On this day in 1996, Margret Rey, who with her husband Hans created the popular “Curious George” children’s books about a mischievous monkey, dies at age 90 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Reys, both German Jews, escaped wartime Europe in 1940 and fled to America. The following year, the first “Curious George” book was published in the United States.
Margret Rey was born Margarete Waldstein in Hamburg, Germany, in May 1906. She studied art in her homeland then later moved to Rio de Janeiro and worked as a photographer. In Brazil, she became re-acquainted with Hans Rey (born Hans Reyersbach), a fellow Hamburg native who she had met as a child. The couple married in 1935 then relocated to Paris, France, where Hans was a newspaper cartoonist and Margret wrote advertising copy. In 1939, “Raffy and the Nine Monkeys,” a children’s book written and illustrated by Hans, was published in France (an English-language version of the book was titled “Cecily G. and the Nine Monkeys”). One of the monkeys in the book, who was always getting in trouble, served as the model for Curious George.
As the Reys worked on the manuscript for what would become the first Curious George book, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party continued their rise to power in Europe. In June 1940, shortly before the Nazis entered Paris, Hans and Margret escaped the city on homemade bicycles, taking with them little more than a collection of their manuscripts. After traveling to Spain, Portugal and Brazil, the Reys sailed to New York late that same year. “Curious George” was published in 1941, and the Reys collaborated on six sequels, including “Curious George Takes a Job” (1947), “Curious George Flies a Kite” (1958) and “Curious George Goes to the Hospital” (1966). Hans illustrated the books while Margret did the writing. (Despite their partnership, Hans initially received sole credit on covers, as H.A. Rey, because the couple’s publisher thought it would distinguish their books from the glut of female children’s book authors at the time.) According to The Los Angeles Times: “Barely 5 feet tall and red-haired, Rey said she occasionally served as her artist husband’s human model for their impish little monkey. She would scrunch up her face, move her limbs about or even leap from one piece of furniture to another.”
After Hans died in 1977, Margret went on to collaborate with Alan Shalleck on more than two dozen Curious George books as well as an animated TV show. When Margret died in December 1996, following complications from a heart attack, a new team continued to produce additional books in the series. Today, the Reys’ creation remains a beloved character in children’s literature. Curious George books have been translated into multiple languages, sold millions of copies and spawned a variety of merchandising deals.