Though Ludwig Bemelmans considered himself first and foremost as a painter, he is best remembered as a writer and illustrator, especially of the immortal series of picture books featuring the resourceful Madeline. With much experience working in hotels and restaurants, he developed a reputation as a gourmet. His joint pleasures in art and food made him the ideal decorator of restaurants and bars, including the Bemelmans Bar in the Carlyle Hotel, in New York, which is still greatly enjoyed by the public.
Ludwig Bemelmans was born in Meran, Austria-Hungary (now Merano, Italy), on 30 April 1898, the son of the Belgian hotelier, Lampert Bemelmans, and his wife, Frances Fischer, the daughter of a Bavarian brewer. He spent his early years in a family-owned hotel in Gmunden, on the Traunsee, in Upper Austria. However, in 1904, Lampert ran away with a woman called Emmy, who would become his second wife. In so doing, he left not only his pregnant wife, Frances, and his son, Ludwig, but also Ludwig’s governess, ‘Gazelle’, who was also pregnant with his child, and who committed suicide as a result.
Ludwig Bemelmans left with his mother for her native town of Regensburg, Bavaria, Germany, where she lived with her family, and gave birth to a second son.
Ludwig, who hated the discipline of the German education system, attended the local Gymnasium and then, when he repeatedly failed the same grade, a boarding school in Rothenburg.
At the end of his schooling, Bemelmans returned to Austria to become an apprentice in the hotel business belonging to his uncle, Hans Bemelmans. However, he did not fit in and, having tried to work in every hotel in the chain, had a serious altercation with the manager of the last. As a result, he was given the ultimatum of either attending a reform school or migrating to the United States, where his father had become a jewellery designer. Choosing the latter, he arrived in New York in December 1914, and, when he and his father failed to get on, began to work in hotels and restaurants.
In 1917, Bemelmans enlisted in the United States army. Because of his German background, he was not sent to Europe, as he had expected, but employed both in the medical corps and as a bayonet instructor, rising to the rank of second lieutenant. When the war ended a year later, he became a naturalised American citizen. Though he had planned to study painting in Munich, he remained in the hotel business in New York, rising to become assistant banquet manager at the Ritz Carlton, and very gradually establishing himself as an artist and writer.
In 1926, Bemelmans published the comic strip, ‘Thrilling Adventures of the Count Bric a Brac’ in the New York World, but this was dropped after only six months. He then struggled further, when the Wall Street Crash of 1929 led to a depressed economy in which nobody wanted to buy paintings. During this period, he also underwent his first, brief, unsuccessful marriage to an English ballet dancer. His situation improved in the early 1930s, when he began to receive encouragement from May Massee, the children’s book editor at Viking Press. Viking published his first picture book, Hansi (1934), which tells the story of a young boy visiting his uncle in the Austrian mountains, and two subsequent ones. However, it rejected his classic title, Madeline, the charming tale of a resourceful Parisian schoolgirl, named after his second wife, whom he married in 1934. Issued by Simon and Schuster in 1939, it eventually achieved a phenomenal popularity, and encouraged Bemelmans to produce five sequels, between 1953 and 1961, beginning with Madeline’s Rescue, which won the Caldecott Medal in 1954.
Bemelmans gained almost equal success with books for adults, which ranged between autobiography and fiction, and included his First World War diary, My War with the United States (1937). He also wrote Hollywood film scripts, notably that for Vincente Minnelli’s musical comedy, Yolanda and the Thief (1945), which starred Fred Astaire.
Though he directed much of his energy as an artist into his work as an illustrator, Bemelmans made paintings for exhibition and produced a number of murals. As early as 1934, he decorated the walls of Habsburg House, a New York restaurant that he was managing. Then, while living at the Carlyle Hotel, in 1947, with his wife and daughter, Barbara, he paid for their lodgings by painting a panorama in the bar, showing his character, Madeline, in Central Park. This is his only mural scheme still accessible to the public.
Six years later, in 1953, Bemelmans bought a building on the Ile de la Cité, in Paris, to use as a home, studio and bistro, La Colombe, frescoing the last with images of café society. Around the same time, he produced 15 murals, based on the first three Madeline books, for the playroom of the Aristotle Onassis yacht, The Christina. Ever a Francophile, his style has been likened to that of Chagall, Dufy and the Fauves.
Sadly, Bemelmans overstretched himself financially, and had to close La Colombe after only a few months, selling it 1955. Nevertheless, he continued to work, publishing several more books before his death in New York City on 1 October 1962 of pancreatic cancer.
A further book about Madeline was discovered after his death and published as Madeline in America and Other Tales in 1999.
Further reading: Wolf Koepke, ‘Bemelmans, Ludwig (27 Apr 1898-1 Oct 1962)’, John A Garraty and Mark C Carnes (eds), American National Biography, Oxford University Press, 1999, vol 2, pages 542-543; John Bemelmans Marciano, Bemelmans. The Life and Career of Madeline’s Creator, New York: Viking, 1999