Tuesday, November 15, 2011

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!”

Thursday, November 10, 2011

How Do You Pronounce 'Reyersbach' in Portuguese?         
 by Ann Mulloy Ashmore        
Answer: With difficulty. Born Hans Augusto Reyersbach, Hans Rey explained the evolution of his name from Reyersbach in a letter to a fan. “My name Rey is not my original [family name],” Hans wrote. “It was Reyersbach, but when I left my native Hamburg, Germany, for Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1925, that name turned out to be a tongue-twister for my Portuguese-speaking friends. They shortened it to Rey.”

McCain Library and Archives, University of Southern Mississippi

Hans used the formulation H. A. Rey as a nom de plume as early as the 1930s, however. Frustrated that he was not allowed to “adorn” business letters with illustrations, he created personalized greeting cards, cartoons, even a short book to amuse himself as well as his friends. Rey once told a reporter that the idea for the book came to him during a dinner lecture. As Hans listened to the botanist’s talk, he noticed an unusual plant on the table where he was seated. Suspecting it was carnivorous, he began to wonder if it would eat a piece of his steak. Not content to just imagine the outcome, Rey allowed the question to inspire a Planta Carnivora: Romance Botanico em 26 Capitulos, a humorous picture story about a carnivorous plant so out of control it finally has to be relocated to a zoo. A Planta Carnivora was the first of several versions of the story that would eventually be published by Harper & Brothers as Elizabite: The Adventures of a Carnivorous Plant in 1942 and 1962.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Mr. Smith Lives in the Pool Drain
 by Ann Mulloy Ashmore

            Splashing about in a swimming pool on a hot summer day is everyone’s idea of fun, but when Mr. Smith lived in the pool drain, summer swims were also funny, thanks to H. A. Rey, co-creator with wife Margret of the Curious George children's books. From 1953 to 1977 the couple vacationed each summer in Waterville Valley, New Hampshire. Every afternoon Hans Rey would walk or ride his bicycle to the community pool to swim, and every afternoon a cadre of neighborhood children eagerly awaited his arrival. In the water, Hans became a turtle, giving rides on his back to all-comers, or at times a whale that spouted water. But Hans drew the most giggles when he crawled under the diving board to “talk” to Mr. Smith and the other creatures that lived in the pool drain. 
An accomplished ventriloquist, Rey learned to imitate animals as a small boy visiting the Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg, Germany, where he grew up. He became so good at throwing his voice, that one time while speaking in Atlanta, Georgia, he almost convinced the 4,000 people in the audience that there was a real lion in the auditorium. The next day The Atlanta Constitution newspaper reported, “He cackled. He bellowed. He snorted. But when H. A. Rey, the little round man who writes and illustrates children’s books, turned his talents to roaring like a  jungle lion…the kids of Atlanta roared right back at him!”
            Rey studied astronomy and wrote two books about the subject. One, Find the Constellations, was written for children and on clear summer evenings in Waterville Valley he often invited curious youngsters to “stargaze” at the Rey cottage. “Every kid would come on the run,” remembered a neighbor. Patiently, he let each child use the big telescope to look at the stars in Orion’s belt and Jupiter’s moons as the planet rose in the sky over Mt. Osceola.
Hans shared not only his enthusiasm for astronomy with each child, but also his love of nature and animals. Three of his young friends, Nat, Nick and Steve Scrimshaw, wrote a tribute to the author following his death in 1977. “It was to him that we would bring wounded chipmunks, birds, squirrels, a captured mole, even an odd rock.”  Likewise, the thoughts and opinions of his small companions were important to him as well. “What animal should the letter M be?” he once asked the Scrimshaw brothers when working on a book.
Sadly, today’s summer visitors no longer talk to the inhabitants of the swimming pool drain at the Waterville Valley Inn. Without Mr. Smith and his friend H. A. Rey to call them into our imaginations, their voices are silent. But the children who took turtle rides on Rey’s back those summers long ago know the creatures have not gone away. They are just hiding, waiting—eagerly expecting a magical summer day when the little round man returns for his afternoon swim.