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A Curious Monkey's Climb to Success

An exhibition of artwork honors George's creators and the playful simian's six decades in print.

April 09, 2002|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There's something delightfully simian about so many humans. Yet it is unacceptable to eyeball Uncle Lou or Baby Bob or one's spouse and comment: "You look like a monkey to me." Egos would be bruised. If, however, a particular monkey is specified--Curious George--the remark might be taken as endearment.

For the past 60 years, Curious George has been the cutest, sweetest, most inquisitive and adventurous primate in children's literature. Notice, we did not say smart. George has been known to open an apothecary jar, ignore the label that reads "ether" and inhale deeply. His anesthesia was immediate and total.

And when he came to, he had learned a good lesson about messing with items he'd been told not to touch, no matter how curious a monkey he might be.

Almost every parent can relate to a tale like that, which is one reason why more than 25 million Curious George books have been sold in 14 languages. And now, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Curious George's birth, the Los Angeles Public Library has an exhibit of original artwork and memorabilia from the lives of his creators.

Hans Augusto Rey (born 1898) and Margret Elizabeth Waldstein (born 1906) were natives of Hamburg, Germany. They met briefly there, but no sparks flew. Each fled, independently, to Rio de Janeiro to escape the worsening political climate in Europe.

Margret had trained as an artist. Hans loved animals and drawing but was selling bathtubs when the couple met again in Brazil.

They married in 1935, honeymooned in Paris, and liked it so much that they moved there. Hans abandoned tubs to be a newspaper cartoonist, and his lovable animals led a publisher to request that he do a children's book.

"Raffy and the Nine Monkeys" was the debut appearance of a mischievous little monkey named George, who was not yet a star attraction. The couple decided he needed a book of his own and began together to create one. Before it could be published, they had to flee again.

Nazi troops entered Paris four hours after they had pedaled away on a pair of Hans' homemade bikes. They carried nothing with them except five manuscripts, one of which was about Curious George.

When the couple finally landed in New York, which became their permanent home, they began life anew as partner artists and authors--and parents of the fictional monkey.

"Curious George" was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1941 and hasn't been out of print since. Over the years, the Reys dabbled separately and together in other artistic and literary projects, some of which are also on display at the library. But George was, as Margret used to say, "the family breadwinner."

As such, he held the place of honor in their lives. The delicate original sketches and preliminary drawings of George at his impish exploits reveal a tenderness impossible to convey on a commercially printed page. And then there are the words, laboriously printed in pencil by the Reys, sometimes crossed out, with comments in the margins.

Wandering through the small exhibit, which includes some of the Reys' homemade greeting cards, is a little bit like attending a birth. George's lineage becomes clear: He came from a good and loving home.

Hans Rey died in 1977, Margret in 1996. George survives in print and through the Curious George Foundation, established in 1989 to fund programs that assist children and animals.

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"Curious George: The Art of H.A. and Margret Rey," Los Angeles Public Library, central branch, 5th and Flower streets, through July 14.

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