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Monkey Business

The endearing mischievousness and ingenuity of Curious George has kept Margret Rey up to . . .

May 30, 1996|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — She descends the stairs in a motorized chair, a regal entrance so transcendent it cannot be compromised by the basket full of stuffed monkeys by her feet when she stops. Margret Rey is no bigger than some of the larger toy-store versions of her simian offspring, Curious George, but her personality exceeds the sum of any assemblage of primates, two-legged or otherwise. She is an imperious presence, 5 feet tall at best, with penetrating eyes and short red hair that sticks straight up in spiny chunks.

"Children!" she roars. "Who understands why they like one thing and not another?" Rey was raised in Germany, and though she left long ago, her accent is still with her. "Certainly I can't explain it."

What is also curious is to contemplate the persistent appeal of a monkey who easily qualifies for membership in AARP. Curious George is 55. Next to Rey, who celebrated her 90th birthday in May by giving away 2 million of the many, many dollars that George has earned her, he's a kid.

Maybe that's part of his allure, Rey says. George stays spry and mischievous and, above all, inquisitive. "He can do what kids can't do," she observes. "He can paint a room from the inside. He can hang from a kite in the sky. He can let the animals out of their pens on the farm. He can do all these naughty things that kids would like to do."

No less an authority on children's reading habits than Madeleine L'Engle, author of a raft of young peoples' titles that includes "A Wrinkle in Time," agrees. In the introduction to Houghton Mifflin's 1994 collection of the "Curious George" stories, L'Engle writes, "George dares to do things we don't dare to do, but his mischief always comes from curiosity. He is never malicious; he doesn't play tricks on people to make them uncomfortable; his curiosity is always friendly, whether he's making paper hats out of the newspapers he's supposed to be delivering or letting pigs out of their pens."

In the days when her late husband, H.A. (for Hans Augusto), was drawing the picture stories that form the "Curious George" series, Rey often served as a human model for the impish little monkey. She would move her arms this way or that, or scrunch her face up or demonstrate some daring leap from one piece of furniture to another.

"A little bit, he used me," Rey says, downplaying her role as inspiration. "My husband always called me curious. But then I think most people are, don't you?"

While Hans drew the pictures, Margret wrote the words. The themes came from joint monkey storming sessions, as in, "Let's have George on an ocean liner!" or "Let's take George to the museum!" Hans would set about the illustrations and Margret would create the story, as if sending a monkey on a cruise or to an art gallery "were perfectly normal things to do."

The collaboration proved to be both personally satisfying and professionally lucrative. "We enjoyed it. It seemed to work out well," Rey says. "Except for one thing. My husband was always much slower than me. Me, I was very fast."

Assiduously, the Reys did not aim their stories at children. "We wrote for ourselves, and then by pleasant coincidence, the children liked what we liked," she explains. They spent not one single moment analyzing their market or pondering the juvenile thought process. "This business of research is nonsense," Rey declares.

With no strategy whatsoever, the Reys created a character who outlasted fads and withstood the scrutiny of three generations of youthful critics. Curious George takes his place alongside classic juvenile characters like Winnie the Pooh, Wilbur the pig and the Little Engine That Could. For their part, the Reys became so closely identified with their monkey hero that once, upon meeting them, a little boy screwed his face into an expression of major disappointment. "I thought you were monkeys too," he said.

But the furry brown beast with the endearing smile and mannerisms also fueled a gigantic merchandising empire, over which Margret Rey continues to preside, quite single-handedly. There are Curious George books, puzzles, film strips, stuffed animals and children's clothing. George appears on wristwatches and lunch boxes. He has been on television and in the movies. For each incarnation, Rey rages over quality control.

"I do yell at my manufacturers," she admits. As if she were explaining why it is vital to scold naughty children, she adds: "It's important to keep up the quality."

*

The Reys created just seven "Curious George" titles. "After each book, we would say 'Never again,' " Rey remembers. "It was an immense amount of work. People never knew that. Always we waited several years between books, until the pain was forgotten, like a mother in childbirth."

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