When H.A. and Margret Rey created Curious George during the early days of World War II, their mischievous character was unquestionably curious.
But his name wasn't George.
He also was just one monkey in the primate clan that played second banana to a lonely giraffe in "Raffy and the 9 Monkeys" — the couple's 1939 French book.
But within a matter of months, the impish watercolor persona who helped the beleaguered German Jewish couple charm suspicious authorities during a narrow escape from Nazi-occupied France was reborn and renamed in America as one of the most-recognized children's book characters of the modern era.
What had been Fifi became George, and George became so famous for his outlandish adventures and close calls that — over 70-odd years — he's attracted millions of readers in more than a dozen languages.
Now the little-known story of George's origin has become the subject of a colorful and unexpectedly dramatic exhibit at the Chrysler Museum of Art.
Organized by the Jewish Museum, New York, "Curious George Saves the Day: The Art of Margret and H.A. Rey" features nearly 80 of the couple's original drawings, book mock-ups, personal photographs and documents. Together they explore not only the puckish little monkey's birth but also the crucial role the Reys' own peril played in his creation.
"Curious George is a perennial favorite in children's books — but it's also got this great biographical story behind it," Chrysler chief curator Jefferson C. Harrison says.
"Most of what the Reys faced in their own harrowing experience of trying to escape to America plays out in their books — but in a playful, life-affirming way where looming disaster is always averted."
Born in Hamburg, Germany in 1898, Hans Augusto Reyersbach was a self-taught draftsman who began designing circus posters in the early 1920s.
He met his future wife — Bauhaus-trained artist and photographer Margarete Waldstein — not long before leaving for Brazil in 1925 to work for a family business on the Amazon River.
That's where the enchanted illustrator drew his first monkeys, his wife later said. But it wasn't until she joined him following Hitler's ascent to power in Germany — and the newly married couple's move to Paris in 1935 — that they began collaborating on their first children's books.
Gentle and light-hearted, seven brightly illustrated volumes emerged over the next 4 years, with Hans formulating the stories and Margret filling out the plot.
As the Nazi threat grew, however, so did the focus of their imaginations. By the time they began working on "How Do You Get There?" they were already thinking about fleeing to the U.S.
"Their first years were politically untroubled — and their books remained fairly tame and limited," Harrison says.
"But when they began recognizing their own danger, their stories change."
Twice the Reys fled to the French countryside, where they began working on how to give the most engaging monkey from "Raffy" a new book of his own.
Filled with comic misadventure, mishap and last-minute escape, the emerging story reflected the couple's own increasingly dangerous predicament, which included a surprise visit from authorities ferreting out spies.
"The French became suspicious and ordered gendarmes to inspect the premises. They feared bombs were in the making," Hans later recalled.
"Instead they found Curious George on the drawing boards."
Despite admitting the ridiculousness of their preoccupation to a publisher, the Reys continued drawing and mocking-up pages for their new book through early June 1940, when they finally packed up their work and fled by bicycle just two days before the Nazis marched into Paris.
Sleeping in barns, they pedaled south, narrowly escaping the bombing of Orleans while safeguarding their vividly illustrated tale of a monkey on the run.
Just how many times they were stopped and ordered to open their bags by checkpoint and customs officials, the Reys did not recall. But the charming surprise found inside helped dispel every suspicion, easing their way onto a boat bound for Lisbon.
"Have had a very narrow escape," Hans telegraphed on June 26, after the couple arrived with no money and no bags but all of their precious drawings.
Just four months later, the Reys arrived in New York, where their new story and three other tales were quickly accepted by publisher Houghton Mifflin.
Even in wartime, Curious George became an immediate success, engaging readers across America through the couple's playfully imagined accounts of a monkey who was guided, undone and then narrowly saved by his own insatiable inquisitiveness and appetite for adventure.
In both the original account and the series that followed, Margret provided the spunky model for little George, acting out his movements and emotions at Hans' drawing table.
But it took both of them to introduce the endearing new concept of George saving the day — not to mention such thoroughly American fantasies as traveling in space or becoming a Hollywood star.
"What's so amazing is how they took their own harrowing experience and turned it into the basis for something so buoyant, charming and life-affirming," Harrison says.
"There's no bitterness. You'd never guess at the obstacles they faced. And when they finally got to America, that's where their story — and George's story — really took off."
Want to go?
"Curious George Saves the Day: The Art of Margret and H.A. Rey"
Chrysler Museum of Art, 245 W. Olney Road, Norfolk
Through Sept. 18
$5 (includes admission to other special exhibits)