Today in Literary History – September 16, 1898 – Hans Rey, creator with his wife Margret of “Curious George,” is born

H.A. Rey, who along with his wife Margret created the Curious George books, was born in Hamburg Germany on September 16th, 1898.

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He came from a highly educated middle class Jewish family. He grew up near the Hagenbeck Zoo, where he spent hours learning to imitate the animal’s sounds and taught himself to draw and paint with the animals as his models.

Hans served in the German army in World War I. After the war he enrolled in university, studying philosophy and modern languages, and worked part-time painting circus posters.

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In the mid-1920s Rey decided to leave Europe and move to Rio De Janeiro where he met his wife, Margarete Waldstein, although they had met before as children in Hamburg, where their families were friendly. She had moved to Brazil to escape the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany.

Hans had already shortened his original surname, Reyersbach, and convinced Margarete to become Margret Rey. The couple also became Brazilian citizens.

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In 1936 Hans and Margaret took a belated honeymoon, sailing to Europe. (They brought their two pet marmoset monkeys with them, but the monkeys died from the cold on the ship.)

Hans and Margret ended up in Paris and liked it so much that they decided to stay. In 1939 Hans published his first children’s book, Rafi and the 9 Monkeys, with strong input from Margaret.

The book didn’t sell well, but Hans’ French publisher was drawn to one particularly mischievous monkey and commissioned a new book featuring him. The monkey was then known as “Fifi,” but would be renamed “Curious George.”

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By 1940 a German invasion of Paris was imminent and the Reys needed to escape the city.

They didn’t have a car and the only bicycle they could find for sale was a bicycle built for two. Hans dismantled the tandem bicycle and managed to make it into two bikes, with expensive spare parts from the black market.

Hans and Margret fled on their bikes carrying little more than some clothes and the paintings and manuscript of what would become the first Curious George books.

The couple crossed Spain and Portugal by train and sailed back to Brazil, before leaving again for New York. Despite being German Jews, their having Brazilian citizenship helped them obtain visas.

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In New York they soon sold their “Fifi” book to Houghton Mifflin, who came upon the idea of renaming the central character “Curious George.” (In Britain he was originally known as “Zozo.”)

In the original book George, an inquisitive and mayhem-prone monkey is taken to America from his home in Africa by the Man in the Yellow Hat, who puts George in a zoo. George escapes from the zoo and goes to live with The Man in the Yellow Hat. Despite George’s penchant for getting himself into nearly fatal misadventures, George and the otherwise nameless Man in the Yellow Hat become fast friends.

Curious George was not an immediate success, but the series became hugely popular after the war years. Hans and Margret published seven original books and there have been numerous spin-offs, games, toys, dolls, TV shows, and movies over the years. The books have sold over 75 million copies in 20 languages.

They were a big part of my own childhood.

Hans Rey died in 1977 at the age of 78. Margret Rey died in 1996 at the age of 90.

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