A young couple secures their meager luggage and mounts their bicycles. They are fleeing Paris, and they are escaping just in time. Two days later, the Nazis march in. The couple pedals quickly, covering seventy-five miles in three days. When they board a train to Lisbon, they breathe a sigh of relief. That is, until the authorities pull them aside. An official asks to look in their satchels, expecting to find stolen documents or smuggled goods. Instead, the searchers find the couple’s work in progress: a book called Fifi: The Adventures of a Monkey that will become better known to Americans as Curious George.
Self-trained illustrator H.A. Rey (Hans Augusto Reyersbach) and formally trained photographer Margret Rey (Margarete Waldstein) had begun to work on Curious George just before the outbreak of the war. The book was the pair’s fourth collaboration. The two had met in Rio de Janeiro, married, and honeymooned in Paris, where they continued to live in their hotel room for the next four years. During this time, they worked together on charcoal sketches of a motley crew of loveable animals, eventually producing Cecily G. and the Nine Monkeys—the story in which the character of Curious George first appeared—as well as Whiteblack the Penguin Sees the World and How Do You Get There?
Selections from these works, along with eighty original drawings, watercolors, journals, correspondence, homemade greeting cards, and even photographs, developed in 2002, that Margret took in Paris in the 1930s, are all on display at the Jewish Museum on Manhattan’s upper Fifth Avenue. Browsing the exhibit—entitled “Curious George Saves the Day”—children and adults are swept into the Reys’ drama of escape and carried away by the charm of the wide-eyed monkey who sits at the helm of their flight.
For decades, Curious George has had the reputation of a buffoon. This exhibit sets out to change our perceptions, earnestly presenting George as a hero. According to history, when the official on the Lisbon-bound train pulled the Reys aside and searched their belongings, George came to their rescue. After finding nothing but drawings of a harmless simian, the officer let the couple go. “Have had a very narrow escape,” H.A. telegrammed, soon after, to a friend in Brazil.
And that wasn’t the first—or the last—time the unsuspecting monkey rescued his creators. Before having to flee Paris, the couple had taken temporary refuge at the Château Feuga, in southern France. Suspicious of what H.A. and Margret might be up to, their neighbors reported them. Soon, the authorities came to investigate. But when the police discovered paintings of an innocuous monkey instead of bombs, they left the Reys undisturbed. Perhaps the most obvious salvation that George provided, however, was in the form of advances and royalty checks. Since its publication in 1941, Curious George has sold 27 million copies in more than a dozen languages. The little monkey was a financial lifesaver for a couple who, after months of traveling by bike, boat, and train, finally were allowed to settle into a townhouse in Washington Square Park, in New York City.
Thus, Curious George kept the Reys alive during one of the most volatile chapters of modern history. But what is perhaps even more peculiar about George is how he, a chipper little monkey whose cares were as simple as wanting a red balloon or getting rid of soapsuds, survived the Second World War.
There is something absurd about the fact that a monkey like George could thrive in a world haunted by Hitler. “It feels ridiculous to be thinking about children’s books,” H.A. wrote while hiding in the chateau. But he continued to draw because he, along with many other artists of the time, was learning that foolishness often is the only available coping mechanism.
Curious George offered an escape for his readers as well as his creators. Opening the book’s’ bright yellow covers, one entered delves into a child’s carefree world of small trials and large rewards. Entering the Jewish Museum’s exhibit through a playful arch that resembles H.A.’s illustration of the Hotel de l’Europe, into what feels like a child’s bedroom with banana-colored walls, a visitor senses the whimsical refuge the stories have always provided. People needed a place to go that wasn’t fraught with nightmares, and George existed because the war existed.
But even after reading about the Reys’ escape from the Nazis—and George’s role in it—one has to dig a little deeper into the exhibit to learn why the Reys chose to comfort the world with a mischievous monkey instead of a more heroic animal. Why did they create a creature in constant need of saving instead of one that embodied deliverance?
Part of the answer, I think, is in an illustration from the Reys’ lift-the-flap book How Do You Get There? In the picture is a rendering of Charlie Chaplin as his famous little tramp, a vagabond who wanders from town to town. Well before the Reys started painting their vibrant watercolors, Chaplin made films in which he used the ridiculous to temper hard times. Through comedy he provided a much-needed distraction from the First World War and made his audiences laugh in spite of everything. Margret and H.A. followed suit. They, too, were vagabonds with no delusions of saving the world; they simply wanted to be happy as they waited for someone else to end the Second World War. They painted, and they told funny stories.
For the Reys, merrymaking was the preferred means of managing the trials at hand. Just as Guido Orefice, the father in Roberto Benigni’s 1997 film Life is Beautiful, turns a Nazi concentration camp into a game for the sake of his son, H.A. and Margret added sprightly reds, blues, yellows, and greens to their dark circumstances by means of their happy-go-lucky monkey. Heroism wasn’t their ambition. Happiness was.
The Reys lived vicariously through their illustrations. In one scene from Curious George, they depict George and the Man in the Yellow Hat as they joyfully disembark from a ship, display their identification papers, and are welcomed home. Interestingly, this scene was created amid the Reys’ struggles to secure the paperwork necessary to leave France. Or consider How Do You Get There? As the Jewish Museum website notes, the simple premise of this book is that “each destination can be easily reached if the appropriate means of transportation is used.” This, of course, “stands in stark contrast to the difficulties the Reys experienced as they were approaching foreign embassies, banks, and exchange offices in an effort to flee France.”
According to the thesis of the Curious George exhibit, salvation is the underlying theme in the Reys’ work. “I was fascinated by that escape story and wanted to look at the art through that lens,” said Claudia Nahson, the curator for “Curious George Saves the Day,” to The Wall Street Journal. “Art was what saved them.”
Interestingly, the salvation that the Reys experienced in their own life, and that they incorporated into the Curious George stories, is, for lack of a more accurate adjective, salvation of a Christian sort. It isn’t the American salvation of self-propelled heroic deeds and waving banners; it is a salvation that comes from seeing joy in hardship and waiting for the one who will rescue you.
This perhaps raises the question of the Reys’ religion. Where, you may ask, was their faith in all this? I certainly wondered myself, as there wasn’t a single mention of it throughout the exhibit. One assumes that they were Jews because they had to flee the Nazis, but their heritage is never acknowledged. The only conclusion, then, is that Judaism was of little significance to the couple.
What was important to them was keeping on. Their escapism didn’t arise from denial, but from acceptance. The war had turned their lives upside down—that they could not ignore—but the fact that they continued to write their books seems proof that they accepted the conditions that the war brought and chose to carry on joyfully. H.A. at one point even wrote that “life goes on, the editors edit, the artists draw, even during wartime.” And so he continued to draw. And, as Nahson observes, “In 1939, the Reys were fleeing Paris, then going back, then leaving again. They were on the run, but he was still creating art that was very joyous.”
Look at this passage from Whiteblack the Penguin Sees the World. Whiteblack, who is considered a comic self-portrait of H.A., has fallen into the ocean, been swept up in a fishing net, and been hauled onto a boat:
Poor Whiteblack, the fisherman did not mean to catch you, they did not even discover you among the fishes. But Whiteblack (who has always been an optimist) rather likes the new place: fish as much as he wants and lots of ice, what a heavenly temperature! And even a ladder if he wants to escape. It could not be better.
Like Whiteblack, the Reys did not turn a blind eye to their circumstances; rather, they learned to see the good in them. Somehow, things worked out. The Reys were optimists who waited for a ladder to appear. And such optimism was a kind of bravery. Even publishing the books was brave: “it took courage to print and publish colorful books in a gray wartime world,” said Grace Hogarth, the Reys’ editor at Houghton Mifflin. As they continued to paint Curious George, even in the midst of war, the Reys might not have seen anything heroic in what they were doing, but they were, in fact, embodying a new kind of heroism—the very sort of heroism their George would come to represent.
Think about the seven original Curious George books—Curious George, Curious George Takes a Job, Curious George Rides a Bike, Curious George Gets a Medal, Curious George Flies a Kite, Curious George Learns the Alphabet, and Curious George Goes to the Hospital. In each book, George goofs off, messes up, has a good time, and then, out of nowhere, is rescued from his mishaps. Each story ends with the Man in the Yellow Hat suddenly appearing to lift George out of his predicament and take him home.
But the Man in the Yellow Hat isn’t the hero of the stories. George is. Or, to be more accurate, George is the antihero. He is a monkey without a tail and a savior with selfish intent. He is also his greatest opponent. For whatever reason, there are no antagonists in the Curious George series; George is his own worst enemy. He gets in scrapes because he forgets to listen, disobeys, or just “could not resist.” He is in conflict with himself. He is flawed, and he is . . . human.
It makes perfect sense that a hero in children’s literature from this time (the first seven books appeared between 1941 and 1966) is a hero not because he actually does anything heroic—even in Curious George Gets a Medal, he is honored only because, after a day of blunders, he fortuitously becomes the first monkey in space—but because he is who he is, does what he does, and somehow gets rescued. People powerless in the face of the war needed to hear the Reys’ optimistic message that our deliverance has no correlation to our actions: It is not something we can earn, and the best thing we can do is to carry on with hope. Even after someone has made a mess, someone else will put things back together. The Reys’ readers didn’t need to see salvation come out of activism. They needed to see a savior break through the shenanigans.
One of the more charming details of “Curious George Saves the Day” is an anecdote that Margret told about a little boy who, on meeting her and her husband, had “disappointment written all over his face.” “I thought you were monkeys too,” he said. Perhaps Margret and H.A. were no more monkeys than George was a human; but, as the Reys taught millions of children, we are all like George, getting into trouble and waiting for a Man in the Yellow Hat to bring us home.
Kristen Scharold is a writer living in New York. She works in book publishing and is an editor for Wunderkammer Magazine.