A Rey of Sunshine

How the creators of 'Curious George' fled Nazi rule and befriended a NH community

Special to the Union Leader
March 14. 2018 1:29PM

This childhood card features a bilingual greeting from Curious George and reflects how author and illustrator Hans “H.A.” Rey used to chat in Spanish with Nick Scrimshaw. 
If you go...
WHAT: 'Monkey Business: The Adventures of Curious George's Creators'

WHEN & WHERE: 3:30 p.m. Thursday at Putnam Arts Lecture Hall at Keene State College and 5:30 p.m. Sunday, March 25 at Red River Theatres, Concord

INFO: The screenings are part of the New Hampshire Jewish Film Festival. For a schedule of events visit nhjewishfilmfestival.org

Whenever the “Do Not Disturb” sign went down at the cottage at Waterville Inn’s annex, kids in town knew there was a chance that an adventure awaited them behind the door.

But now it’s New Hampshire’s turn to hear the story behind the celebrated duo who brought to life the mischievous primate Curious George, to learn how Margret and Hans “H.A.” Rey fled the Nazi regime on cobbled-together bicycles, carrying with them a manuscript that would be the basis of one of the most beloved children’s book series, and how they wound up befriending a community here in the Granite State.

In fact, at this year’s New Hampshire Jewish Film Festival, the adventures of a curious monkey and his creators just might steal the show. The 10th annual festival will again showcase documentaries, romantic comedies and dramas from the United States, Europe and Israel that highlight true stories of Jewish persecution and struggle. Screenings will take place in Concord, Keene, Manchester, Merrimack and Portsmouth today through March 15.

Films include “The Essential Link,” about department store owner Wilfrid Israel, who aided in the Kindertransport rescue of thousands of Jewish children; and “Dancing On A Volcano,” about an Austrian Jewish fashion illustrator ( Nadja Hammerman) in Paris whose secret relationship with Chilean consul general Armando Marin Mujica leads to the escape of hundreds of Jewish refugees from Nazi concentration camps.

But this year’s festival includes a particularly special tale with lots of Granite State ties. The 2017 documentary “Monkey Business: The Adventures of Curious George’s Creators,” which will screen at 3:30 p.m. today at Keene State College and 5:30 p.m. Sunday, March 25, at Red River Theatres in Concord, delves into the story of the Reys, and how Curious George and The Man With The Yellow Hat nearly didn’t make it onto bookshelves.

In 1940, the Reys, German-born Jews, were living in Paris when Nazism began to take hold. On makeshift bicycles cobbled together by Hans, the two fled hours before the city fell, carrying with them a few belongings, including the manuscript for what would be “Curious George.”

They escaped to Lisbon, Portugal, then made it to Rio, Brazil, eventually arriving in the United States, where they settled in Cambridge, Mass.

The Reys spent their summers here in the Granite State in Waterville Valley during the 1950s and 1960s, and left a powerful impression on the residents of the then-sleepy town, including several children whose parents had cottages there. (Today the couple’s legacy is preserved in the Margret & H.A. Rey Center at the Curious George Cottage on Noon Peak Road in Waterville Valley.)

Three of those kids — Dave Foster of Dunbarton and siblings Susan Scrimshaw and Nick Scrimshaw, both of Thornton, knew the Reys were among those interviewed for the documentary “Monkey Business.” All three, who will attend the film festival’s wrap-up party, shared their favorite stories of the couple with the Union Leader.

Dave, Susan and Nick all said visits with the Reys would include nature walks, “chalk talks,” swims in the Waterville Inn’s pool, astronomy lessons, and peeks at “Curious George” works in progress.

When children came calling, it was mostly Hans who entertained them.

“He was just magical with children. He would engage with them. He could communicate with them. I wish I even came close to that ability,” says Dave, who met the couple when he was about 7.

“I was terrified of Mrs. Rey and absolutely enchanted by Mr. Rey. We called him ‘Mr. Rey’… He was like a pied piper, almost like a wizard,” says Susan, who first met them when was 9.

While Hans regaled the children with inventive stories and drawings, Margret tended to her pottery or her flower garden, which happened to be on the golf course.

“She had a running feud with the golfers over her garden, and with the kids sometimes when she felt the kids got too close to her garden,” says Susan. “She had a beautiful garden, a lot like those English gardens where you have layers and layers of flowers, and they’re different colors, and they bloom in succession.”

All three said while Hans (who died in 1977) was open and friendly toward children, they felt Margret had a bit of an abrasive nature that sometimes made it tough to carry on a friendship.

“She would chase us away when she thought we had taken too much of his time. We were all scared of her. She was the backbone (of the relationship). But they adored each other. It was kind of fun to watch them together because they were so close,” says Susan.

“She wasn’t as approachable. Margret (who died in 1996) was quite brash. She was very opinionated,” says Dave, who says he was about 7 or 8 when he first met the Reys.

If the weather was warm, Nick says H.A. would throw Life Savers candy into the pool for the children to grab.

“He would go swimming every afternoon if weather permitted. He would take the temperature of the water in the pool. We’d all be there because he would throw in Life Savers, and we’d dive down and get them. I remember the minty ones,” says Nick.

Another common thread: Hans held “chalk talks” at the Waterville Inn to entertain children in town. Hans would draw pictures on a sketch pad on an easel and make up stories on the spot.

“He would very quickly draw these elaborate sketches. He’d probably draw 15 or 20 over an evening telling a story. That was his ‘chalk talk.’ He’d have one of the children draw a squiggle or something, and he’d take that and transform it into a picture and then give it to us,” says Dave.

Susan says drawings often included images of nature.

“He would draw the chipmunks and he’d draw squirrels and he’d draw the birds, what he was experiencing in the mountains in New Hampshire. Kids would tell him their names and he’d take the first letter of their name and make it into an animal in the chalk talks,” she says.

One story Nick and Dave remember was about a frog that lived in a drain near the swimming pool.

“He would create an imaginary little creature that lived in there. It’s more like this giant bullfrog who lived in this pipe. And he would talk to it and have conversations. And, of course, we found that fascinating,” says Nick.

“He would entertain the kids with his ventriloquism and a mystical figure in the drainpipe at the pool,” adds Dave.

Hans would even ask kids’ opinions of Curious George manuscripts. Nick and Susan said Hans sought their advice when writing “Curious George Goes To the Hospital.” In the story, George swallows a puzzle piece and must visit the hospital to have it removed.

“He asked me to read it,” says Susan, who was about 9 when the book came out. “He wanted to make sure that it was easily read and understood. ‘How does this sound to you, at your age?’ ” Susan recalls Hans asking.

Both saw the drawings that eventually went into the book.

“We’d talk about it, redraw it, and so I felt that I was at least part of the process,” says Nick, who remembers Hans could draw with both hands.

Dave remembers the special relationship he had with Hans.

“He was a naturalist, very much so, and he’d get up every morning (and) go for walks around the valley, 7 o’clock, with their spaniel, and I’d join him. We would walk ... and talk about nature things, boy things; I forget exactly what. And this went on for years,” says Dave.

Besides his love of nature, Hans’ interest in astronomy also left an impact on the kids. Hans had redrawn constellation diagrams to make them more memorable and easier for children to understand, and published them in “The Stars: A New Way To See Them,” in 1952. He brought that knowledge to Waterville as well.

Hans would hold astronomy talks on the golf course in the town common at the time. Dave says as many as 50 people would gather around the telescope.

“They’d shut every light off in the valley, so it was totally dark, and everybody was instructed to take their flashlights and put a red filter over it,” says Dave.

“They would talk away, and then we’d look at the rings of Saturn and the moon and the various constellations. Hans would give a very learned discussion on constellations, on celestial bodies, on how the heavens worked,” he adds.

Breaking down barriers

Despite how much a part of Waterville they would become, the Reys that first summer weren’t warmly welcomed, partly due to post-World War II sentiment,

“I wanna be careful how I say this ... the Reys weren’t particularly well received when they first moved to the Valley, because they were Jewish,” says Dave. “They were an extraordinary group of people, the people who summered in the valley. Many of them had been through World War II …. and they were kind of shaking off the war still. They were starting families.”

Dave says there was an initial fear among some residents that the Reys would bring others of the Jewish faith into their town, and pointed to visitors of the Mount Washington Hotel as a harbinger of the influx that could happen in Waterville.

“I want to be very soft how I say this. Many of the Jewish people of Philadelphia, Boston, and New York City would spend their summers up there. And the people in Waterville were afraid that the Reys — not themselves, but because they probably knew (other) Jewish people — that their friends would come over, and the inn in Waterville would start looking like the Mount Washington Hotel.

“I can remember them sitting by themselves in the dining room at the inn, and people weren’t unfriendly, but they ... I can say they carefully avoided them,” says Dave.

But he emphasizes the Reys soon won over the town, thanks in part to the kids Hans befriended.

“One of the children would bring their parents over to say, ‘I’d like you to meet my friend, Mr. Rey.’ Particularly, Hans was just … a very engaging person. And then slowly, they got to be known around with everybody. And then I noticed that they (were) invited to join families for dinner at the inn,” says Dave, adding that cocktail parties would liven up the town during some summers.

“The Reys were very private themselves. However, up in the valley, there was nobody more social than the Reys. And they were very much adopted by the whole Valley,” says Dave.

Susan also remembers that the Reys sometimes talked about their narrow escape from Paris.

“I heard them talk about being Jewish in the ‘30s in Europe and the impact of Hitler, and they talked about the years in Brazil,” she says.

But perhaps one of the biggest similarities Nick, Susan and Dave share are their memories of how Hans respected them as equals, even though they were children at the time.

“He treated everybody as a person. We weren’t just children to him. He would get down and talk to us seriously and listen to us. In all my years of teaching, I’ve always used that as an inspiration. The quiet enthusiasm and dignity he had was just amazing,” says Nick.

“He looked at you and he would talk to you, not to your age group, or not ‘run along,’ or ‘I’m gonna entertain you.’ There was this rapport,” says Nick.

“Hans and I were particularly good friends,” Dave remembers.

“It was always just a magical relationship. I think it was the way he treated people and the way he treated children and his just incredible wit and love of animals and of nature. I didn’t get treated any differently because I was a little girl,” says Susan.

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