn’t arrive. The initial draft of Curious George – then called Fifi – was drawn during their first evacuation to the south of France.
The exhibition presents these incredibly familiar – though a bit more dingy in person – “Curious George” drawings that Hans made in France in 1939 and ‘40. The watercolor, charcoal and colored pencil sketches depict George swinging from a vine eating a banana, spied on by the man with the yellow hat, disembarking a ship, asleep in bed, chased by firefighters, in jail, and floating over a traffic jam while clinging to a bunch of balloons.
That June 1940 morning, the Reys biked out of Paris for good. They spent four months traveling to Spain, Portugal, Brazil and then the United States. The exhibit includes Hans’s French identification cards, Brazilian passport, teeny calendar journals, and a June 26, 1940 letter to his British publisher: “After an adventurous flight from Paris on bicycle the day before the Nazis came in, we finally arrived in Lisbon where we intend to stay a few weeks. We had to leave all our belongings in Paris, but worse things happen nowadays.”
Within a month of taking up residence New York in October 1940, they had four children’s book manuscripts accepted for publication – including the “Fifi” book that would be renamed “Curious George.”
The exhibit presents Hans’s pencil sketches from the Paris zoo; greeting cards from the 1940s to ‘60s; pencil drawings of Curious George antics from the 1950s and ‘60s; dummy pencil and crayon illustrations for the 1952 book “Curious George Rides a Bike”; and pencil sketches in a lined spiral notebook for the 1957 book “Curious George Gets a Medal.” Hans was not a great draftsman. But he had a knack for dramatic gestures and strong, lively, charming compositions.
In America, these talents brought the Reys success and security. They kept a summer home in Waterville Valley, New Hampshire, and moved to Cambridge in 1963. Hans died here in 1977; Margaret in 1996. But “Curious George Saves the Day” reminds us how much George’s numerous scrapes and escapes echo his authors’ wartime journey.
“Curious George Saves the Day: The Art of Margaret and H.A. Rey,” Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave., New York, March 14 to Aug. 1, 2010.
Pictured from top: H. A. Rey, unpublished drawing, c. 1950s–60s, pencil on paper; Margret and H. A. Rey at a book signing, United States, c. 1945; final illustration for “This is George. He lived in Africa,” published in “The Original Curious George” (1998), 1939–40, watercolor, charcoal, and color pencil on paper; and black color separation for “At breakfast George’s friend said,” for “Curious George Rides a Bike” (1952), watercolor and charcoal on paper.
The first appearance of George: final illustration for “George climbed up until he was in the sunshine again, high above the rain cloud” from “Raffy and the 9 Monkeys” (1939), later published as “Cecily G. and the 9 Monkeys” (1942), 1939, watercolor on paper.
Final illustration for “One day George saw a man. He had on a large yellow straw hat,” published in “The Original Curious George” (1998), 1939–40, watercolor, charcoal, and color pencil on paper.
Final illustration for “He crawled into bed and fell asleep at once,” published in “The Original Curious George” (1998), 1939–40, watercolor, charcoal, and color pencil on paper.
Black color separation for “Finally the show was on” from “Curious George Rides a Bike” (1952), watercolor and charcoal on paper.
H.A. Rey’s New Year Greeting Card for 1942, printed on paper.
All images from the H. A. & Margret Rey Papers, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi. 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.