Ludwig Bemelmans, the author and illustrator of the beloved children’s book series Madeleine, was born on April 27, 1898 in what was then a western part of Tyrol in the Austro-Hungarian Empire but is now in Italy.
He published the first of the Madeleine books, charming stories told in rhyme about a precocious Parisian orphan, in 1939. He produced five more Madeleine books before his death in 1962. Another Madeleine book appeared in 1999, completed by his grandson John Bemelmans Marciano, from an unfinished project.
Each book begins with “In an old house in Paris, that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines… the smallest one was Madeline.” They end with That’s all there is, there isn’t any more.” I remember them fondly from my own childhood.
Bemelmans’ father was a Belgian hotelier and his mother was the daughter of a wealthy German brewer. When Bemelmans was six years old his father left the family under difficult circumstances. Not only was Bemelmans’ mother pregnant at the time but his father had been having an affair with Bemelmans’ governess whom he had also gotten pregnant. Bemelmans’ father fled to America with another woman.
Bemelmans grew up fluent in French and German and was raised in various hotels in Austria and Germany owned by his Uncle Hans. Bemelmans later described his experiences working in these hotels as a young apprentice as demeaning and exploitative.
At 16 Bemelmans’ family sent him to New York where he continued his hotel apprenticeship under happier circumstances at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, where he climbed the ranks and eventually became the famous hotel’s assistant manager, living in his own opulent suite.
By 1926 Bemelmans was able to quit his job at the Ritz Carlton. He invested his savings in a part ownership of a restaurant, giving him the opportunity to devote himself full time to his real passions as a cartoonist, illustrator, and writer.
He wrote and illustrated several children’s books with limited success before the first Madeleine book became an enormous bestseller and won the Caldecott Medal Award. He said that he based Madeleine on his wife, also named Madeleine, and their young daughter Barbara.
Bemelmans also had a lucrative career painting covers for prestigious magazines such as The New Yorker, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, and Town and Country.
In all Bemelmans wrote and illustrated 16 books for children and wrote 20 books for adults, including travel books, memoirs, humorous sketches and four novels. He always took care to give his children’s books as much sophistication as his adult ones, once chiding his editor, ”We are writing for Children but not for Idiots.”