When my daughter turned 2, we threw her a Curious George birthday party. The mischievous money is known to children, and the parents who grew up on his stories, for his adventures with the Man With the Yellow Hat.
But his greatest adventure isn’t in print. Before the book, Curious George saved his creators from the Nazis.
Margarete Elisabethe Waldstein met Hans Augusto Reyersbach when she quite literally slid down a banister and into his life. It wasn’t love at first sight. She was eight years younger than him at the time.
Instead, World War I saw Hans serving in the German Army on the Russian front. Post war, he made an income out of illustrating posters for the Circus before moving to Rio de Janeiro to sell sinks and bathtubs along the Amazon. During this time, he wore a yellow hat.
Meanwhile, Margarete studied art. As Hitler rose to power she moved to London to work as a photographer. In 1935, she moved to Rio and looked up her old family friend Hans.
The two hit it off. Margarete, now going by the more English Margaret (Hans called her Peggy), convinced Hans to start an advertising firm with her. Their working relationship turned personal, and they married.
Hand shortened his name to H.A. Rey, and the two applied for and received Brazilian citizenship.
For their honeymoon, they planned to spend a month in Paris. Their one month stay turned into an open-ended stay. They simply never checked out of their hotel.
During their time in Paris, Hans’s animal drawings came to the attention of a publisher, who commissioned a book. The book, Raffy And The Nine Monkeys had one character that caught they Reys’ fancy: a very curious monkey named Fifi.
The Reys thought they could build a book around that character. By 1940, they had material for what would become Curious George.
Then Germany invaded France. As Jewish Germans, the Reys knew that they needed to leave Paris. The problem was that anyone else who could leave Paris was doing so. There were no cars, no seats on trains, nothing but a tandem bike available.
Fortunately, Hans knew how to tinker. He took some extra bicycle parts, and turned the tandem bike into two bikes. Then he and Margaret rode away with their most important possessions, including their manuscripts.
The Reys had several advantages in their escape: a French publisher had given them an advance for the proposed monkey book, which financed their escape. Their Brazilian citizenship helped them to procure exit visas. And their drawings of Fifi inspired kindness in others.
At one point, the Reys were not going to be allowed onto a train, but a guard who searched their bags saw their artwork for the book, and allowed them to pass. At another point, passengers on a train worried that they were German spies. But before they could be put off the train, officials saw the artwork and decided that they couldn’t be spies.
They made their way to Spain, Portugal, Brazil and eventually to Margaret’s sister in New York. There Houghten Mifflin purchased Curious George (and renamed Fifi).
The Reys published eight books. They had no children, but Margaret described George as their child. “He’s the best sort of child,” she once said. “He takes care of his parents in their old age.”