The name Hans Augusto Reyersbach is not found on the tip of many tongues, but his contributions to astronomy and, on a much grander scale, worldwide culture and entertainment, are legendary. His unlikely rise to a place of honor is really the stuff of legend.
Hans was born on September 16, 1898, in Hamburg, Germany. At the age of 18 he was drafted into the German army and served in France and Russia during World War I. While a child, he enjoyed drawing animals he saw at a nearby zoo; during the war he developed an interest in astronomy, learning the constellations from a pocket guidebook he kept with him.
After the war Hans returned to Hamburg and took college classes while earning money on the side by drawing posters for a circus. This life seemed to have little future and by the mid-1920s he moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where he sold bathtubs and plumbing accessories for a family business.
A decade into this work, he met Margarete Waldstein, a woman eight years his junior who was also from Hamburg. In fact, the two had met when they were young but then their paths didn’t cross again until they ran into each other in Rio de Janeiro. Her reason for leaving home was more disquieting than his; she was Jewish (as was Hans) and went to Brazil to escape the mounting Nazi regime in Germany.
Hans and Margarete soon fell in love and got married. In 1936 they went on a belated honeymoon to Paris and enjoyed it so much that they stayed there, settling in the Montmartre section of the city. For several years they lived a blessed and happy life working together in advertising. They also tag-teamed on writing a children’s book, whose main character was so intriguing to them that they decided to write another book centered on him. Their plans, like those of so many others in the world at the time, quickly went awry when the Nazis invaded France in May 1940.
Over the ensuing month the Nazis advanced toward Paris, leaving many Parisians no alternative but to flee the city. Unfortunately, by the time the young advertising/author couple decided to leave, no transportation was available. Desperate, Hans scrounged the city for spare bicycle parts and managed to fashion two bikes. To the sounds of German shelling, he and his wife rode the bikes out of Paris on the morning of June 12, just two days before the Nazis took control of the city.
The couple left with few possessions — some clothes and the manuscript for their book. They rode 75 miles over the next three days, then wedged themselves into a train to Lisbon, Portugal. Several months later, they were able to get passage on a ship to Brazil and finally another to New York, where they settled into a life of writing.
A decade after moving to the United States, Hans returned to his love for astronomy with the idea of creating a useful guide to stars. From time immemorial, humans have gazed at the night sky and imagined familiar patterns among the otherwise random display of stars. This led to the development of constellations that, in more modern times, were recorded in publications serving as maps of the night sky. These were unfortunately often difficult to use because the drawings depicted often didn’t look like the patterns they were supposed to represent (Orion the Hunter, for instance, looked nothing like a person).
In 1952 Hans decided to try and remedy this problem and wrote a book in which he introduced more logical interpretations. This book, "The Stars: A New Way to See Them," has since become a classic publication.
So why don’t many people, even in the field of astronomy, recognize the name Hans Reyersbach? Well, shortly after he and Margarete got married but before they unexpectedly moved to Paris, they changed their names because they thought the Brazilians had too much trouble pronouncing them. She shortened hers to Margret and they shortened their last name from Reyersbach to Rey. For the books they wrote together, they simply went by Margret and H.A. Rey.
And that book manuscript they carried with them while fleeing Paris? The main character was a monkey named Fifi, which the New York publisher, Houghton Mifflin, suggested changing because Fifi didn’t sound like a male name. They went with George, and Curious George was born.