Ludwig Bemelmans (1898-1962) Though he has achieved lasting fame as the creator of the hugely popular Madeline series of children’s books, Ludwig Bemelmans was a wide-ranging and prolific illustrator and cartoonist. His early years serving in hotels in ‘Roaring Twenties’ Manhattan gave him access to New York high society, and his artwork would later become symbolic of the city’s glamour, appearing on covers of The New Yorker, in advertisements and painted on the walls of hotel bars. Ludwig Bemelmans was born in Meran, South Tyrol in Austria-Hungary (now Italy), on 27 April 1898, the son of Lampert Bemelmans, a Belgian painter and hotelier, and his wife, Franciska (née Fischer). Until the age of six, he lived with his parents in Gmunden, on the Traunsee in Upper Austria. In 1904, after his father left his mother and Ludwig’s governess, both pregnant with his child, for another woman, Bemelmans moved with his mother and his brother, Oscar, to live in his mother’s native city of Regensburg, Germany.
Bemelmans endured a difficult childhood. He had grown up being taught French as his first language, and his struggles with the German language and style of discipline made him an outcast at school.
After failing the same year repeatedly, he was sent to boarding school in Rothenburg, Bavaria. He remained a disobedient and defiant student and was expelled. His mother responded by sending him back to Tyrol to be apprenticed to his uncle Hans and aunt Marie, who owned a chain of hotels. Again, he showed himself to be a poor and rebellious worker, and was tried across the various hotels and fired from each. In an interview with The New York Times in 1941, he claimed that matters came to head when, in response to a head waiter threatening him with a leather whip, Bemelmans shot him in the abdomen. Though the waiter survived, Bemelmans was given the choice of being sent to reform school or to America.
Bemelmans arrived in America on Christmas Eve 1914, at the age of sixteen. He had expected to be reunited with his father, who had moved to the United States some years earlier to become a jeweller, but he forgot to pick him up, and Bemelmans spent his first Christmas in America on Ellis Island. Through his family’s connections, he had arrived in New York with letters of introduction to the managers of several hotels, and found work as a busboy at the Hotel McAlpin and Hotel Astor, before moving to the Ritz Carlton. When the United States entered the First World War in 1917, he enlisted in the US Army. Though his German heritage meant that he was not sent abroad, he spent the war working as an aide in a mental hospital in Buffalo, New York. He wrote about his wartime experiences in the book My War with the United States (1941). In 1918, he became an American citizen and returned to the Ritz Carlton, moving to the banquet department and working his way up to assistant manager. Throughout his time at the hotel, he sketched and drew, on napkins, notepads and menus, often caricaturing his colleagues and guests. After he was encouraged to pursue a career as a cartoonist by a waiter at the hotel, he quit his job in 1926 and was hired by the New York World to produce the cartoon series, ‘Thrilling Adventures of Count Bric a Brac’. However, the series received complaints and, after six months, he was fired and forced to return to his job at the Ritz Carlton.
In the mid-1920s, Bemelmans had met an English ballet dancer, Rita Pope, and they were married soon after. The marriage was tempestuous and in 1929 their divorce was finalised. The breakup of his marriage forced Bemelmans to re-evaluate his life and, disgusted by what his career was doing to his health and dismayed by his lack of direction, he quit the Ritz Carlton and, in July 1929, moved into a Greenwich Village studio to begin work as a full-time artist. Though the effects of The Great Depression forced him to return once again to the Ritz Carlton just three months later, he remained determined to succeed and began to earn commissions as a freelance artist in an advertising studio, producing work for companies such as General Foods and Jell-O. He suffered more tragedy in his personal life in 1931 when his brother Oscar, who had joined him at the Ritz Carlton in 1922, died when he fell down an elevator shaft at the hotel. The following year, he met May Massee, children’s book editor at Viking Press. She encouraged him to start writing books for children and in 1934 he published his first book, Hansi, inspired by his own childhood in Austria. The same year, he met and eloped with Madeleine Freund, a former nun and an artist’s model. Their honeymoon in Belgium in 1936 inspired his second children’s book, The Golden Basket, for which he won the John Newbery Medal. Later that year, Madeleine gave birth to the couple’s only daughter, Barbara.
In 1938, whilst visiting the Ile d’Yeu off the coast of France with his wife and daughter, Bemelmans was hospitalised when he was knocked off his bike by a lorry. He recalled that in the next room of the hospital ‘was a little girl who had her appendix out, and on the ceiling over my bed was a crack that, in the varying light of the morning, night and noon, and evening, looked like a rabbit’. Along with the stories his mother had told him about growing up in a convent school, these experiences inspired the book Madeline, which would become his most famous creation. Published in 1939, the book was an instant success and was awarded a Caldecott Medal, it was followed by Madeline’s Rescue (1953), for which Bemelmans also won the Caldecott Medal, Madeline and the Bad Hat (1956), Madeline and the Gypsies (1959) and Madeline in London (1961). Madeline’s Christmas, first appearing as a series in the monthly magazine, McCall’s, in 1956, was released posthumously in 1985. The story, Madeline in America and Other Holiday Tales, was discovered after his death and published in 1999.
Though the Madeline series was to be his most famous achievement, Bemelmans continued to work prolifically in a multitude of media. He wrote and published 19 books for children, including Fifi (1940) and A Tale of Two Glimps (1946), and over 40 books in total. His illustrations appeared regularly in The New Yorker (for which he also produced more than 30 covers), Town and Country, Vogue and Fortune. During the Second World War, he travelled to Hollywood and spent a brief period as a screenwriter at MGM, creating the 1945 Fred Astaire film, Yolanda and the Thief. He was also in demand as a muralist, creating designs for Hapsburg House, a Viennese restaurant on 55th Street, New York, and, most famously in 1947, the bar at the Carlyle Hotel on the Upper East Side, for which he was paid with a year and a half’s free accommodation at the hotel. The mural is still on display and remains the only example of his work on view to the public.
Ludwig Bemelmans died of pancreatic cancer on 1 October 1962 at his apartment in the National Arts Club, 15 Grammercy Park South, at the age of 64. As a former corporal in the US Army, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. To commemorate the 75th birthday of his creation, Madeline, in 2014, the New York Historical Society held an exhibition entitled ‘Madeline in New York: The Art of Ludwig Bemelmans’, featuring more than 90 of his original artworks.
Further reading Ludwig Bemelmans, Hotel Bemelmans, Woodstock NY: Overlook Press, 2002; Jacqueline Fisher Eastman, Ludwig Bemelmans, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996; Wolf Koepke, John A Garratty & Mark C Carnes (eds), ‘Bemelmans, Ludwig 27 April 1898-1 October 1962)’, American National Biography, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, https://doi.org/10.1093/anb/9780198606697.article.1600104; John Bemelmans Marciano, Bemelmans: The Life & Art of Madeline’s Creator, New York: Viking Press, 1999
The biography of Ludwig Bemelmans is written by Alexander Beetles.