Laurent de Brunhoff, ‘Babar’ heir and author, dies at age 98

NEW YORK — NEW YORK (AP) — “Babar” author Laurent de Brunhoff, who revived his father’s popular picture book series about an elephant king and presided over its rise to fame as a global, multimedia franchise, has died. He was 98.

De Brunhoff, a Paris native who moved to the U.S. in the 1980s, died Friday at his home in Key West, Florida, after two weeks in hospice, said his widow, Phyllis Rose.

Only twelve years old when his father, Jean de Brunhoff, died of tuberculosis, Laurent came of age when he made use of his own gifts as a painter and storyteller and published dozens of books about the elephant that rules Celesteville, including “Babar at the Circus” and “Babar’s Yoga for Elephants.” He preferred to use fewer words than his father, but his illustrations faithfully imitated Jean’s soft, understated style.

“Together, father and son have woven a fictional world so seamlessly that it is almost impossible to discover where one left off and the other began,” author Ann S. Haskell wrote in The New York Times in 1981.

The series has sold millions of copies worldwide and has been adapted into a television show and animated films such as ‘Babar: The Movie’ and ‘Babar: King of the Elephants’. Fans ranged from Charles de Gaulle to Maurice Sendak, who once wrote, “If he had come my way, how I would have welcomed that little elephant and smothered him with affection.”

De Brunhoff would say of his creation: “Babar, c’est moi” (“that’s me”), telling National Geographic in 2014 that “all my life, for years, he has been drawing the elephant.”

The books’ appeal was far from universal. Some parents shunned the passage in the debut, “The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant,” in which Babar’s mother is shot and killed by hunters. Numerous critics called the series racist and colonialist, citing Babar’s education in Paris and its influence on his (supposed) Africa-based regime. In 1983, Chilean author Ariel Dorfman called the books an “implicit history that justifies and rationalizes the motives behind an international situation in which some countries have everything and other countries almost nothing.”

“The history of Babar,” wrote Dorfman, “is nothing other than the fulfillment of the colonial dream of the dominant countries.”

Adam Gopnik, a Paris-based correspondent for The New Yorker, defended “Babar,” writing in 2008 that it “is not an unconscious expression of the French colonial imagination; It is a self-conscious comedy about the French colonial imagination and its relationship to the French domestic imagination.”

De Brunhoff himself admitted that he found it ‘a bit embarrassing to see Babar fighting with black people in Africa. He especially regretted “Babar’s Picnic,” a 1949 publication that contained crude caricatures of blacks and American Indians, and asked his publisher to withdraw it.

De Brunhoff was the eldest of three sons of Jean de Brunhoff and Cecile de Brunhoff, a painter. Babar came into being when Cecile de Brunhoff, the namesake of the elephant kingdom and Babar’s wife, improvised a story for her children.

“My mother started telling us a story to distract us,” De Brunhoff told National Geographic in 2014. “We loved it and 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 drawing. And so the story of Babar. My mother named him Bebe elephant (French for baby). 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.”

The debut was released in 1931 through the family publisher Le Jardin Des Modes. Babar was immediately well received and Jean de Brunhoff completed four more Babar books before he died six years later, at the age of 37. Laurent’s uncle, Michael, helped publish two additional works, but no one else added to the series until after World War II, when Laurent, then a painter, decided to bring it back.

“Gradually I began to feel strongly that there was a Babar tradition and that it should be preserved,” he wrote in The New York Times in 1952.

De Brunhoff was married twice, most recently to critic and biographer Phyllis Rose, who wrote the text for many of the recent “Babar” publications, including the 2017 release billed as the final, “Babar’s Guide to Paris.” He had two children, Anne and Antoine, but the author did not consciously write for young people.

“I never really think about children when I make my books,” he told the Wall Street Journal in 2017. “Babar was my friend and I made up stories with him, but not with children in the corner of my mind. I write it for myself.”