The Wonderful Life of Ludwig Bemelmans

AKA Madeline

Creators of the eternal images of childrens books have usually been quiet retiring very private individuals, like the Reverend Mr Dodgson who created Alice or A. A. Milne who created Winne Ille Pu or Charles Schulz who created Charlie Brown and his crew. A very different sort of fish was the creator of Madeline. Almost all children and parents today 's America are well acquainted with the physical Madeline, who is a little convent-school girl with a blue dress and a yellow hat and a mischief-making smile. But only old-timers can recall that spiritually she was a mirror-image of Ludwig Bemelmans, a free-wheeling, free-spending, freelance writer-artist of the mid-twentieth-century, a man who was always on the go, always getting into and somehow out of impossible situations, a man about any town you can think of, New York or London or Paris or Quito, a boulevardier and a raconteur, everyone's idea of a pure product of old Vienna, though in point of fact he spent very little time in Vienna. He was the child of a Belgian father and a German mother, and lived the first six years of his life in pampered solitary ease in an old house in a park on its own little island across a lovely lake from the hotel his father owned in the Austrian resort of Gmunden where the Queen of Greece came from. Those six years he shared with a big handsome swan and a governess named Mademoiselle, which he pronounced Gazelle, who combed his golden curls and sang French songs to him and called him her sweet little cabbage, in an endless wonderland of mist and flower and mountain. He saw his father rarely, when he came by to give him things like a toy motor-car, but his father saw no point in talking to a boy before he was seventeen and could understand what he was being told. Once he had him dressed up as an angel and slung on a pulley to the top of a Christmas tree in the hotel dining room, but the noise and the smells and the flickering candles made the child sick and he was sent back in disgrace, and could run back to his island and his Gazelle, and watch the ever-changing colors of the world.

Then one day abruptly, the happy days ended. His father ran away, Gazelle ran away (it is not clear from his account whether they ran way together) and he was being clothed and combed by a beautiful stranger, his mother. Oh why, he asked God in prayers, had his father not run off with his mother and left him alone with Gazelle?

From the paradise of Gmunden on the Traunsee where he had only spoken French he was thrust into the purgatory of Regensburg on the Danube in Bavaria, a tight cold clannish city where he would always remain something of an outsider though his grandfather owned the brewery whose smells impregnated the streets. He was thrown out of every school they sent him to, for being "unruly, impertinent, never serious, always late and keeping bad company." Then they sent him back to Austria, to the beautiful Tyrol to live with an uncle who owned a whole chain of luxury hotels in mountain resorts frequented by Royalty. This uncle, who called him affectionately Lausbub, or Little Louse, first gave him a horse on which he could ride to surrounding villages and fill up with wine, but then determined to teach him the hotel business. By the time he had been fired from each of the hotels in turn, it was apparent to his most lenient relatives that he would never be a gentleman or an officer - not even a private first class - in theDecember 18, 2003 Imperial German Army. "Disgrace, disgrace, disgrace," said his mother to him, and though she added, "Everything will come out all right in the end, Ludwig." the family decided the only thing to do with the Little Louse was to put him, aged sixteen, on a ship going to New York where perhaps the standards in the hotel business would be less high. He got a job as busboy at the Hotel Astor.

He had worked his way up to a better job at a fancier hotel, and he had a small fortune of 250 dollars in his bank account when he fell in love with an actress. She was playing the noblewoman in a German operetta called Hoheit tanzt Walzer, Her Highness Waltzes. In Act I, her Highness comes in a carriage to a little Austrian inn where she finds a prince living incognito, the very prince with whom she had been passionately in love since they first laid eyes on each other at the age of five in the garden of the Archduke's castle, and they sing a duet full of tender longing. Now or never was the moment for young Ludwig to make his presence known to her. He ran out of the theater, called a taxi, drove up Fifth avenue till he found a fancy florists shop where he could buy, for twenty five dollars, about four hundred in today's money, not any old bouquet but a whole four-foot-high rose tree which he brought down to the theater in the middle of Act II. He handed his offering over to two girl ushers with instructions to present it to the Princess at the end of her next aria. By the time he had got to his seat and unrolled his program to learn that the scene had been changed to the Archduke's park and time had rolled back twenty years and the part of the Princess was being played by Lisl Stolz, aged six, the rose tree was already on its way down the aisle and it was too late for him to do anything but run away, anywhere anywhere out of the world, before it was ceremoniously presented by the conductor to the Princess and she opened the note attached to it announcing his love and asking her to dinner at Luchow's after the performance.

Such falls from grace were to form a pattern which would rule all his full and peripatetic days, promises of comfort and serenity and fair prospects followed by bleak and sometimes grotesque, sometimes merely ridiculous, disaster, taken always in stride, with a fatalistic good humor, a cheerful readiness to go on to something else. His life, at least his life as he would represent it in a series of popular books, was a tale sung by Franz Kafka to the tune of Merry Widow waltzes. He once told his publisher that he had a line ready to be incised in his tombstone: Tell them it was wonderful, a title actually used for a collection of his sketches which was published a quarter century after his death.

His wife Madeleine "Mimi," had a characteristically curt comment on the title: "Some times it was. Sometimes it wasn't"

Mimi had every reason to know what she was talking about. A student at Barnard when she married him, after brief careers as a nun and an artist's model, she was always ready to swing alongside him in whatever direction he swung. One of her happier memories is the time, some time in the 1930's when they were on a train going from Austria to Germany, and the train was held up a long time at the frontier. She took advantage of the forced idleness to paint her toe-nails, and noticing her husband's bare feet sticking out from beneath the covers on the upper berth where he was snoring, she painted his toe-nails the same shade. The next day they were in a beer-garden in Berchtesgaden, where a big window allowed a view upward to Hitler's Eagles Nest on the mountain-top. The radio began blaring a Hitler speech, and all eyes in the establishment turned automatically to the window in mute homage to the beloved Fuhrer. Just under the window was Ludwig Bemelmans, with a cigar-stub between his upper lip and his nose, giving a mock-Nazi salute, and making disagreeable mock-Hitlerian sounds. He might have been lynched on the spot, but the police stepped in and took him off to jail for investigation as a potential subversive. When they strip-searched him and came upon the toe-nails they cried in fury, "So that is the kind you are. We'll show you what we do to your kind," and threw him into a black hole full of whatever they had picked up recently in their search for decadence and degeneracy. There he would spend many uncomfortable hours before an American vice-consul turned up to negotiate his release and tell him to get out of the country in a hurry..He was soon back in America, turning out covers for the New Yorker, no worse for wear.

[Note: The previous paragraph is based on conversation with Mimi Bemelmans over fine food. Except for the spelling of the names Bemelmans and Hitler, the version of the same epsiode published by Ludwig in his lifetime bears no resemblance to it in any respect.]

He did many covers for the New Yorker, he wrote many articles about his intercontinental adventures for fashionable magazines like Vogue and Holiday, he published thirty-two books, he wrote scripts for MGM, he sold paintings at upscale galleries. He was always surrounded by beautiful objects and rich friends, he stayed in Ritz-class hotels, his daughter Barbara rode in Central Park with the daughter of Meyer Lansky the co-founder of Murder Incorporated. But like many other famous writers he found it all but impossible to hold on to any money he made, and like James Joyce's and Henry Miller's his correspondence revolved largely around the need for cash.

Sometimes these quests were successful. Sometimes they were not. They were always imaginative. After the success of his first two Madeline books laid in Paris, he persuaded his publisher that the only way he could prepare for a sequel to be called Madeline In London would involve getting free lodging food and drink at Brown's Hotel for six months; and so it was done.

He had a habit of writing letters describing his various woes in long sentences which snaked their way around bright watercolor sketches to end up with a brief statement: "I need for these calamities," and when he really needed something he would fill in the blank with an arbitrary figure like $500 and send it off to an appropriate destination.

The Bemelmans life as portrayed in the Bemelmans books took place in a brightly softly colored landscape of beautiful trees and beautiful monuments, like the Paris which appears in several of his books and on the walls of what is now known as the Bemelmans Room of the Hotel Carlyle in Manhattan (painted, they say, to keep his bar bill in balance), a world where people flirt and fly kites and saunter around and no one ever does a lick of work except the cop chasing the jewel thief across the Place Vendome.

As if on schedule, reality would periodically bang its way in, as when Louis B. Mayer dictated a memorandum to his underlings at MGM, "Never hire that son of a bitch again unless we really need him." But a new and a brighter future was always around the corner, he could get a job writing a travel article about Tahiti which would give him a chance to buy a ship he could sail around the world.. When that didn't work, he managed to buy a ship in the Mediterranean, which would do very well till the men he hired to sail it for him stole him blind. While writing a series of articles about criminals and cops in the underworld around the Place Pigalle, his eye was caught by an old ruined house at No.4 rue de la Colombe on the Ile de la Cité in Paris, built in 1225 and frequented in its time by king's mistresses and vagabond kings. He saw the possibilities of turning it into a garden spot, with vines and a duplex studio for himself upstairs, and downstairs an elegant bistrot where all fashionable Paris could come to drink and intrigue, and he could save money by getting all his own food and drink wholesale. He found an underworld lawyer and an amiable architect who promised to get it through the minefield of government regulations dealing with ancient buildings, and he went off to make some money in America, telling the architect to at least get indoor plumbing installed by the time he came back, so that he could throw a grand party there. Work began at once on this project, but was halted when a French official discovered that extending pipes from the house to the sewers of Paris 200 meters away would involve drilling holes through a solid rock foundation which was also the rock foundation of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Though the Cathedral had held firm through the thud at its doorstep of uncounted millions of human and animal feet, cart wheels and automobile tires and tank treads, through eight centuries, the official felt that the pressure of a pneumatic drill 175 meters away might cause the mighty building to shudder and statues and bells and whole towers come crashing down. So the work had to be done by two men with picks and shovels, slowly filling big canvas bags with the debris. By the time the owner returned they had filled 260 sacks at $100 per sack, and he was broke again.

Amid all these disappointments and disillusions, however, there was one episode of unmitigated success. One day he was happily bicycling down the wrong side of a road on the Isle of Yeu off the coast of Brittany, with six lobsters in a sack slung over his shoulders and his hands in his pockets when he came round a curve and discovered that, contrary to the information he had been given, there was a single motor vehicle operating on the island, it was a bakers delivery van, and he ran into it. Since the baker insisted that French law requires that vehicles involved in an accident remain on the spot till the police have made a thorough investigation of the circumstances, and the police were nowhere to be seen, he had to stumble a mile to the hospital to get his wounds taken care of. He was put in a narrow bed which reminded him of stories his mother used to tell him of her youth in a school kept by English nuns where all the little girls' cots were lined up in two straight lines. On the ceiling above him was a stain which looked like a rabbit. In the next room there was a girl recovering from an appendicitis operation. One idea led to another, and by the time he recovered and was back in New York he began one evening at Pete's Tavern on East 17th Street to sketch out the plot of what would be the first of his six books about Madeline, the one in which she shows off her appendicitis scar.

There is no secret to Madeline's charm. She embodies every child's (or adult's) desire to break the tiresome rules of life and every child's (or adult's) hope to get away with it. Madeline does both, quite naturally, without moving a muscle of her face. She may fall into the Seine while she is recklessly promenading along the railing of a bridge; a dog jumps in to save her. She may push into the middle of a pack of maddened dogs to save a cat which her impossible boyfriend Pepito, son of the Spanish Ambassador, had marked out for slaughter; and both she and the cat come out without a scratch, while Pepito is bandaged from head to toe and turns vegetarian out of sheer remorse. She runs away with Pepito and they are both sewed up into a lion's skin to perform in an itinerant circus. She rides a horse which insists on taking part in a parade of the Horse Guards in London. Whatever she does she ends up sleeping comfortably for the night at the end of one of the two straight lines of cots which she shares with eleven other girls under the benevolent eye of Miss Clavel.

The year of Madeline's appearance was 1939, the same year which saw the appearance of Ferdinand the Bull, another icon of youthful non-conformism, as much unlike the orthodox Hemingwayan idea of a brave bull as Madeline was unlike the image mothers expect of young ladies who are sent off to exclusive schools. Ferdinand, like Madeline, has kept on appealing to children of the passing generations, X, Y, Z and whatever, however unfamiliar those images of Spanish bull-rings and the Luxembourg Gardens may be to young eyes brought up on dinosaurs and Butthead. Both sets of books are still in print, still selling extravagantly.

Madeline however has pulled ahead in the commercial derby, in fact she created commercial history when one day in 1982 an agent called up the publishers to suggest that Madeline be marketed for the Christmas trade. Mimi and Barbara assumed this meant things like cards and toys, and were a little taken aback when they discovered the flood of videos, balloons, scarves, perfumes, lipsticks and even wedding-gowns (Madeline would not have put on a wedding gown for all the tea in China) and so on. The Madeline doll, first mass-produced in 1991, has become 6th best-selling doll of modern times. The steady income which eluded Ludwig Bemelmans for so long has become a fixed proportion of the gross national product. As his mother pointed out to him long ago, things were bound to work out in the end.

© 1998 Robert Wernick

Smithsonian Magazine July 1998