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Monkey Business

Just in time for Passover, an exhibition devoted to Curious George sheds light on the character’s genesis and his German-Jewish creators’ exodus

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H. A. Rey, final illustration for “One day George saw a man. He had on a large yellow straw hat,” published in The Original Curious George (1998), France, 1939–40, watercolor, charcoal, and color pencil on paper (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.)

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.

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Margret and H. A. Rey, United States, late 1940s
CREDIT: H. A. & Margret Rey Papers, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi

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.

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H. A. Rey, découpage for La Rue: Découpages à colorer (unpublished), Paris, c. 1938, pen and ink, color pencil, and crayon on paper
H. A. & Margret Rey Papers, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi

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.

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H. A. Rey, final illustration for How Do you Get There? (1941), Paris, early 1940, watercolor on board
CREDIT: H. A. & Margret Rey Papers, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi

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.

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Sydney Lev says:

Can Tablet find someone else — at the very least a second person — to write on children’s books and the sort of things currently covered by this writer? Th subjects are always interesting enough, but the writing is always disappointingly lowbrow and never rises to the task. The writer consistently reads like a fifteen-year-old: Self-satisfied and unaware of her immaturity. Uch. Must say, I’m confused about Tablet’s demographic when I read this type of stuff.

tania says:

I thought the piece was insightful and enlightening-i had no idea that george’s creators were jewish. i always adored george when i was a kid.

I always make it a point to read Marjorie Ingall’s pieces. And if having a Ph.D. in educational psychology makes me “lowbrow,” so be it (see the comment before this one).

Aimee says:

I was a huge fan of Marjorie Ingall way back when she wrote for Sassy in the early ’90s, and I was thrilled to see her byline on Tablet. This article is a perfect example of her style: relatable, interesting, and insightful, bringing new information and a new perspective to a familiar subject. I hope to see much more from her in the future!

Sydney Lev says:

Thanks, Aimee. I have the big picture. She wrote for ‘Sassy,’ so using “jerkwad” would be commonplace for her readers. Mazel tov on your Ph.D. in educational psychology, Beth. It doesn’t make you a careful writer or reader.

It’s time for Tablet to create a style guide for its contributors for consistency and standards. Some pieces are erudite; some reportorial; and some, like this writer’s stuff, just fluffy and teen.

Aw, thank you, nice peeps.
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Sydney — I think one of the many great things about Tablet is that there are many kinds of writerly voices represented. I could trot out my bona fides (writing awards, magna cum laude with a double concentration in English lit and folklore & mythology from Harvard) but they don’t matter — my voice isn’t to your taste, and that’s OK; a less freewheeling voice may not appeal to other readers, and that’s OK too. Tablet’s a big tent. There are other writers here who also cover parenting issues. Gabriel’s podcast about teaching his son the Four Questions is wonderful.

Pspan says:

Perhaps Mr. Lev believes that erudition requires impenetrable prose, academic jargon or other badges of highbrow status. Spare us. Clarity and an engaging prose style are not incompatible with insight and knowledge, as Ingall and so many other writers demonstrate. He is of course perfectly free to dislike this or any column, but he’s simply wrong to dismiss it as fluffy or immature.

I, too, was unaware of the Reys’ history and the subtext (not very sub, actually) to the “Curious George” books, so I found the column enlightening and the connections to the Pesach story intriguing.

Bryan Shane says:

BS”D

Sydney,

If the style of the article boars you to the point of not being able to absorb its content, I encourage you to submit your own revision of the article directly to Marjorie so that she might achieve what it is you are criticising her style as lacking. I find it difficult to believe that by virtue of the use of the word “jerkwad” one could find sufficient grounds in which to indict the entire article as mere “fluff.” Who knows but you might end up being requested as an editor.

Meuchzevet says:

The problem is not Marjorie Ingall,it’s gratuitous vulgarity. In a Mar. 16 Tablet piece, apparently by the Tablet editors, entitled “Observing the Sabbath,” we find this uninspired extract from a work by E. Albert:

It is Friday night; there must be Shabbat services. There are certain immutable rules involved with religion. Just because she is in a borderline second-world country (bastard child of Europe)—a place where she had, the day before, for complete lack of alternative, cuisine, been forced to eat tripe, for fuck’s sake—does not mean that she should feel stupid for having shown up, unannounced, at Lisbon’s only synagogue, sans a way back, at dusk on Shabbat. A Jew could do that, find a home anywhere in the world with other Jews. Wasn’t that the point of the entire freakin’ deal?

Tablet editors: you need a wake-up call: gratuitous use of language like “jerkwad,” “for fuck’s sake,” and “freakin'”…. is simply obnoxious.

Becky McDonald says:

I thought that the article was an honest and interesting approach to a fascinating subject. I wish I could see the exhibition.

Carole N. says:

I thoroughly enjoy Ms. Ingall’s insights about modern parenting, and appreciate that her accessible writing style is balanced with a thorough knowledge of her subjects. I look forward to sharing this article with my children. I learned a lot about one of our favorite literary characters.

Jennifer W says:

I have been a fan of Marjorie for a decade, and I am happy to see that she is a capable author of insightful and interesting pieces as well as restrained responses to provocative comments. Keep writing, Marjorie, I for one am reading Tablet articles only because of you! And thank you for clearing up the George background – I too was unsettled by the story and the context helps.

Diane says:

Thanks Marjorie! I have a new found respect for Margret and H.A. Rey thanks to your article. I loved your writing as usual, and look forward to your next column.

Why is everyone focusing on writing style? I am sure we have all learned plenty from a variety of books and articles written in all kinds of styles.

More importantly was what was being written about. I found the issue of the smiling image not matching the fearful emotion and situation very interesting and worth thinking about some more. Writing about one’s own “adventure” is certainly not uncommon, but making the parallel of what WAS really happening and the book scenes was very telling. I actually did not enjoy The Journey That Saved Curious George, by Louise Borden. I’m not sure why. (Perhaps it was the writing style!) I found it didactic, but I was thrilled to learn the story of the Reys. I also want to see close up their lift-the-flap book How Do You Get There? I never heard of it.
Thank you.

velville in atlanta says:

Nothing like an analysis that takes place so long after the fact that the writer has a problem with context.
And what professional writer (as Ingall appears to be) would use “jerkwad?”
First, a confession: I am a Curious George collector who believes that were our lives being threatened by our government we might want to find somewhere better to live.
They were not writing literature, were they? They were writing for the money, weren’t they? Goodness, but this is a Chomskyesque deconstruction of the work of two dead people.
Enjoy Pesach and chill.

Gayle says:

Yo, Sid:
It’s a big Interweb. Lots of other stuff to read if you don’t like One Writer.
The rest of pea brains enjoy this stuff. Ohh, gotta go. Tyra’s on!

Emily G says:

How is this lacking in context? Jewish pop culture writers have found all sorts of ways to inflect their inventions with themes from their own experiences as Jews, without it being “a Jewish story” — see Superman or The Thing.

As for supposedly gratuitous obscenity, this reader (and writer) appreciates Ingall’s fresh tone. If you want to get your contemporary Jew on without encountering words like “jerkwad” and “fuck,” there’s always Tikkun.

Lizzie says:

Thanks for this interesting background piece on Curious George. I wasn’t a big fan of his when I was small (he wasn’t human, or a pioneer girl) and I’m meh about him now. But I like the artwork a lot, and I really like hearing the story of his “parents” who are sadly not monkeys. For fucks’ sake.

Maryellen says:

I unexpectedly met Mrs. Rey on the shuttle going from LaGuardia to Boston. She came in in a wheel chair and sat next to me in the first row. She told me all about writing the curious George stories, how she and her husband (by then deceased) had starting writing the stories in Paris, how she now lives in Cambridge Mass and went to New York to go to Saks where she was invited to attend the promotion of her Curious George dolls.
When the plane landed in Boston she got up to disembark as I did. I asked about the wheel chair and why she didn’t need it now. She said, oh I always get the wheel chair when I board so I get a good seat, but don’t bother when I land. I thought that that was so much like something curious George would do, but those who do need wheel chairs have been quite shocked and appalled that she pulled a stunt like that when I tell them the story! I will never forget that wonderful eccentric woman!

Theresa says:

@Maryellen — great story!

I like the Passover perspective on George. I’ve been through intense Curious George phases with my niece and my son, so I know the original book better than anything in the Haggadah.

It seems to me that there are different ways to see the Man in the Yellow Hat, beyond the colonialist surface. As you said, he can embody the people’s acts to free themselves. (Perhaps this is like another “Big Guy” with an outstretched arm, in the Haggadah? For heretics like me, anyway.)

Alternatively, from George’s point of view, sometimes the Man tricks you and pops you into a bag, and you have be creative to find your freedom. And even if you didn’t originally plan to live in the zoo, you should still share your balloons with the other animals.

Obviously, count me as another fan of Marjorie Ingall’s writing — topics, substance, and style.

Maryellen, that is HILARIOUS. thank you for sharing it. i was going to say that kind of mischief is very George-like (though i didn’t mention it in the article, one of the title cards in the show says something about how the Reys saw Margret as george and H.A. as the man in the yellow hat) but it really is NOT George-like. George wasn’t calculating. but that IS the kind of plotting that’s beneficial when you need to escape Nazis, flee across continents and make a new life in a new country. and it fits with what we know of the two of them working business deals even as they were on the run. sounds like margret was still working the hustle right up til the end!

oh, and theresa, i LOVE this:
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“Alternatively, from George’s point of view, sometimes the Man tricks you and pops you into a bag, and you have be creative to find your freedom. And even if you didn’t originally plan to live in the zoo, you should still share your balloons with the other animals.”
*
wonderful.

Never a huge Curious George fan. Thought the Man in the Big Yellow Hat wasn’t a very responsible, or loving, caretaker.

I am, however, a Marjorie Ingall fan. Her writing embodies what William Zinsser referred to as his four articles of faith: clarity, simplicity, brevity, and humanity. She writes honestly and with a voice that resonates with many.

Still not a CG fan, but I enjoyed this article AND found the connection between CG and Pesach intriguing.

I have a simply question of my little son and i was wondering how can you answer this question.
Mom be curious is get trouble? He is a simple Kindergarten student and his teacher told me that I have to read “Curious George” during this month to improve his reading and writing skills. I think that is not the right message for my son who is developing his cognostive and social-emotional skills at his five years old. I was so shocked when i read this book for children. I’ll prefer 1000 times Dr. Seuss.
By the way, this is a good article.

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Monkey Business

Just in time for Passover, an exhibition devoted to Curious George sheds light on the character’s genesis and his German-Jewish creators’ exodus

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