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Reading My Library

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Ludwig Bemelmans

You might not recognize the name at first, but certainly you'd recognize his most famous character - Madeline!

Who among you has not read Madeline!?

In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines,
lived twelve little girls in two straight lines
They left the house at half past nine . . .
The smallest one was Madeline.
Why, she even has her own website now! She's that famous.

What I didn't realize, until our last trip to the library, that Bemelmans was rather a prolific writer and wrote more than just the Madeline books. He also has a fascinating life history!

Born in Austria in 1898, Bemelmans emigrated to the United States in 1914. Clearly, he loved his new country because he, as many emigrants did at the time, enlisted in the United States Army and served during World War I. He became a U.S. Citizen in 1918 and lived here for the remainder of his life.

It depends on which website you look at as to whether or not you will get a complete and colorful history of Bemelmans' decision to come to America. I'm kind of compiling information which is collected from several sites. Wikipedia offers a quick and interesting history which says that Bemelmans had to choose whether or not to be institutionalized or to emigrate to the United States after having shot and seriously wounded a waiter at a hotel. Another website said his choice, after this alleged shooting, was reform school or to emigrate. At any rate, the question is whether he came to America because he truly loved the country or because he felt he had no choice. That sounds less valiant and patriotic than saying, "He came and he served in our country's army!" But still. He came and he served. You can't really downplay or discount that now, can you? I can't.

Bemelmans apparently never intended to become a writer. He rather enjoyed painting and illustrating - his own father being a painter. However, in the 1930's he met the children's book editor at Viking Press, May Massee, and he began to publish children's books. His first book was called Hansi and I was lucky to find a copy at our library! (I'm so glad that they hang on to old classics such as these with such rich history!)

Hansi is the story of a young boy who lives in Austria. He lives with his mother who is struggling to make a living. (This is strangely reminiscent of his own life. Bemelmans' father left his mother for the governess and his mother was left alone to raise the couple's son. She moved with him to Germany where she had family.) Hansi is invited to his uncle's house for Christmas and he goes off and has a wonderful time with his relatives. It's a nice holiday story. Long. I can certainly see why Madeline was more appealing but it's fun to read a famous author's first story, regardless.

Ludwig Bemelmans married a lady named Madeline Freund in 1935 and together they had a little girl named Barbara. Barbara became the model for the character Madeline and so once again we see Bemelman's life showing up in his work.

"We are writing for children, but not for idiots," he once stated.
Here is a list of all of Bemelman's books (which you can see for yourself is quite long!):

  • 1934: Hansi
  • 1936: The Golden Basket
  • 1937: My War with the United States
  • 1937: The Castle Number Nine
  • 1938: Life Class An autobiographical sketch.
  • 1938: Quito Express (travel book)
  • 1939: Madeline
  • 1939: Small Beer (based on his experience in Hollywood)
  • 1940: Fifi
  • 1941: At Your Service
  • 1941: Hotel Splendide
  • 1941: The Donkey Inside
  • 1942: Rosebud
  • 1942: I Love You, I Love You, I Love You
  • 1943: Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep
  • 1945: The Blue Danube
  • 1946: Hotel Bemelmans
  • 1947: A Tale of Two Glimps
  • 1947: Dirty Eddie
  • 1948: The Best of Times: An Account of Europe Revisited
  • 1949: The Eye of God
  • 1950: Sunshine: A Story about the City of New York
  • 1952: How to Travel Incognito
  • 1952: The Happy Place
  • 1953: Father, Dear Father
  • 1953: Madeline's Rescue
  • 1953: The Borrowed Christmas
  • 1954: The High World
  • 1955: Parsley
  • 1955: To the One I Love the Best
  • 1956: Madeline and the Bad Hat
  • 1957: The Woman of My Life
  • 1958: My Life in Art
  • 1959: Madeline and the Gypsies
  • 1960: Welcome Home!
  • 1960: Are You Hungry, Are You Cold
  • 1960: How to Travel To Europe All to Yourself
  • 1961: Italian Holiday
  • 1961: Madeline in London
  • 1962: Marina
  • 1962: On Board Noah's Ark
  • 1963: The Street Where the Heart Lies
  • 1954: La Bonne Table. Excepts and essays involving food and drink, edited by Donald and Eleanor Friede
  • 1966: The Elephant Cutlet
  • 1985: Tell Them It Was Wonderful: Selected Writings (compilation of various autobiographical stories, published posthumously)
(This list was snagged from Wikipedia.)

Bemelmans lost a battle to pancreatic cancer in 1962. He died in New York. Since he was a Corporal in the United States Army, he is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Today you can find some of Bemelmans' works hanging in the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the MuseƩ National d'Art of Paris. Here are a few pieces for you to see:

Most of us will probably not have the opportunity to go to Paris or New York to see his work, but we can enjoy it in book form. Madeline is everywhere and it would appear that everywhere she is, so is Bemelmans. She is said to have his free spirit and so he lives on in his little girl and we're entertained time and time again by this man's remarkable imagination and ability to tell us a good story.

For a short history of Bemelmans and Madeline, visit the Madeline website.


  1. Wow, I didn't realize he was so prolific. Thanks for the information.

  2. I hadn't realized that! I'm going to need to check out some of his other books. Thanks!

  3. Madeline is one of the reasons I wanted a girl! I don't even own one of the books because I find the copies at B&N to be cheap imitations!
    I love the tv show that Christopher Plummer narrates! Beautiful!
    Yes, Bemelmans' books are on my To Find list. But I haven't ever found one! :o(

  4. Holy cow- I had no idea that he had so many works! I was given a hard copy of Madeline about 6 years ago by another teacher in my preschool. She brought it with her when she visited me in the hospital, after I had my appendix out. :)

  5. That's a lot of books. We just finished reading all of ones our little library owns--the girls even wanted to listen to it on tape. :D

  6. Wow! That's a lot of books. How funny that we both featured books with works in the NY Met today. :)

  7. If you ever so make it to New York, be sure to go to Bemelman's Bar on the Upper East Side - it's a chill, old-school bar, completely decorated with his murals.

  8. What a nice post! His illustrations are fantastic!

  9. I learned so much! I love Madeleine but I didn't know there were so many other books. And I had no idea that Bemelmans incorporated so much of his life in his books.

  10. My grandfather read Sunshine to me when I was just 4- in 1954. I made him read it again and again until I knew it by heart. Today, as I think of all the literature that caused me to love words this emerges as a favorite- so lyrical and amusing.