Laurent de Brunhoff, Artist Who Made Babar Famous, Dies at 98

Laurent de Brunhoff, the French artist who nurtured his father’s creation, a beloved, very Gallic and very civilized elephant named Babar, for nearly seven decades — sending him, among other places, into a haunted castle, to New York City and into outer space — died on Friday at his home in Key West, Fla. He was 98.

The cause was complications of a stroke, said his wife, Phyllis Rose.

Babar was born one night in 1930 in a leafy Paris suburb. Laurent, then 5, and his brother, Mathieu, 4, were having trouble sleeping. Their mother, Cécile de Brunhoff, a pianist and music teacher, began to spin a tale about an orphaned baby elephant who flees the jungle and runs to Paris, which is conveniently located nearby.

The boys were enthralled by the story, and in the morning they raced off to tell their father, Jean de Brunhoff, an artist; he embraced the tale and began to sketch the little elephant, whom he named Babar, and flesh out his adventures.

Laurent, right, and Mathieu du Brunhoff at about the time their mother first conjured a story about the baby elephant that became Babar.Credit…via de Brunhoff family

In Paris, Jean imagined, Babar is rescued by a rich woman — simply referred to as the Old Lady — who introduces him to all sorts of modern delights. Armed with the Old Lady’s purse, Babar visits a department store, where he rides the elevator up and down, irritating the operator: “This is not a toy, Mr. Elephant.” He buys a suit in “a becoming shade of green” and, though the year is 1930, a pair of spats, the natty, gaitered footwear of a 19th-century gentleman.

He drives the Old Lady’s automobile, enjoys a bubble bath and receives lessons in arithmetic and other subjects. But he misses his old life and weeps for his mother, and when his young cousins Arthur and Celeste track him down, he returns to the jungle with them — but not before outfitting Arthur and Celeste in fine clothes of their own.

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