The story of Curious George is so much more than that of one of the most popular children’s books since the 1940s. It’s also the story of a couple who endured and escaped the Nazi occupation of Paris, and found their way to Greenwich Village.
Hans Augusto Reyersbach and Margarete Reyersbach were both Jews of German birth. They met at a young age in Germany but separated. They met again in Brazil when Margarete had left Germany to escape the rise of Nazism. Margaret studied photography and art at the Bauhaus shortly before she left for Brazil. In 1935, they married, shortening their name to Rey, as Brazilians had difficulty pronouncing it. In August of that year, they went to Paris together. In 1939 the couple published their first book together “Raffy and the 9 Monkeys.” One of the characters in the book, Fifi, was a rambunctious monkey who drew the attention of the readers. So the Reys began working on a novel centered around his adventures.
And then, the Nazis invaded France.
As the Nazis approached Paris, the Reys planned their escape, using found bicycles, taking with them the manuscript for Curious George. Along the way when stopped by police, they showed the manuscript to prove they were simply writers who posed no threat. With no other means of escape, they cycled out of Paris. After exhausting travels, and many stops, they arrived in Lisbon where they went back to Brazil, and then the couple headed to New York City.
They arrived in New York City on October 14, 1940. A friend of theirs, Grace Hogarth, was a children’s book editor at Houghton Mifflin in Boston. The company had offices located in the Empire State Building, and she saw the potential in these books. The first Curious George book was published in 1941, the same year the Reys gave up their citizenship to Brazil in the hope of becoming United States citizens; which they eventually got on April 8, 1946. Note in the image above that only Han’s name appears on the book; Margarete’s name was initially left off, as the book’s publisher felt there were too many women in children’s literature.
The Reys finished their first edition of Curious George and legally declared their intention to become United States citizens all while residing in Greenwich Village, at 42 Perry Street between West 4th Street and Waverly Place, just west of Seventh Avenue South. This 1887 tenement still stands in the Greenwich Village Historic District, though it has been slightly altered with the removal of its ornament. The Reys stayed in Greenwich Village for several years before moving to Boston, where Houghton Mifflin had another office.