How to Spell ‘Margret’ – Let Me Count the Ways
by Ann Mulloy Ashmore
If you wanted to provoke Margret Rey’s ire, all you had to do was spell her name incorrectly. Ursula Nordstrom, director of the Department of Books for Boys and Girls at Harper & Brothers, learned this lesson after making Margret’s acquaintance in 1941. Initially the editor addressed letters to the couple as “Mr. and Mrs. Rey.” As their friendship grew, however, Nordstrom’s salutation changed to the more familiar, “Hans and Margaret.” Margret, being Margret, complained and after several letters with the “extra a” crossed out with a pen, Nordstrom finally caught on.
|McCain Library and Archives, University of Southern Mississippi|
Years later Nordstrom indirectly referred to the spat in a letter to Barbara Alexandra Dicks—a letter Leonard Marcus chose to include in Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (pp. 359-360). “I met him and Margret (correct spelling that, MARGRET) when they were refugees in the early forties….,” Nordstrom wrote. Readers may have sensed a note of pique in Nordstrom’s tone, given her emphasis on the “correct spelling,” but without the backstory, I wonder how many understood its depth?
According to Lay Lee Ong, a long-time friend, Margret first thought about dropping the “extra a” in her name as early as the 1930’s when she worked for an advertising agency in Berlin. “She wanted to be different,” wrote Ong in response to my question. It appears Margret did not put her desire into action, however, until shortly before the couple fled Paris ahead of the Nazis.
In January 1941, just months after the Reys arrived in New York, Margret received a letter from the Banco Germanico in Rio de Janeiro. The letter, addressed to Margret Reyersbach, had been originally mailed to their apartment in Paris. At the time her legal name was Margarete Elisabeth Reyersbach, but Margret’s return letter dated February 9, 1941, was signed Margret Reyersbach. This is the earliest documented spelling of her name without the “extra a” that I have found, thus far.
This wasn’t the first time Margret had changed her name. Her given name was Margarethe (mar gar EH tuh), the Danish form of Margaret, which she used throughout her school years. By 1927 she had dropped the “h” and eight years later, Margarete Elisabeth Waldstein became Frau Reyersbach upon her marriage to Hans in August 1935. A digital copy of their wedding announcement is available on the de Grummond Collection Web site. Sometime after 1941 the couple legally changed their last name to Rey. At that moment Margarete Elisabeth Waldstein Reyersbach became Margret Rey—short, to the point, direct—a name befitting the author and businesswoman she had become. “Margret wanted to be different,” her friend Lay Lee mused, “That she was, and how!”