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Friday, August 16, 2013

Ludwig Bemelmans

Ludwig Bemelmans, 1945
The world has often been gifted with gifted writers. The same is true of gifted artists. But not so often, except on the newsprint pages of the "funny papers" do these two gifts come together. Charles Schulz was one such example, but there are dozens more. Some we might suggest were better artists than writers, but most weren't. For most (Schulz being an exception), the writing came first, the drawing was an adjunct skill developed as a means of deeper expression beyond inadequate words. That was the case with the Austrian-Hungarian writer-artist Ludwig Bemelmans. He wanted to be an artist, but was never very good at it. The writing was a skill developed in mid-life. Actually, better than half his life he spent working in hotels, as a waiter and various other positions in what we now call the "hospitality industry."
The original book with
Bemelmans' original art.
Ludwig Bemelmans was born in 1898. His parents owned a hotel in what is now northern Italy, however his first language was French, his second German. When Ludwig was six years old, his father ran off with his governess. His mother was forced to take her family back to her native Regensburg, Germany, where her young son did not take well to German schooling and the accompanying German discipline. As a young teen, Ludwig was apprenticed to his uncle at a hotel in Austria. A shooting incident with a waiter at the hotel left him with the choice of reform school or emigration to the U.S. He chose the latter and spent the next few years working at the only trade he knew, restaurants and hotels. When the war came, he enlisted, but because of his German background was not sent overseas. He was, however, promoted to Second Lieutenant and after the war, became an American citizen. It was out of this experience he later wrote his first book, My War with the United States.
Bemelmans' Madeline in Front
of Notre Dame.
After the war, Bemelmans took up painting. Except for a few art classes as a child, Bemelmans was self-taught; he was far from successful. He tried his hand at cartooning but was dropped by his syndication after only six months. In 1934, he managed to get published his first children's book titled Hansi. Then there followed five more books of various types in partnership with Viking Press. This could be counted as a modest success in the hard times of the 1930s. Then came Madeline (pronounced MAD-a-line), quite literally, in that she was modeled after his daughter, Barbara, born in 1936, but named after his wife, Madeleine.

Bemelmans' and Madeline's
Friends. Miss Clavel, at 
top, is their governess
"In an old house in Paris, that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines... the smallest one was Madeline." So began his first of what grew into a series of six children's books published regularly until 1962. Each started with the same familiar line. The first Madeline book, which later won a Caldecott Award, had been rejected by his old partner, Viking. Recognizing talent when they saw it, Simon and Shuster became his new publisher. They allowed him to also illustrate his story largely as an effort to save the cost of an illustrator. This cost-saving ploy likely saved Madeline as well, in that Bemelmans' illustrations are as charming as the stories of his little girl in blue with the enormous straw hat.

John Bemelmans Marciano--
Like grandfather, like grandson.
Bemelmans published six Madeline books along with a seventh following his death. Ironically, his grandson, who seems to be a carbon copy of his illustrious illustrating grandfather, may soon eclipse his matriarchal ancestor, having so far published four additional Madeline books, the latest involving a trip of the twelve little girls in two straight lines to the White House. The Madeline series was not Bemelmans' only publishing effort. In all, he authored, published, and often illustrated over fifty titles, as well as articles and covers for magazines such as The New Yorker, Holiday, and Town and Country, and numerous others. His days in the restaurant business also made him something of a gourmet, and many of his non-children's books deal with food and travel. The Madeline books, however, made him famous and, no doubt, allowed him to indulge in other literary genres. From the 1950s through the 1990s, Madeline has sold over 5.5-million books and found her way to television and live-action movies. Late in life, Ludwig Bemelmans' publishing success allowed him to fully realize his desire to become a serious painter. He now has works displayed at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and its counterpart, Musee' National d'Art in Paris. He died in October, 1962.

Even some fifty years after her creator's
death, Madeline still managed to get around.



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