Classics : Madeline (1939)

Ludwig Bemelmans had a few childhood scars of his own

by Gordon Campbell

For Ludwig Bemelmans, life was all about thriving in the situations his own impulsiveness had landed him in. When the success of Madeline finally made him an overnight success, he was already 41 years old. Over time, Bemelmans developed a jolly and sanitised version of how he had come to write his beloved story about the little girl in Paris, whose tale begins with some of the most famous opening lines in children’s literature :

In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines…

In an awards acceptance speech in 1954, Bemelmans told his version of how Madeline had come into being. While biking along a road in 1938 on the Isle D’Yeu with a bag of lobsters slung round his shoulder and his hands in his pockets rather than on the handlebars, Bemelmans came round a curve and get hit by the island’s only automobile, a four horsepower baker’s van that was, as he put it : “a fragrant, flour-covered breadbasket on wheels.” Bemelmans picked his battered self up, and walked a mile to the local hospital :

After I had waited for a time….I was put into a small, white, carbolicky bed, and it took a while for my arm to heal. Here were the stout sister that you see bringing the tray to Madeline, and the crank on the bed. In the room across the hall was a little girl who had had an appendix operation, and, standing up in bed, with great pride she showed her scar to me. Over my bed was the crack in the ceiling “That had the habit, of sometimes looking like a rabbit.” It all began to arrange itself. And after I got back to Paris I started to paint the scenery for the book. I looked up telephone numbers to rhyme with appendix. One day I had a meeting with Léon Blum, and if you take a look at the book, you will see that the doctor who runs to Madeline’s bed is the great patriot and humanitarian Léon Blum.

And so Madeline was born, or rather appeared by her own decision.

Grand. If only it were that easy. No doubt, the biking accident played a role in the evolution of Madeline, which took shape after Bemelmans returned to New York and sketched the basic story in a bar called Pete’s Tavern in lower Manhattan. Initially, the story wasn’t an easy sell. May Massee, his usually perceptive publisher at Viking Press, turned it down. The drawings were felt to be too sophisticated, the rhyming text too clumsy. Like a lot of things in Bemelmans’life, Madeline’s origins went back much further, into his spectacularly troubled childhood. For anyone with a taste for psycho-analysing authors via the fiction they write, Ludwig Bemelmans is a veritable gold mine.

Ludwig was born in Austria in 1898. His parents ran a hotel called the Golden Ship, and the first six years of life seem to have been blissfully happy. He loved his Papa, who was a painter and bon vivant. “[The family] worried only about their next day’s happiness,” Bemelmans later wrote, “which they made like the baker his rolls, and always while whistling singing and reeling in their fish. They found caves to illuminate at night, and gave parties in them. They covered wooden floats with flowers and sailed them on the lake. They sent off rockets that awoke the town and exploded high in the sky and filled the night with a rain of phosphorescent stars that were reflected in the lake. They gave concerts, sang operas and acted in their own plays…”

Above all, I admired [Papa’s] skill with napkins. After deft and precise folding of the snow-white linen, he turned the napkins with a last twist into the shapes of fans, ships, plants and swans. He also chiselled swans and castles out of blocks of ice.

In particular, young Ludwig adored Mademoiselle, the French governess whom he called Gazelle. As an adult, Bemelmans wrote about how intensely Gazelle had loved him in return : “ I was her little blue fish, her little treasure, her small green duckling, her dear sweet cabbage, her amour…”
Then came calamity. Papa got Emmy, the woman who later became his second wife, pregnant, and ran off with her. Gazelle, also pregnant with Papa’s child, committed suicide.

Ludwig passed into the hands of a “cold, strange woman” – his mother – who also happened to be pregnant to Papa, and who carted him off amid the shame of divorce to the alien land of Germany, where he didn’t speak the language and felt no kinship with the culture. His mother became determined to erase all traces of Ludwig’s past, while he defiantly fought to retain it. His grandson later wrote of Ludwig’s account of the attempts by relatives to make a little German out of him : “ The golden curls came off my head, I was shorn and put into new clothes, high-laced shoes with hobnails…I said to myself, they can kill me, but I won’t give in. I will not change, never, never, never.”

Just about the only positive legacy from those years, it seems, were some stories his mother told him of her days as a neglected little girl in convent school. In an extraordinary memoir called ‘Swan Country’ (contained in the 1985 collection Tell Them It Was Wonderful) Bemelmans wrote with voluptuous tenderness about those enchanted years with Papa and Gazelle, and how utterly they vanished, in a twinkling :

All had come to an end. Papa was gone, and so was my governess, and I wished so much that he had run away with Mama, and left me Gazelle… In the beginning, Mama tried to replace Gazelle; mostly in tears, she dressed and undressed me. There were no children’s books and she would tell me stories about her own childhood – of how alone she had been and how she was shipped off to a convent school…how the little girls slept in little beds that stood in two rows and how they went walking in two straight lines, all dressed alike. She was much happier than at home, for her parents had never had any time for her. This made me very sad. She cried, and I cried. She lifted me up. I looked at her closely, and a dreadful fear came over me. I saw how beautiful she was, and I thought how terrible it would be if ever she got old and ugly.

By his mid -teens, Bemelmans was an untameable wild child. After an uncle gave him a job as a busboy in one of his hotels, a headwaiter went at Bemelmans with a whip and the teenager shot him. Faced with a choice between going to reform school or being shipped off to America, Bemelmans chose America, spent a stint in the US Army, and worked briefly in a state mental asylum.

Life never really settled down for him. A largely self taught artist, he combined a career of service in the hotel industry with sketches of the guests and managed to thrive in the crazy, madcap years of the Roaring Twenties. Within ten years, he had worked his way up from busboy to being co-manager of a bar/hotel – and then with exquisite bad timing, he threw it all away just two weeks before the crash of 1929.

A decade of scrabbling for survival followed, punctuated by guilt for the accidental death of his brother, whom he had lured to New York. By the late 1930s Bemelmans’ talent for networking and his abilities as a writer/artist had landed him work in the New Yorker magazine. Encouraged by May Massee at Viking Press, he also began writing children’s books, and his third book Madeline not only made his career – it unleashed a floodgate of some 20 books of travel stories, memoirs and reminiscences. These included Hotel Splendide (1941) a thinly disguised account of his scandalous working years at the Ritz Carlton in New York. By 1945, he was in Hollywood, where he wrote the script for a Vincente Minnelli/Fred Astaire fantasy film called Yolanda and the Thief, which bombed at the box office.

Quite accidentally, Bemelmans’ behind-the-scenes tales of great restaurants and hotels told from the vantage point of the staff were years before their time. As celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain said in his review of a reprint of Bemelmans’ La Bonne Table in 2004, the creator of Madeline had got there ahead of him :

[He was] the original ‘bad boy’ of the hospitality business, decades before Kitchen Confidential….Bemelmans was a snob—one of legendary, titanic proportions—the kind who could only have emerged from the floor of a fancy hotel of the kind Bemelmans worked at for many years.. The Madeline books might be his most famous creations, but his writings on food and the industry are among the best ever.”

Money was also something of an obsession. Haunted by the financial insecurity of his early years, Bemelmans would trade his art for free accommodation at top hotels like the Carlyle in New York – where the murals that earned him 18 months free board can still be seen today in the old hotel’s Bemelmans Bar. His contempt for the upwardly mobile ran very deep. The habits of deferring to the elite while sharing their contempt for the nouveau riche stayed with him his entire life. One of his 1920s memoir/exposes (reprinted in 2004 as Hotel Bemelmans) does contain some amusing and sentimental moments, but Bemelmans could be almost pathologically venomous towards the socialites that he waited on and despised. He is reasonable enough when writing about the foibles of the men the men he served :

Men important in business or with positions of responsibility in Washington met here, and in the course of an evening a violent change often came on them. They arrived with dignity and they looked important and like the photographs of them in newspapers, but in the late hours they became Joe or Stewy or Lucius. Sometimes they fell on their faces and sang into the carpet. Leaders of the nation, savants, and unhappy millionaires suffered fits of laughter, babbled nonsense, and spilled ashes and wine down their shirt fronts. Some of them became ill. Others swam in a happy haze and loved all the world.”

But when describing the women, Bemelmans poyured out every resentment he had stored up against the gender ever since being abandoned by his beloved Gazelle :

Her skin had the texture of volcanic rock seen from the air, with dirty snow swept into the crevices”

Or take this description of the ageing wife of a steel magnate that he once encountered in the dining room at the Ritz Carlton :

Out of the shoulders came two arms, red and thick, coarse –skinned, with common hands…a face that had the texture of an old pocketbook ; on its worn out corners rested the ends of a mouth that closed with a snap. Grey, carmine and purple veins covered her face, and patches of the skin would jump, as does the skin on the flanks of horses when flies come near them…

Enough, already. Yes, the creator of Madeline does appear to have hated women.

Lively, always restless, and a raconteur who lived on the borderline between truth and fantasy for most of his life, Bemelmans died relatively young of pancreatic cancer, at the age of 63. Madeline and her several lesser sequels live happily on however, amid a vast array of Madeline-themed merchandise, ranging from dolls to furniture to toothbrushes.

Most attempts at explaining the book’s enduring appeal end up as mere description. The peculiar charm of Madeline escapes untouched. Certainly, the structure does juxtapose the feisty spirit of Madeline – who could be anywhere between 4 and 8 years old – with the conformity of an environment comically represented by the straight lines of beds, dining tables and walking groups. Not to mention the angular presence of Miss Clavel. Yet everything else about the book…the drawings, the central drama, the loopily stretched rhymes is elongated and unreal, and exuberantly self-mocking. The rhyme where the doctor calls the hospital “ And he dialled DANton-ten six – Nurse,” he said, “Its an appendix!” is merely the worst of several intentional groaners.

To my mind, the self parody is what keeps the book so airily buoyant even when depicting events that could otherwise be quite harrowing. For a child, living in an institution far from one’s parents, and then getting sick and being rushed to hospital could be the stuff of nightmares. Indeed, Bemelmans drawings are dream-like in nature (James Thurber and Raoul Dufy are the usual comparisons) and make no attempt at anatomical or architectural realism.

This elasticity hits its peak in the fantastic double-spread where “Miss Clavel ran fast – and faster” as her elongated image on the page stretches out fantastically across the page. For parents, it is like reading a great Cubist parody. And talking of parody, someone has uploaded to Youtube a terrific spoof version of Madeline and its hidden meanings entitled “Werner Herzog Reads Madeline.” Ze tiger dreams only of death,,,,

Finally, and despite the affection it continues to engender – it is striking that the story of Madeline is told largely from afar, at a curiously detached distance. There are no close-ups, and many very, very long views. Yet there is intimacy, regardless. All of which perhaps confirms Bemelmans own view of himself as primarily an artist, not a writer. In a letter shortly before his death, Bemelmans said that he wanted written on his tombstone the words “ Tell Them It Was Wonderful…” His wife Madeleine, who had been through it all since the 1930s, took a slightly different view. “It was,” she said, “and it wasn’t.”

Footnote : for this essay, Gordon Campbell drew on reviews and criticism contained in Vols 6 and 93 of the Children’s Literature review, and on the Tell Them It Was Wonderful memoir written by Ludwig Bemelmans