Ludwig Bemelmans claimed that all his books -- including the Madeline stories, one of the best-selling series in the history of children's literature -- were autobiographical because he had no imagination. If true, it hardly mattered: on its own, his full, improbable life could have filled a library.
His father abandoned the family in Austria when Bemelmans was eight years old, and he grew up wild. His mother couldn't keep him in school, or out of trouble and, at fourteen, he was sent to his uncle to learn the hotel trade. He was fired from every job he was given, and when he fired at a fellow employee, nearly killing him, his uncle told him to choose between reform school and America.
His sixteen year-old's view of America, he wrote later, was that scalp-hunting Indians roamed the streets of Manhattan. He spent his first night on Ellis Island -- Christmas Eve, 1914 -- close to his suitcase, in which he had packed "two pistols and much ammunition." But his suitcase also contained letters of introduction to various hotel owners, and he was soon clearing tables at the Ritz-Carlton.
Ludwig Bemelmans and the rich, Roaring Twenties proved to be a perfect match. Bemelmans liked to draw, and his satiric cartoons doodled on the backs of menus drew attention from his art-loving boss, who promoted him to Assistant Banquet Manager, a lucrative position requiring very little work. He was told to spend his time becoming an artist, and Bemelmans spent most of the decade Putting On The Ritz, literally: he lived in William Randolph Hearst's vacant suite; he dined on room service; he had a violin-playing valet, a Senegalese porter named Amadou playing chauffeur, and a secretary making up false reports of his whereabouts. In the mornings 'Monsieur Louis' -- everyone working at the Ritz had to have a French name -- would sketch in the small ballroom; in the apres-midi, he would tour the town in his Hispano-Suiza; evenings were given over to the study of fine wine, good cigars and the art of living with panache.
This, like the 20s, was too preposterous to last, but Bemelmans had learned to draw, and in the 30s and 40s his artistic career progressed from Jell-O ads and comic strips to magazine covers -- including many for The New Yorker. By the end of the 50s he was having one-man shows in Europe and America. His murals in the Carlyle Hotel's Bemelmans Bar remain a popular tourist attraction in New York today.
But his most famous artwork turned out to be the Madeline books. The genesis of the series is as quirky as the rest of Bemelmans's life. He got the title and setting partly from his wife, Madeline Freund (who had planned to be a nun but had left the convent to be a model instead), and partly from his mother, who had told him stories of her own convent girlhood, where the girls slept in rows of beds and went for walks in two straight lines. From a car accident while on holiday in France, he got his first story: on the ceiling of his hospital room was a crack like a rabbit, and in a neighbouring room was a little girl having her appendix out.
But the cheerful, cheeky, gypsy traits of Madeline and her soul-mate Pepito all came from Bemelmans's own personality. He named his dog, "Kitty." When his daughter was born, and he couldn't afford a photographer, he sent his mother a photograph of a friend's baby. When on holiday in Germany just before WWII, he found himself in a pub outside of which a crowd of Nazi-supporters had gathered to hear a Hitler radio broadcast. When the crowd began to "Heil Hitler" and make Fascist salutes, Bemelmans placed his cigar stub over his lip and stood in the balcony of the bar, accepting their adoration with his best Hitler impersonation. Later that night, on a lark, Bemelmans's wife painted his toenails pink while he was sleeping. The next morning the Nazis showed up and carted him off for questioning. By the time Madeline and the American consul arrived, they had to fish him out of jail: one look at his pink toes and the Nazis had thrown him in the cell for homosexuals.
When the first of the series, Madeline, was published on September 5, 1939, it was an immediate success, as much with adults as children. By the time of his death, the Ellis Island orphan and his Paris convent orphan had made it to the White House. In her 1962 letter of condolence to Mrs. Bemelmans -- written not long before she would herself be receiving condolences from around the world -- Jacqueline Kennedy explained that she had first got to know Bemelmans "one stormy autumn when I was alone in Hyannis with my daughter, and all we did was stay inside and read Madeline. I wrote him a letter saying how much they meant, and he sent me back a sketch of Madeline, inscribed 'for Jaqueline's baby,' and it now hangs in Caroline's room."