Margret Rey, co-author of Curious George, told a story about a young fan expressing disappointment upon meeting her and her husband. “I thought you were monkeys too,” he said sadly.
The kid’s assumption isn’t so surprising. Margret and H.A. Rey seemed remarkably able to get inside their little simian hero’s head. And after seeing the new show Curious George Saves the Day: The Art of Margret and H.A. Rey at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan, I can see why.
First, a confession: I’m not a big Curious George fan. Of course, I liked the little monkey fine when I was a kid, but as an adult, I found Curious George disturbingly glib and colonialist. Let’s see: A little monkey is happy in Africa, and suddenly a guy in a big hat shows up, pops him in a bag, carries him off to a ship, and tells him he’s going to put him in a zoo. (“You will like it there. Now run along and play, but don’t get into trouble.” Geez, man with the big yellow hat, could you be any more condescending? Take that pipe out of your mouth and stop wagging your finger at the monkey.) George winds up falling overboard. While the text informs us that he’s “struggling in the water, and almost all tired out,” the illustration shows him smiling. The sailors pull him up by his ankles; water and fish pour out of his mouth, but, again, his mouth is open in a huge smile. Over the course of the book, George inadvertently calls a false alarm in to the fire department, gets thrown in jail, escapes by walking on a telephone wire, and is accidentally yanked aloft by a bunch of balloons. (“George was frightened,” the text says. Yet George is depicted beaming. Again.) None of the Reys’ books seem to have the depth and darkness you find in William Steig or Maurice Sendak—two other subjects of recent retrospectives at the Jewish Museum.
But this show, which leans heavily on the book The Journey That Saved Curious George, by Louise Borden, adds chiaroscuro and nuance to an oddly bright and sunny book. H.A. Rey (1898-1977), born Hans Augusto Reyersbach, and his wife, author-artist Margret Rey (1906-1996), born Margarete Waldstein, were German Jews. After serving in the German Army in Word War I, H.A. moved to Rio to work for a relative, selling bathtubs up and down the Amazon (while wearing a big hat, naturally). Margret followed him to Brazil after Hitler came to power. Soon they got married and decided to move to Paris. They tried to take their two pet marmosets back with them—Margret knitted them little sweaters for the ocean journey—but the monkeys didn’t survive the trip. The Reys lived in Paris from 1936 to 1940, and wrote seven children’s books together.
But things were getting scarier and scarier in Europe. In 1939, the Reys went to live and work in a friend’s old castle in the South of France. The French police came to investigate, worried that the Reys were making bombs. Instead they found Fifi (George’s name in the original French version of the tale) on the drawing boards and let the Reys go.
It became clear that it was time to leave France. In February 1940, they began work on How Do You Get There?, a lift-the-flap book (Klappbuch), which was published the following year. The message: Any destination is reachable if you just have the proper transportation: a bus, a ship, a train. Lift the flap and see your desired conveyance. The Reys finished the book in only two months while dealing with their own far more frustrating travel obstacles: embassies, exchange offices, banks.
On June 11, 1940, H.A. bought two bicycles. The next morning, at 5:30 a.m., he and his wife left Paris to ride to Étampes, 35 miles away. They took the illustrations for Curious George with them. That night, they slept in a farmhouse. The next day they biked to Acquebouille, where they slept in a stable. On the third day they reached Orléans—they’d biked 75 miles in three days. And on that third day, June 14, the Nazis invaded Paris.
On June 15, the Reys took a train to Bayonne, where they stayed in a high school with other refugees. They then went to Biarritz, where they received necessary papers, then headed to Hendaye on the French/Spanish border. There they sold their bikes to a customs official for far less than the 1,600 francs they’d paid four days earlier. They boarded a train to Lisbon.
Even on the run, H.A. was wheeling and dealing. He wrote to his and Margret’s British publishing agent that they’d reached Lisbon “after an adventurous flight from Paris.” Adventurous? What a word choice, cheery and full of optimism, just like his Fifi. And the Reys’ luck held. During the journey, they were subjected to a search, but the Fifi drawings proved they were children’s-book artists, and they were immediately let go. They escaped with their lives and their artwork.
From Lisbon, the Reys took a ship to Rio, and two months later, another ship to America. Margret later said that George saved them yet again when they applied for American visas—the drawings served as proof of occupation, and their visas were granted. On October 14, 1940, they reached New York. “The statue of liberty greeted us through the morning mist,” H.A. wrote. “Within a month, four of the manuscripts I had brought along were accepted for publication.” Again: Blessed. Golden.
The show’s curator, Claudia Nahson, observes that not only does Curious George’s journey to America parallel that of his creators, but his adventures in later books also fulfill the fantasies of recent immigrants to this country. “He gets an acting job in Hollywood, travels in a spaceship, makes it to the front page of the newspaper, all while becoming Americanized,” she observes.
As I examined the Reys’ sketches and telegrams and letters to publishers, I reflected on how fitting this show is for Passover. It is, after all, about a journey to freedom. “We have had a very narrow escape,” H.A. Rey wrote in a telegram from Lisbon to Brazil. The Hebrew word for Egypt, mitzraim, literally means “narrows.” Curious George and his masters crossed a seemingly uncrossable sea to a new promised land. They were passed over, just barely, where others were struck down. And in retelling their own story through the happy adventures of George, the Reys were engaged in magid, the part of the seder in which we narrate the exodus story to remind ourselves of what happened and to make it feel immediate. Even turning something distressing and frightening into a children’s story seems to have a Passover parallel: The seder is full of kid-centric entertainment. Kids are drawn into the story by snacks, by easily answered questions and answers, by familiar songs, by the afikomen treasure hunt with its promise of a present. The seder is supposed to arouse and reward children’s curiosity. And children love Curious George because he’s their stand-in: It’s not a huge leap to see him as a stand-in in our own seder story for the simple son, or the son who doesn’t know how to ask. He’s the one we tell the story for; we have to tell it in a way he can understand. His childlike sweetness mitigates the bitterness in the Exodus.
Knowing what the Reys went through, it’s easier to view the man with the yellow hat not as a paternalistic monkey-capturing jerkwad, but as a genuine savior. He embodies the Reys’ determinedly optimistic spin on their own situation: Like George, they were forced out of their home, but in the retelling of their own narrative, they had a rescuer. In reality, they saved themselves, but it’s easier to see their worldview as a brave response to a scary world. Their act of magid becomes a lot more multifaceted once you know their own story. Sometimes a monkey isn’t just a monkey.
Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.