JULY 29, 2019
TWO CHIMPS DRESSED in hoodies and quilted nylon sports coats stroll through the Central Park Zoo. They are accompanied by a pair of humans; a couple, perhaps. He is black, she is white: a duet of silk satin and worsted wool, of elegance and determination. The outré tableau is fitting for the eccentric Manhattan. The iconic Garry Winogrand photograph from 1967, taken amid the Civil Rights movement, continues to bemuse and confound. Winogrand’s protégé Tod Papageorge, the first to notice the scene that day, thought that it captured “a New York City piece of strangeness.” For critic Hilton Als, the strangeness was America’s racist fear of miscegenation, “whose only natural progeny could be … animals.”
In fact, any urban couple raising an ape-child in early-to-mid-20th-century America — and there were a few — carried a bundle of unresolved questions about race and heredity, social norms, colonial plunder, and animal rights. Adopted anthropoids could be taken as evidence of human infertility or as specters of impending (white) extinction, as catalysts of family erosion and child abandonment. Parenting an ape-child could make a couple, by generating stardom-worthy publicity, or break it, by incurring opprobrium that culminated in the shame of the “baby’s” dereliction or sale. It was a cultural trope that could turn profitable or burdensome — even when the ape-child was fictional.
Curious George, the young chimp (described as “a monkey”) who landed in New York on October 14, 1940, was fictional. He arrived inside a completed but unpublished manuscript (Nazi Germany’s offensive had interrupted production schedules in France and Britain, and the US printing would commence only in 1941) and proceeded to romp through a series of seven books until 1966. His creators, Margret and H. A. (Hans Augusto) Rey, were Brazilian citizens and German-born Jews fleeing Hitler-occupied Europe via Rio de Janeiro to join relatives in New York. The couple would soon be so closely identified with their signature character that a disappointed young fan would blurt out, “I thought you were monkeys too.”
As though declaring the truth about marriage, the passenger manifest of the SS Uruguay, which carried them from Rio, listed Margret as a housewife and Hans as an artist. The description was as common as it was ludicrous, given that she was a formally trained artist and he was not. The textbook gender gap soon materialized on their first American book covers: editors, deeming children’s books by men a lucrative rarity, initially advised against including Margret’s name. Subsequently, she remained the series’s primary writer and he its illustrator, although both notarized a collaboration agreement in 1975 that retroactively established joint authorship of all books, including those written singly. Royalties had been equally shared from the beginning. The Reys negotiated a parity in their relationship before many other husbands and wives, and the lens of #MeToo, now often used to scrutinize creative coupledom, reveals only so much about theirs.
However, there was another, less typical circumstance that shaped their union’s trajectory. Stepping off the SS Uruguay, the two not only entered the city that would be their home until a move to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1963, but also walked in on the golden age of ape parenting in America.
Two notorious stories about self-appointed ape parents converged around the time of the Reys’ disembarkation, as their personal archive shows. The first developed in Brooklyn, where the childless jazz-age animal lovers William Lintz and Gertrude Davies Lintz had kept a populous backyard “jungle.” Gertrude’s wisdom that “no woman should try to bring up a child without first bringing up a great ape” was put to the test when gorilla Buddy — better known under his future Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus alias, Gargantua — unlocked his $25,000 cage and bumbled into his mistress’s bed, precipitating William and Gertrude’s 1935 divorce.
The second story played out in Havana, where a wealthy American businessman, Kenneth Hoyt, and his wife, Maria, made headlines in 1932 by adopting a one-year-old gorilla, Toto (in Swahili, mtoto means “baby”). A year earlier, Kenneth had killed Toto’s father while hunting, leading to the slaughter of the mother as well. Maria stepped in to love Toto “almost [a telling qualifier] as she would her own child.” The nuclear family settled down in a splendid manse, where Toto’s consolation prize for being orphaned and uprooted was a garden house with full amenities. The idyll lasted until 1938, when Kenneth’s death prompted Toto’s sale to Ringling Bros., as Gargantua’s bride-to-be. The two jilted apes went on to stage a procreative boycott, refusing to share a cage or to mate.
In contrast to the Lintzes and the Hoyts, the Reys had never volunteered to be “the parents of Curious George,” but the moniker caught up with them anyway. Not without a reason: they were childless. While childlessness may have been a regrettable happenstance in news stories about the Lintzes or the Hoyts, it hung over the Reys’ career like the sword of Damocles. As common as the situation may have been among classic American children’s authors (e.g., Margaret Wise Brown and Dr. Seuss), it blighted the married co-authors’ professional credibility.
Nor were the Reys, who described their talents as unusually complementary, consistent paragons of matrimonial virtue. In his diary, Hans resorted to Cyrillic characters, illegible to his wife, to record the departure of a mysterious woman, Lisa. Lesbian editor Ursula Nordstrom showered Margret with flirtatious notes, and Margret also corresponded fondly with black American children’s writer Jesse C. Jackson (he calling her “baby” or “dearest” and once signing off, “with love, your chocolate child”). Moreover, Margret’s reflection on her marriage with Hans (“not the best”), penned three years after his death in 1977, startles with the intimation that the two “did not have contact, neither body nor mind.”
Solicitous interviewers yearned in vain to find out if the Reys had at the very least consulted with children while writing their books, in order to gauge juvenile tastes. No such luck: Curious George hit the soft spot, Margret swore, by a “pure, pleasant” coincidence. She frowned at any suggestion of courting the audience. “Librarians tell me I must l-o-o-v-e children,” she once snapped in half-jest, “I say, ‘No, I don’t like them.’” Small wonder that, PR-wise, a fictional ape-child looked better than no child at all.
The fact that the man in the yellow hat — George’s captor-cum-keeper, trapped in his absurdly bright, forever-colonial animal-trader duds — cut an inept father figure from the start facilitated the Reys’ reluctant surrogacy. His countless parental lapses are conspicuous. In the first book, he changed George’s destination from his personal “home” to “a big Zoo” in a matter of pages. Briefly, he let George smoke — a commonplace in accounts of real-life ape-children — and generally walked the line between leniency and negligence. On the third anniversary of their cohabitation, he announced a trip to an animal show by pointing to the melancholy picture of “George in the jungle.” By comparison, the Reys projected an image of competent caretakers. “Though childless,” The Christian Science Monitor assured in 1970, they “happily ripple through the pages of an unfamiliar episode like practiced parents.”
Practice made them perfect, or almost. With time, Curious George, like Gargantua and Toto, grew into a profitable mischief-maker. But he also became a liability. No, he did not wreak havoc in the Reys’ conjugal bed or lacerate his mistress’s body, as one of Davies Lintz’s gorillas had done. But he required constant attention: promotions, sequels, scripts, merchandising agreements, licensing. He fatigued his unwilling “parents,” but what parents abandon their child, wish though some surreptitiously might?
And the Reys did wish, all life long, to leave children’s literature behind as an accidental, temporary pursuit, a stepping-stone to bigger, brainier things. University dropouts they may have been, but the rigors of Wilhelmine-era humanistic schooling and the evening linguistics classes that Hans took at NYU could not have been for naught! Of course, the two refugees had gotten lucky: through their UK editor, Grace Hogarth, they established a relationship with the Boston-based publisher Houghton Mifflin within months of their arrival in the States. This was a ticket to a professional future, no doubt, but how long would they want to stay? As Margret told The Valley Times in 1977, they “hated the idea of a series, cashing in on a success, with the following books going progressively downhill.” The Reys had tapped into an American dream, but that dream was not their own.
Like many other parents, the Reys mourned their adult lives before George. Their experience had a wide range, from Margret’s portfolio of modernistic photographs to Hans’s illustrations for a book of nonsense verse by the popular German poet Christian Morgenstern (which Harper & Row would reject “enthusiastically” in 1970, though Houghton Mifflin finally printed the book in 1973). This is not to mention his comics about cigars and sex, his stationery designs, his advertisements for railways, painkillers, aftershave, hair tonic, toothpaste, and instant Nestlé drinks, many in a style evocative of Germany’s brilliant cartoonist E. O. Plauen. Their dalliance with children’s books was good enough sport for the settled livelihood it provided, but it was too insubstantial for a calling.
Their never-ending job search began in 1946, the year of their naturalization. “My writing experience enables me to take written material and transpose it into an idiom easily understood by the people among whom I have lived, […] to translate it into words they can believe,” Margret wrote in her application for a position with the State Department (alas, the job required a two-year minimum wait after naturalization). In a 1959 letter to McGeorge Bundy, then a Harvard dean and soon-to-be John F. Kennedy’s National Security Advisor, the couple described themselves as “unattached intellectuals” seeking positions at a university somewhere in New England, preferably in Cambridge. Austin Olney, a friend and Houghton Mifflin editor, had earlier introduced Hans as “a perfectly good philologist,” piquing Bundy’s curiosity. Among the aspirational pedagogical strengths Hans had listed in his curriculum vitae were book illustration, classical Greek, astronomy, art, and language appreciation. “From our side of the fence,” Bundy finally responded with an Ivy League chill, “the green grass of unattached autonomy in New York often looks very attractive.”
At some point, also at Olney’s behest, the University of New Hampshire appeared open to offering Hans a gig, though “not as a member of the regular faculty” and based on his expertise in “children’s book writing, rather than linguistics.” But nothing came of it. After Hans’s death, Margret persevered alone: “At the moment, I am editing and partly writing short films for television based on the character of CURIOUS GEORGE,” her cover letter claimed; “however, I do consider teaching a writing course a greater challenge and more suited to my background and interests.” In 1979, she scored an adjunct contract at Brandeis University. Her assignment was to teach first-year writing, which she vowed to liberate from “the excessive use of ‘jargon.’” The university paper’s headline promptly announced, “Curious George Goes to College” — thus affirming yet again that, while the Reys’ ape-child excelled at escaping, escaping from him was impossible.