MIDDLETOWN, Conn. — This small college town is home to a clock tower, an old-fashioned diner, a main street called Main Street and one of history's legendary elephants.
Most people probably believe that this benevolent beast, known round the world by the nonsense name of Babar, lives in a forest whose capital is Celesteville. Followers of Babar's nearly 60 years of adventures would place that expanse of greenery somewhere near Paris. They remember that the frightened young Babar ran all the way to the French capital after a wicked hunter shot his mother. When he returned to the forest as king, Babar made the journey by car.
So it may seem improbable, but as author-illustrator Laurent de Brunhoff said, standing in the second-floor studio of his Victorian house next to Wesleyan University: "This is it. This is the forest of Babar."
There are no trees, just a wonderful antique quilt draped over a window seat and a suitably worn Oriental rug on the floor. The walls are plastered with renderings of Babar, some in de Brunhoff's preferred medium of watercolor and others framed as posters. One of the latter depicts a stern-faced Babar and wife, Celeste, in a playful spoof of Grant Wood's "American Gothic." A watercolor for a forthcoming calendar shows Celeste as a suffragette. Yet another in the same series, celebrating important moments in U.S. history, portrays Babar crossing the Delaware. In an earlier series of illustrations, Babar and Celeste are pictured as Hollywood stars.
"Look," de Brunhoff said, "here they are as Fred and Ginger." According to de Brunhoff's brand of phylogeny, it seems perfectly plausible that a pair of pachyderms weighing in at three or four tons apiece should appear as lithe and nimble as Astaire and Rogers.
De Brunhoff exudes an infectious enthusiasm as he leads the tour through Babar's imaginary forest. He is a slender man, neither tall nor short, with cheerful blue eyes and an easy smile. Bald at the crown, his ring of remaining hair stands out in recalcitrant tufts. This man who spends his life drawing elephants was trained as an abstract painter and once had a studio in Montparnasse section of Paris. That he is 64, just five years older than Babar, and still immersed in a make-believe world, gives de Brunhoff not one moment's pause.
"I don't think this is extraordinary," de Brunhoff said. "Some creators live very much in their dream and their imagination."
A clear-eyed innocence and a firm moral code mark the more than three dozen Babar books. They possess this tone, childlike but not at all childish, because "probably I have a mind like that," de Brunhoff said. Then he smiled. "I trust my feelings."
Babar, a kind and courtly creature, was born in Chessy, east of Paris, in 1930, when a pianist named Cecile de Brunhoff needed a story to coax her
two young sons to sleep. This was odd,de Brunhoff remembered, because "she was not particularly a storyteller. Actually, she was for 40 years a professor at the Ecole Normale in Paris."
De Brunhoff and his younger brother, Mathieu, so loved their mother's tale of the little elephant that they passed it on to their father. Jean de Brunhoff was a painter and the scion of an artistic family. His father published the lavishly illustrated programs of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, and his brothers published magazines such as Vogue, Vu and Le Jardin des Modes.
So captivated was Jean de Brunhoff by the story his sons related to him that he immediately began to sketch the animal that the family at first called simply bebe elephant . The name Babar came out of nowhere, de Brunhoff said, but soon his father was filling a big spiral notebook with whimsical stories and pictures. In 1931, "The Story of Babar," an oversized book with the text written in the looping script of a French schoolchild, was published in Paris.
Jean de Brunhoff had written and illustrated seven Babar books when he died at age 37 in 1937. Since two of the books were not completed, Laurent de Brunhoff was asked to "color a few of those pages" to finish them off. Although he was just 12 at the time, the younger de Brunhoff knew even then that he wanted to be a painter.
"I drew elephants everywhere, of course," he said.
For nearly 10 years, however, de Brunhoff abandoned his watercolors and elephants, painting instead in oils and the abstract style then popular in Paris. His works were shown at the Galerie Maeght. But at 21, de Brunhoff went back to elephants, deciding to "carry on the adventures of Babar." His first book, "Babar and That Rascal Arthur," was published in 1946.
Those who are analytically inclined might suggest that de Brunhoff was trying to resurrect his relationship with his father. Maybe so, he said, although mostly it was Babar whom he wanted to bring back to life.