|Born||April 27, 1898|
Meran, South Tyrol, Austria-Hungary (now Italy)
|Died||October 1, 1962 (aged 64)|
New York City, United States
|Resting place||Arlington National Cemetery|
United States (from 1918)
|Genre||Children's picture books|
|Notable works||Madeline series (1939–1999)|
|Notable awards||Caldecott Medal |
|Relatives||John Bemelmans Marciano (grandson)|
Ludwig Bemelmans (April 27, 1898 – October 1, 1962) was an Austrian-American writer and illustrator of children's books and adult novels. He is known best for the Madeline picture books. Six were published, the first in 1939.
Bemelmans was born to the Belgian painter Lambert Bemelmans and the German Frances Fischer in Meran, Austria-Hungary (now Italy). His father owned a hotel. He grew up in Gmunden on the Traunsee in Upper Austria. His first language was French and his second German.
In 1904, his father left his wife and Ludwig's governess, both of whom were pregnant with his children, for another woman, after which his mother took Ludwig and his brother to her native city of Regensburg, Germany. Bemelmans had difficulty in school, as he hated the German style of discipline. He was apprenticed to his uncle Hans Bemelmans at a hotel in Austria. In a 1941 New York Times interview with Robert van Gelder, he related that while an apprentice, he was regularly beaten and even whipped by the headwaiter. According to Bemelmans, he finally warned the headwaiter that if he was whipped again he would retaliate with a gun. The headwaiter ignored his warning, whipped him, and Bemelmans reportedly shot and seriously wounded him in retaliation. Given the choice between reform school and emigration to the United States, he chose the latter. It is likely this was one of Bemelman's famous yarns, since in John Bemelmans Marciano's biography of his grandfather, he relates a simpler story: recognizing that Ludwig was an incorrigible boy, his uncle offered him the choice of going to America (where his father now lived), or going to reform school.
He spent the next several years working at hotels and restaurants in the US. In 1917, he joined the U.S. Army, but was not sent to Europe because of his German origins. He did become an officer, and was promoted to Second Lieutenant. He writes of his experiences in the Army in the book, My War With the United States. In 1918, he became a US citizen.
In the 1920s, Bemelmans tried to become an artist and painter while working at hotels, but had substantial difficulties. In 1926, he quit his job at the Ritz-Carlton in New York to become a full-time cartoonist. His cartoon series The Thrilling Adventures of the Count Bric a Brac was dropped from the New York World after six months. He associated with Ervine Metzl, a commercial artist and illustrator who is variously described as Bemelmans's friend, "agent", and "ghost artist".
In the early 1930s Bemelmans met May Massee, the children's book editor at Viking Press, who became a sort of partner. He began to publish children's books, beginning with Hansi in 1934. He published the first Madeline book in 1939; after being rejected by Viking, it was published by Simon & Schuster. The book was a great success. Bemelmans did not write a second Madeline book until 1953, when he published Madeline’s Rescue. Four more books in the series were subsequently published while he was alive, and one more was published posthumously in 1999.
Up until the early 1950s, the artistic media he worked in were pen and ink, water color, and gouache. As he describes in his autobiographical My Life in Art, he had avoided oil painting because it did not permit him to produce artistic pieces quickly. But at this point in his life, he wanted to master the richness of oil painting. To this end, he set out to buy a property in Paris that would serve as a serious, full-blown art studio. In 1953, he fell in love with a small bistro in Paris, La Colombein the Île de la Cité, and bought it, intending to convert it into a studio. He painted murals therein, but the project was a disaster owing to French bureaucracy, and after two years of frustration and disappointment, he unloaded it by selling it to Michel Valette, who converted it into a notable cabaret.
Bemelmans also wrote a number of adult books, including travel, humorous works and novels, as well as movie scripts. The latter included Yolanda and the Thief. While spending time in Hollywood, he became a close friend of interior decorator Elsie de Wolfe, Lady Mendl.
A mural on the walls of the Carlyle Hotel's Bemelmans Bar in New York City, Central Park, is his only artwork on display to the public. He painted the children's dining room on Aristotle Onassis's yacht Christina (now the Christina O), for Christina Onassis, the young daughter of the magnate.
A collection of his short writings was published in 2004 as When you lunch with the Emperor mainly extracted from previous works which included My War with the United States (1937), Life Class (1938), Small Beer (1939), Hotel Splendide (1941) and I Love You, I Love You, I Love You (1942).
Each Madeline story begins: "In an old house in Paris, that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines... the smallest one was Madeline." The girls are cared for by Miss Clavel. She is likely a nun, as some French orders called themselves Madames, particularly that of St. Madeleine Sophie Barat, after which this convent school seems to be modeled; and "Mrs." would not be an appropriate equivalent in English. Some have argued that Miss Clavel's apparel looks more like that of a nurse (although why a nurse is working in what appears to be a Paris convent school is not explained).
Other characters include Pepito, son of the Spanish ambassador, who lives next door; Lord Cucuface, owner of the house; and Genevieve, a dog who rescues Madeline from drowning in the second book. Bemelmans published six Madeline stories in his lifetime, five as picture books and one in a magazine. A seventh was discovered after his death and published posthumously:
Bemelmans novel Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep (1943) was adapted by Elaine Ryan for the stage in 1949. The production was produced and directed by Hume Cronyn and combined professional actors with drama students at Stanford University. Performed at Stanford's Memorial Theatre during July 1949, the production starred Jessica Tandy and Akim Tamiroff, with Jeanne Bates, Feodor Chaliapin, Milton Parsons and Roberta Haynes as the supporting professionals.
Cronyn sold the rights for his staging of the play to new producers Nancy Stern and George Nichols III, who after a tryout in Philadelphia, took it to Broadway. The production opened at the Broadhurst Theatre on March 2, 1950. It starred Fredric March as the General and his wife Florence Eldridge as Miss Graves, with Jacqueline Dalya, Milton Parsons, Henry Lascoe, Rick Jason, Booth Colman, Stefan Schnabel, Charles Chaplin Jr., and many others. Bemelmans was involved with the design of the production and present for the tryouts and Broadway performances.
As with many of the author's novels, Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep consists of a great many character sketches, location changes, and improbable events. Critc John Chapman identified this writing style as the ultimate problem with the stage production:
If anybody is to be reprimanded in this dispatch, it probably should be Mr. Bemelmans for being such a loose and dizzy writer--- but this would be impolite, impertinent and ungrateful, for this gay, raffish author of Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep wrote a story which is a gem of impish, sophisticated and sardonic humor. When Miss Ryan set out to translate his verbal whimseys into the more solid statements of the stage, she handed herself a whale of a job.
Reviewer Louis Scheaffer held the same opinion about the difficulty in adapting Bemelmans for the stage, recognizing that the author's characters are nothing like what theatregoers are used to, and the course of events won't fit neatly into the usual genres. But he also held a high opinion of Bemelmans writing:
A curious, beguiling combination of innocence and sophistication, of sweet humor and shrewd, worldly insight, Bemelmans has a sunny tolerance for his fellow creature's private or personal failings that illuminates all of his writings and goes far beyond the little gray virtues generally suggested by the word "tolerance".
Despite the appreciation for Bemelmans writing by New York critics, Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep lasted for only 44 performances, closing on April 8, 1950.
Bemelmans is said to have met his future wife, Madeleine "Mimi" Freund, as a model in Metzl's studio. They had one daughter, Barbara, and three grandchildren, Paul Marciano, James Marciano, and John Bemelmans Marciano.
Bemelmans died in New York of pancreatic cancer, aged 64 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.