Jean de Brunhoff and his Unforgettable Elephant – BABAR!

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 Jean de Brunhoff and his Unforgettable Elephant – BABAR!
“In the forest, a little elephant is born. His name is Babar.” It was a storybook childhood for the little elephant. On the savannah little Babar’s mother softly rocks him in a hammock with her gentle trunk. Other young pachyderms frolic in a waterhole. They picnic, play ball, and piggyback their monkey friends. This jungle paradise is torn asunder when – Bang! – an evil gun blast orphans Babar. It was a storybook childhood for Laurent and Mathieu de Brunhoff too. In their privileged fairy tale, the happy sons of Jean de Brunhoff rode their bicycles, visited their tree house, and played hide & seek, romping like little suburban monkeys with their cousins at their grandparents’ estate. And then, in 1937 the dream was over. Their father, the French artist who brought to life one of the most enduring fictional characters of all time, was dead from tuberculosis. Many junior protagonists found in children’s books are parentless and carry on regardless – Harry Potter, Oliver Twist, Anne of Green Gables to name but three. This literary trope forces the orphaned child to struggle against the unexpected in his or her own way. These kids are magnets for trouble but often a magical dose of luck sets them straight. These waifs and strays are free to run wild and live large and daring lives. Babar was no exception. Babar’s reaction to his mother’s death was to high-tail it to the city. Running on and on he miraculously arrives at a large town that is oh-so-very much like Paris, including a great bronze lion like the one who oversees the traffic at Place Denfert-Rochereau in the 14th arrondissement. Babar soon learns to handle himself in all situations with help from a kindly old lady (and her purse) who teaches him to be two-footed and who instantly understands that he is longing for a good suit. And what a suit it is – in Babar Green – so iconic it should have its own paint chip. Inexplicably the marché has clothes in size ‘Elephant.’ The old lady becomes his best friend forever. She maintains Babar at her pied-à-terre like a kept man. There, he is a habitué of the good life and the fine food and lively conversation he enjoys softens the pain of his mother’s death. Jean de Brunhoff lived a good life too. Born in Paris on December 9, 1899, de Brunhoff was the fourth and last child of publisher Maurice de Brunhoff, and his wife Marguerite. The Place Denfert-Rochereau was the bustling Paris corner where Jean grew up. From № 4 he would overlook Bartholdi’s heroic lion every day. After graduating from the prestigious L’Ecole Alsacienne, de Brunhoff joined the French army at the end of the First World War, but luckily saw no action. Deciding to become a professional artist, Jean studied painting with Othon Friesz at the Académie de la Grand Chaumière in Montparnasse. He was attracted to the relaxed lines and open brushstrokes of Raoul Dufy and produced landscapes, portraits, and still lifes that are thought to foreshadow his Babar books. He couldn’t earn his living as a painter so he tried his hand as an illustrator, supported by an allowance from his parents and parents-in-law. In 1924 de Brunhoff had married the elegant and serene Cécile Sabouraud, and the de Brunhoff sons, Laurent and Mathieu, followed in 1925 and 1926. A tall and attractive man, Jean’s personality revealed his handsomeness was more than skin deep. Jean was tactful, friendly and natural. He was especially attentive to his youngsters. At a very young age Laurent and Mathieu learned to ski in Vermala, staying in the French Swiss ski resort for several months every winter. The family split their time between their skiing holidays, their apartment in Neuilly, in Paris’ northwest, and Cécile de Brunhoff’s parents’ walled mansion near the Marne. Free from the worry of school schedules, the boys continued their education through correspondence lessons. It was a blissful time. The four enjoyed a comfortable life. One summer’s evening back at the Villa Lermina, Grandpa’s house in the Paris suburb of Chessy – now encroached upon by Disneyland Paris, – Mathieu had a tummy ache. Mama Cécile nestled herself between her boys aged four and five and spontaneously created the story of an intrepid and well-mannered elephant in the hope of soothing her youngest son. The next day the boys excitedly repeated the story to their artistic father. Laurent de Brunhoff interviewed in 2014 for an article in National Geographic remembers, “the next day we ran to our father’s study, which was in the corner of the garden, to tell him about it. He was very amused and started to draw.” Jean wrote down the story that Cécile had told their boys. According to Laurent de Brunhoff in Simon Worral’s National Geographic interview, that was how the story of Babar was born. “My mother called him Bébé elephant. It was my father who changed the name to Babar. But the first pages of the first book, with the elephant killed by a hunter and the escape to the city, was her story.” Jean embellished the story with illustrations and made the tale into a book, just a single copy, intended only for his sons. However, as his brother and brother-in-law worked together in the publishing business, it wasn’t long before they persuaded Jean to allow them to publish the story. Originally the title page of the Story of Babar was to have read “as told by Jean and Cécile de Brunhoff,” but unfortunately Cécile had her name removed because she thought her role in…

Lead photo credit : We love our Babar books! Photo: Bonjour Paris

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A freelance writer and amateur historian, Hazel knew she wanted to focus on the lives of French artists and femme fatales after an epiphany at the Musée d'Orsay. A life-long learner, she is a recent graduate of Art History from the University of Toronto. Now she is searching for a real-life art history mystery to solve.


  • Hazel Smith
    2017-06-30 13:41:54
    Hazel Smith


  • T.A.
    2017-06-29 13:35:22
    What a lovely article! Babar was an important part of my childhood, and you brought tears to my eyes. Thank you.


  • Parisbreakfast
    2017-06-29 12:05:59
    What a delightful story! A few years back there was a wonderful exhibit of all the Babar books, toys, drawigs etc at the musee des Arts Decoratif. I hope you caught it!


  • Marilyn Brouwer
    2017-06-29 01:37:32
    Marilyn Brouwer
    As always a beautifully researched article by Hazel. Fascinating insights into the family behind Babar. Always a pleasure to read your writing.