In 1960, Tomi Ungerer was returning from his native France to New York City, his adopted home, when he realized that three men were walking uncomfortably close to him as he was leaving a terminal at the old Idlewild airport in Queens. One ordered him to drop his suitcases. Then the others latched onto him, hustled him into a car and drove him to a nearby building where they questioned him obliquely about his travel and his political affiliations.
“It was just like in a movie,” Ungerer recalled with a quiet laugh. “I don’t know whether it was the FBI or whoever they were. They even opened the soles of my shoes.”
It’s the kind of trench-coat caper that doesn’t generally feature a beloved children’s book author as the abductee. But then, few children’s book authors in those wary cold war years made a habit of playing poker with the Cuban envoy to the UN, as Ungerer did, or applied for a visa to visit China. Or had a side career publishing books of often disturbing erotica. Or held parties in the Hamptons so notorious that the neighbors were afraid to invite him to theirs.
Ungerer moved to New York from Strasbourg in 1956 — with only a trunk full of drawings and US$60 in his pocket, as articles from those years unfailingly report — and became an almost immediate success. At the dawn of a golden age for magazine illustration, the jazzy, acid-etched work that flowed from his chaotic studio on West 42nd Steet seemed to be everywhere: Esquire, Life, Harper’s Bazaar, the Village Voice, the New York Times.
His first children’s book, The Mellops Go Flying, about a family of daring French pigs, was published to glowing reviews in 1957, the same year he introduced his friend Shel Silverstein to Ursula Nordstrom, his editor, a legend in children’s books at Harper and Row, who would soon publish another of Ungerer’s friends, Maurice Sendak.
For many years Ungerer’s books were solidly in such classic company. “No one, I dare say, no one was as original,” Sendak said of him. “Tomi influenced everybody.”
But after he left New York, and the US, for good in 1970, his reputation seemed to depart with him. While his stature increased in Europe and Japan, his books began to fall out of print in the US, to the point that Phaidon Press, the London art-book publisher, could describe him recently — and fairly accurately — as “the most famous children’s book author you have never heard of.”
But Phaidon is hoping to change that. It has acquired the rights to almost all of Ungerer’s work and this fall will start to republish his children’s books in the US and the UK, beginning with The Three Robbers from 1962, a darkly drawn tale of big-hatted brigands and the orphan girl who shows them the error of their ways, a classic in France and Germany. Other titles will soon follow, like Emile, the story of a heroic octopus, and Moon Man, first published in 1967, tattered library copies of which can now turn up on used-book sites for more than US$100.
Though he has never been much out of it, the spotlight seems to be shining particularly brightly right now on Ungerer. The Three Robbers was recently made into an animated film whose US distribution rights have been bought by the Weinstein Co. Last fall a museum dedicated wholly to his work was opened in Strasbourg.
For the past three decades Ungerer, 76, has made his home there and in a tiny coastal village on the Mizen Peninsula in Ireland, about as far south on the island as a traveler can go. He describes himself as an Alsatian first and a European second, and has had a long love-hate relationship with the US, which nurtured him but ultimately alienated him. So there is an undercurrent of ambivalence in his voice when he talks about his coming reintroduction to American shelves.