Drawn in Paris during the turbulent early years of World War II, this watercolor scene called "This is George. He Lived in Africa," shows an early final version of the character who -- after being renamed in the United States -- became famous to millions of young readers as "Curious George."

Drawn in Paris during the turbulent early years of World War II, this watercolor scene called "This is George. He Lived in Africa," shows an early final version of the character who -- after being renamed in the United States -- became famous to millions of young readers as "Curious George." (May 9, 2011)

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.