“Writing is always a dreadful, tiresome business and the worst of all tortures for me, because I am convinced that I am not a writer but a graphic workman, a painter who hangs pictures in a row, who collects imagery, and my problem is always to find one for a beginning and one for an end and then, something to hang in the middle so that it resembles a book,” said Ludwig Bemelmans (1898 – 1962).
Graphic workman, painter—whatever he called himself, Bemelmans belongs in the Pantheon of illustrators. A relentless connoisseur of life, he drew with a child’s eye and wrote with the shrewd wit of an adult. He knew everyone worth knowing, went everywhere worth visiting, all the while recording what he saw on the backs of menus, envelopes, or on the inside covers of matchbooks. His resume was a checkerboard: hotelier, restaurateur, cartoonist, ad man, theatrical designer, novelist, screenwriter, interior decorator, journalist, and children’s book author. What made Bemelmans such a creative powerhouse? He confessed, “My greatest inspiration is a low bank balance.”
His best-remembered work, of course, is the series of picture books starring that beguiling schoolgirl, Madeline. “I like to write for children because I suffer from a sort of arrested development. I am about six years old really,” Bemelmans said, “and I am constantly surprised by everything.” He knew that the Madeline books were his lasting legacy, yet it surely would have surprised him to find that they have sold upwards of ten million copies, and that the thriving Madeline merchandise empire now encompasses DVDs, dolls, board games, backpacks, tea sets, and stickers.
Bemelmans’ world ranged from yachts and limousines to garrets and subways, and was peopled with moppets, jewel thieves, Ecuadorian Generals, and feather boa-clad vamps. His drawing style, humorous and reductive, captures all this in a flash. “I sketch with facility and speed,” he wrote. “The drawing has to sit on the paper as if you smacked a spoon of whipped cream on a plate.”
Born in Meran, Austria, and bred in Tyrolean hotels, Bemelmans came to the States at 16 and landed at the Ritz-Carlton. There he learned “to press a duck, open a bottle, and push a chair under a lady.” While working his way from busboy to banquet manager, he drew, often using William Randolph Hearst’s empty suite as his studio. The Ritz staff and clientele provided him with a rich menu of subjects, and he returned again and again to hotel life for inspiration.
He first set his heart on becoming a cartoonist. His earliest effort, The Thrilling Adventures of Count Bric A Brac (1926), ran for six months, but his big break happened when May Massee of Viking Press came to dinner. Admiring the scenes Bemelmans had painted on the blinds, Massee announced: “You must write children’s books!” Hansi (1934), a reminiscence of his childhood, was quickly followed by three more: The Golden Basket (1936), The Castle Number 9 (1937), and Quito Express (1938).
Bemelmans met and married Madeleine (Mimi) Freund in 1934. The two honeymooned in Belgium, which provided the setting for The Golden Basket, his Newbery-Honor winner. Not many realize that Madeline makes her debut in this book. Madeleine, spelled like his wife’s name here, is one of 12 little girls shepherded by a tall nun through the streets of Bruges.
In 1938, Bemelmans, Mimi, and their two-year-old Barbara traveled to France. On the recommendation of Georges, his underworld friend, Bemelmans visited the Ile d’Yeu off the coast of France. Here came more inspiration for Madeline when he was knocked off his bike by a truck. He had to walk to the hospital, where, in the next room, he wrote, “was a little girl who had had her appendix out, and on the ceiling over my bed was a crack that, in the varying light of morning, night and noon, and evening, looked like a rabbit.”
He went on: “I remembered the stories my mother had told me of life in the convent school at Altotting, and the little girl, the hospital, the room, the crank on the bed, the nurse, the doctor, all fell into place. I made the first sketches on a sidewalk table outside the Restaurant Voltaire . . . The first words of the text were written on the back of a menu in Pete’s Tavern on the corner of Eighteenth Street and Irving Place in New York.”
In a rare moment of poor judgment, Massee rejected Madeline. Although she thought the manuscript was cartoon-like, Bemelmans’ readers were charmed. Bemelmans had found his true audience, which he described as, “clear-eyed, critical and hungry . . . all of whom are impressionists themselves, who love my pictures, and sometimes even eat them. They are children.” Madeline won Caldecott Honors, and the sequel, Madeline’s Rescue, won the Caldecott Medal in 1954.
How useful for Bemelmans that he was both artist and writer. The typewriter may have been his enemy, but as his bibliographer Murray Pomerance wrote, “his manuscripts reproduced like snails.” He turned out hundreds of illustrated magazine articles, anthologies, novels, children’s books, and countless ads for everything from Jello to Tabasco. Bemelmans was also an acute marketer: he advertised his books by pre-publishing a chapter in a magazine, and then after the book launched, sold the artwork at the Kennedy or Ferargil Galleries.
Bemelmans averaged about two books a year, but he also produced an astounding amount of interior design. Like an unruly child with a box of crayons, he embellished walls wherever he went. He painted murals for Hapsburg House, a Viennese restaurant on 55th Street in New York. He decorated Jascha Heifitz’s bar, and designed sets and costumes for a Broadway play. In Hollywood, Bemelmans’ office sported a picture of a lion having its way with Louis B. Mayer (painted out the minute the artist left). Aristotle Onassis asked Bemelmans to create murals for the playroom of his yacht. In Paris, Bemelmans painted scenes on the walls of his auberge, La Colombe, and the Inn’s sign, a dove, on a piece of zinc from the bar.
In his own home, Bemelmans was equally busy. At one of his Gramercy Park apartments, he glued a map of Paris to the ceiling of the bedroom. An insomniac, he lay in bed with a flashlight, taking nocturnal strolls along the banks of the Seine. The dining room sported a parade of painted donkeys with real straw hats.
Then there is one of the great charm spots of Manhattan, the Bar at the Hotel Carlyle. Gentle mayhem rules in this alternate universe, where animal families dressed in their Sunday best stroll through Central Park. Madeline and the Bad Hat perform circus tricks on the lampshades, and in a snowy corner, an equestrian statue stands. On the base is carved “BEMELMANS ’47.” He painted this marvel in exchange for 18 month’s free rent at the hotel. It is a monument to his lasting and multi-generational appeal.
A Toulouse-Lautrec lady from one of his novels summed up Bemelmans’ style. Sweeping past a debutante, she remarked in a Dorothy-Parker-like aside, “Sugarwater, let Champagne show you how it’s done.” Bemelmans at his best—but then he was truly a superlative vintage.
Jane Bayard Curley