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An Elephant We Can Never Forget

July 26, 1998|PAMELA WARRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KENT, Ohio — "Long Live Happiness!"

--Babar

*

Babar, the plump and benevolent elephant king who loves bright green suits, shiny red roadsters and cradle-to-grave social welfare, has enjoyed many adventures in his long and mostly felicitous fictional life.

He has honeymooned in a hot-air balloon, been abducted (gently) by aliens and even survived a visit to New York City. But until recently, Babar had been deprived of the most life-altering experience of all--going to college.

Although his literary persona will continue to appear in all the traditional international venues, what some believe to be the essence of Babar (pronounced bah-BAR) is now in residence in the archives of Kent State University.

With a goal of opening the world's grandest Babar exhibit here by Dec. 9, 1999--the 100th anniversary of Babar creator Jean de Brunhoff's birth--the university has begun cataloging more than 3,600 "Babar artifacts" it inherited earlier this year.

The collection, which ranges from giant stuffed pachyderms to tiny marzipan Babars, was the gift of John Boonshaft, a mysterious Babarophile who died last summer in Las Vegas at age 47. For more than a decade, the wealthy, Ohio-born bachelor had been corresponding with Anne Meinzen Hildebrand, a children's literature professor here and author of "Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff" (McMillan, 1992).

Boonshaft, who apparently made his fortune in the hotel and food service business in the U.S. and abroad, began collecting Babar books, toys and art when he was 10 years old. Several years ago, he contacted Hildebrand and told her he was looking for a place that would keep his collection intact after his death.

Neither Hildebrand nor Laurent de Brunhoff, who has carried on the elephant saga since his father's death in 1937, ever met Boonshaft. But both believe his interest in Babar was more than a hobby.

"He was a brilliant, thoughtful man who also seemed quite lonely," Hildebrand says. "It is easy to conclude from what I saw in his home when we went to pack up the artifacts that Babar was more than an imaginary creature to him. Babar and his family were Mr. Boonshaft's family."

Although Babar has long been the target of leftist critics who contend that he, Queen Celeste and their royal entourage symbolize Eurocentric imperialism, and that their encounter with cannibals is incontrovertible proof of the authors' innate racism, Hildebrand is not convinced.

"The stories by Jean are a realistic representation of the biases of the time he lived in," Hildebrand says. "The deconstructionists don't always take into account that the De Brunhoffs were very much part of the French bourgeoisie, and that is reflected not only in their attitudes toward other peoples, but also other classes, even other styles of fashion."

As for the biases of Laurent, now in his 70s, well, the author-artist points out, the times are changing and so is he. After criticism from feminists that the females in Babar stories were passive and always wore dresses, Laurent begged forgiveness and created the newest member of the Babar family, the feisty Isabelle.

Although she still wears a dress--Laurent says the only way to separate male elephants from females is by putting trousers on some and dresses on the others--Isabelle is a strong, confident girl who dashes about in roller skates and stereo headphones. Such a child is impossible to imagine in Jean's original staid, exceedingly proper elephant famille.

Since Babar was born in the well-appointed nursery of the De Brunhoffs' French country home, the popular children's stories have never strayed far from their creator's belief in the sanctity of the nuclear family. In 1931, Jean created the first modern picture book when he transcribed his wife Cecile's lovingly told stories about the courteous little elephant and illustrated Babar's adventures from his palette of pastel watercolors. "Histoire de Babar" was the first of six books written by Jean. Laurent has written 24 Babar stories.

As lovely as the illustrations were, every story was a cautionary tale.

"Jean's elephant utopia is a model of and for real life," Hildebrand says. "He patiently shows how things should be in a family, a country, a world."

The Kent State University campus on the rolling green hills of eastern Ohio is a long way from Celesteville. But on the 11th and 12th floors of the KSU library, Hildebrand and special collections archivist Jeane Somers are creating a parallel universe.

"Here are my big boys," says Hildebrand, pulling on an enormous fuzzy doll's gray arm. "Oh, how I adore these two, even if they do tend to slouch a bit when we're not paying enough attention to them. This one is from Harrod's of London and the other is from a display at F.A.O. Schwarz. They are our biggest pieces. Mr. Boonshaft was heartsick that he wasn't able to get us the Babar balloon from the Macy's parade, but it seems it couldn't be had for any price."

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