Ludwig Bemelmans (1898–1962) created the adventuresome, red-headed schoolgirl Madeline, an enduring figure in children's literature. The Austro-Hungarian-American writer and illustrator published more than 40 books during his lifetime. While many of his self-illustrated works were aimed at children, he also wrote contemplative novels for adults and sketched dozens of covers for New Yorker magazine.
Describing Madeline's enduring appeal, London Guardian author Aida Edemariam put it this way: “Madeline is a great character: she's the smallest, and she's the bravest. She's the one most inclined to create trouble and mischief—but also fun. She knows what's right, often in defiance of the grownups. She's different from everyone else—but clearly in a good way. She's all of these things and a girl.”
Ludwig Lampert Alfred Bemelmans was born on April 27, 1898, in Meran, Austria-Hungary (now Merano, Italy). Bemelmans's father, Lampert Bemelmans, was a Belgian artist, and his German mother, Franciska Fischer, hailed from a family of wealthy brewers. Bemelmans spent his first years in the mountain town of Gmunden, a popular tourist spot in Upper Austria where his father operated a hotel. He had the run of the hotel gardens each day and wandered around under the supervision of a French governess he called “Gazelle” because he could not pronounce made-moiselle, which is French for “miss.” When Bemelmans was six, Lampert Bemelmans ran off with another woman, in his wake leaving behind a pregnant wife and a pregnant governess. After his departure, Gazelle committed suicide and Bemelmans's mother took him to live with her family in Regensburg, Germany.
“In the beginning Mama tried to replace Gazelle; mostly in tears, she dressed me and undressed me,” Bemelmans later recalled in Bemelmans: The Life & Art of Madeline's Creator, a biography written by his grandson, John Bemelmans Marciano. After settling in Germany, Franciska Bemelmans began telling her son stories of her lonely childhood and described her years at a Bavarian convent school run by nuns where the little girls slept in two rows. This detail would eventually become a story element in the “Madeline” books.
The move to Germany was hard on Bemelmans, who spoke only French. He attended a German public school but failed the same grade over and over. Unsure what to do, the family shipped him to a boarding school in Rothenburg, where he (like his protagonist Madeline) was the smallest one. At this school, the children walked in two straight lines (just as Madeline would years later do). Defiant and disobedient, Bemelmans was expelled.
Having proved himself troublesome, Bemelmans was sent to Austria to help his aunt and uncle with their hotel chain. The uncle dispatched him to various hotels to work, but after a short period each of the hotel managers sent him back. Some biographical accounts of Bemelmans's life suggest that he was implicated in a serious offense involving a headwaiter. Fed up with the young man's behavior, his German grandfather gave him two options: go to reform school or go to the United States.
At age 16, Bemelmans arrived in New York City. The year was 1914, and, armed with a letter of introduction from his uncle, he quickly secured a hotel job. He worked as a busboy at the Hotel McAlpin and Hotel Astor in Times Square before landing work at the Ritz-Carlton. In 1917, Bemelmans enlisted in the U.S. Army and spent World War I as an aide in a mental ward run by the U.S. government. In 1918, he became a U.S. citizen and was discharged from the military as the war came to an end.
Bemelmans returned to the Ritz-Carlton and resumed his employment, although he now showed a passion for sketching. Life at the hotel provided plenty of inspiration between the frantic staff and eclectic clientele. When business was slow, he would hide in the hotel dining room behind the palm trees and draw caricatures of the guests— on napkins, menu backs, and even matchbooks. One day, the headwaiter caught him and confiscated the pictures. Bemelmans was soon summoned to the hotel manager's office, where he learned that several guests had seen his sketches and were irate. He assumed that he would be fired, but instead he received a promotion.
In 1929, Bemelmans faced a crossroads. He was now in the middle of a divorce from his first wife, a ballerina named Rita Pope. Depressed, he looked in the mirror and did not like what he saw. He was tubby and had a flushed face from drinking alcohol all the time. “Morally, I felt as disgusting as I looked,” he wrote, as quoted in Marciano's biography, “and I said to myself, how many more of these meals, how much more of this life …. You will be unhappy, useless, a snob, a walking garbage can. Get out, throw yourself into life. All you can learn here, you know.”
In July 1929, Bemelmans left the comfortable confines of the Ritz-Carlton and rented a studio apartment in Greenwich Village. Selling some artwork, he felt increasing confidence about his future. In the early 1930s, he found work as a freelance artist at a New York City advertising studio. Through his connections, Bemelmans then met May Massee, then children's book editor at Viking Press. After seeing his sketches, Massee encouraged him to write children's books, and in 1934 Bemelmans released Hansi. Heavily illustrated with his playful, “impressionistic” and vibrantly colored artwork, Hansi tells the tale of a boy who ventures into the Austrian mountains to spend a holiday with his uncle.
On November 23, 1934, Bemelmans married Madeleine “Mimi” Freund, a model he met through the ad agency where he worked. Their honeymoon in Belgium inspired his second children's book, The Golden Basket. Published in 1936, The Golden Basket takes place in the Belgian city of Bruges and follows a family's visit to the city, along with antics from their stay at a local hotel. Bemelmans's illustrations highlight the city's unique architecture. As his fictional family visits a cathedral, they come upon some schoolgirls and one of them is Madeline, thus making her first appearance.
In the mid-1930s, Bemelmans drew a comic strip for Young America magazine. Called “Silly Willy,” the strip featured a whimsical seal. Around this time his illustrations also began appearing in Fortune, New Yorker, Saturday Evening Post, Town & Country, and Vogue. In 1937, Bemelmans provided illustrations for Noodle, a book about a Dachshund that was written by American children's author Munro Leaf. Prior to working with Leaf, Bemelmans wrote dense prose. The text for Noodle was spare and inspired Bemelmans to pare down his text.
In 1938, Bemelmans traveled to France for a seaside vacation with his wife and two-year-old daughter, Barbara. A bicycle accident put the artist/writer in a local hospital, where he looked up at a ceiling crack that resembled a rabbit. He also met a little girl who was there for an appendectomy. She proudly stood on the edge of her bed showing off her scar. These experiences inspired him, and he began working on the book that would become Madeline. Previously, Bemelmans had drawn Madeline and worked with the character; however, he had never solidified a storyline. The events of this vacation changed that. In Madeline (1939), his title character has her appendix out and stays in a hospital room with a ceiling crack that has the habit of looking like a rabbit.
Madeline was an instant success. Featuring cultured artwork and poetic verse, Bemelmans's book was highly accessible, yet sophisticated. In 1940, Madeline received a Caldecott Honor Medal. Madeline's Rescue followed in 1953 and won a 1954 Caldecott Medal. Other books in the series included Madeline and the Bad Hat (1956), Madeline and the Gypsies (1958), and Madeline in London (1961). Madeline's Christmas was published in book form in 1985, although it had appeared in McCall's magazine in 1956.
For Bemelmans, writing each “Madeline” story was a long, painful process that involved hundreds of sketches and paintings as well as numerous dummy books to plan out the text and visuals. He was a perfectionist and he was driven, sleeping little at night and instead crafting text or planning pictures in his head into the wee hours of the morning. In Ludwig Bemelmans, biographer Jacqueline Fisher Eastman painted a picture of Bemelmans's personality by including notes written by his editor. According to Massee, “His restless energy can never let him alone—he has so many skills that he is driven from one to another and in between he writes a play or opens a restaurant or takes a Mediterranean cruise—it's all the same to Ludwig.” In sum, Bemelmans wrote and illustrated 19 children's books. Another early work, Fifi (1940), was fairly popular, telling the tale of a naughty poodle and her African adventure.
In his later years, Bemelmans concentrated on painting, and exhibitions of his work were staged at New York City galleries. While he frequently sold the finished versions of his book illustrations to make money, he also created unique paintings. He was also a talented muralist, painting a mural (still intact in 2017) featuring Central Park in the bar of New York City's Carlyle Hotel in exchange for lodging for his family. In 1953, Bemelmans painted murals on the playroom walls of Aristotle Onassis's yacht.
Bemelmans died of pancreatic cancer on October 1, 1962, in New York City. As a former corporal in the U.S. Army, he was buried at Virginia's Arlington National Cemetery. Bemelmans's creativity and impact outlived his death. Madeline in America and Other Holiday Tales was published in 1999, based on an unpublished text his surviving family discovered. Inheriting his grandfather's talent, John Bemelmans Marciano added illustrations to bring the manuscript to life, and he was inspired to create several new Madeline tales on his own, including Madeline at the White House (2011). Bemelmans remained relevant in the art world, too. To commemorate Madeline's 75th birthday in 2014, the New York Historical Society held an exhibition titled “Madeline in New York: The Art of Ludwig Bemelmans.” The exhibit featured more than 90 of Bemelmans's original artworks.
Bemelmans, Ludwig, Hotel Bemelmans, Overlook Press, 2002.
Eastman, Jacqueline Fisher, Ludwig Bemelmans, Twayne Publishers, 1996.
Marciano, John Bemelmans, Bemelmans: The Life & Art of Madeline's Creator, Viking Press, 1999.
Spirit (New York, NY), July 10, 2014, Val Castronovo, “The Backstory of a New York Story,” p. 12.
Town & Country, December 1996, Diane Guernsey, “The Art of Being Bemelmans,” p. 152.
Guardian (London, England), https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2015/dec/24/madeline-by-ludwigbemelmans-bright-mischief-quiet-melancholy (December 24, 2015), Aida Edemariam, “‘Madeline’ by Ludwig Bemelmans—Bright Mischief, Quiet Melancholy.”□