Remembering The Reys at the Cambridge Public Library

In June of 1940, as the Nazis advanced on Paris, two young artists escaped on a pair of bicycles they had hastily thrown together out of spare parts. Their journey would take them through the French countryside to a train station at Orleans, onto a crowded train to Lisbon, aboard a steamer headed for Rio de Janeiro, and finally to New York City.Artwork covers the walls in the stairway leading up to the new Rey Room and Curious George Room at the Cambridge Public Library

Youville House resident Lay Lee Ong knows the story of these artists by heart. She can tell you that while Hans – the illustrator – and Margret – the writer – were riding in the rain through the jam-packed roads leading out of Paris, a manuscript entitled Fifi was snugly packed in a basket behind Hans’s bike seat. It was one of the few indispensible possessions they carried with them on their journey.  Fifi would later be retitled Curious George when Hans and Margret had the book published by Houghton Mifflin, less than a year after their arrival in New York.

Lay Lee first heard the story about the Reys’ wartime escape from Margret Rey herself, decades later. Like Margret, Lay Lee had immigrated to the United States as a young woman and was interested in the arts.  While a student at the Berklee School of Music, she answered an ad in the paper one summer to house-sit for Margret. Upon Margret’s return, the two formed an instant friendship that would last until Margret’s death. “We adopted each other,” Lay Lee remembers, “because Margret was widowed and had no children, and I was very far from my own family.”

Now a trustee of the Curious George Fund, Lay Lee recently granted a bequest of $1/2 million to the Cambridge Public Library.  A dedication ceremony for two new rooms in the library is scheduled for May 7th. The rooms were established with the bequest and are dedicated to storytelling and other activities for children. Enlarged artwork from the Curious George books covers the walls and contributes to the whimsical allure of the space.

In addition to numerous interesting speakers, the dedication ceremony will feature the unveiling of a special piano dedicated to the library by the Reys’ publishers, Houghton Mifflin.   The piano features original drawings by Hans (professionally known as H.A. Rey) of three of his famous characters – Cecily G, the giraffe; Pretzel, the dachshund; and Curious George himself.  The piano is a unique, living remnant of the playful spontaneity that characterized every moment of the lives of both Hans and Margret. 

Author Louise Borden will discuss her book about The Reys' escape from Paris during World War II at the Cambridge Public Library on May 8th“The Cambridge Public Library is an organization I know Margret would have wanted to support,” says Lay Lee. “I remembered how in 1995 they had an event that honored her and gave her a key to the city. Also May is remembrance month in Cambridge, a time to reflect on the holocaust and those who fled the Nazis. The Reys were part of that very frightening history.”

The Reys’ escape from Europe has been meticulously researched and documented by children’s author Louise Borden in The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of H.A. and Margret Rey. Borden is expected to speak at the May 7th dedication, and on May 8th she will return to the library to present a lecture on her experience writing about the Reys.  

Lay Lee is inviting Youville House residents to accompany her to The Cambridge Public Library for the dedication ceremony (which is an invitation-only event) and the May 8th lecture, which is open to the public.  Residents interested in attending can sign up at the reception desk for one of the 12 spots available on either night.