Madeline turns 75 this year, though you would hardly know it. Her adventures are as fresh as when the first Madeline book was published in 1939 by Simon & Schuster. It’s a time for celebration—and for some revelations about the old house in Paris that was covered with vines, its smallest inhabitant, and Ludwig Bemelmans, Madeline’s creator. Most wouldn’t assume that Bemelmans and his little Parisian schoolgirl had a strong connection to New York City. But the current exhibit at the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library, Madeline in New York: The Art of Ludwig Bemelmans, reveals otherwise. Jane Curley, the exhibit’s curator, has gathered 120 items to celebrate Madeline’s 75th. The show includes Bemelmans’s art from all six Madeline books, panels he created for billionaire Aristotle Onassis’s yacht, menus he designed for famed New York City restaurants, and much more.
Bemelmans came to New York City in 1914 and worked as a busboy at the Ritz Hotel and a newspaper cartoonist and magazine illustrator before being discovered by May Massie, an editor at Viking, who was convinced he had potential as a children’s book author. Massie was also instrumental in launching the careers of Robert McCloskey and other authors.
On display is a drawing from Bemelmans’s second children’s book, The Golden Basket (Viking, 1936), where Madeleine made her first appearance. Bemelmans later dropped the “e” from her name to facilitate rhyming. The Golden Basket received a Newbery Honor in 1937.
Madeline had its beginnings in a New York City bar. Bemelmans dreamed up his famed character in 1938 at the watering hole Pete’s Tavern, on Irving Place in Greenwich Village, according to the show’s materials: “There, he jotted the first lines of his most famous book on the back of a menu.” Madeline earned Bemelmans a second Caldecott Honor in 1940. The organization United for Libraries (formerly Friends of Libraries USA) named Pete’s Tavern a Literary Landmark in 1999 in to commemorate Bemelmans’s and Madeline’s time there.
Madeline includes references to some distinguished New York women of its time, the show reveals. The famed New York couturier Elizabeth Hawes, an early Bemelmans benefactor and romantic interest of Bemelmans’s, is depicted “with a mouthful of pins, a tape measure and her signature shears” in one of the book’s illustrations, according to the exhibit’s descriptions. Also, Miss Clavel’s final words, “And that’s all there is—there isn’t any more,” were actor Ethel Barrymore’s signature lines that she spoke at the end of every Broadway performance.
Bemelmans did not garner a Caldecott Medal until 1954, for Madeline’s Rescue (Viking, 1953). John Bemelmans Marciano, the artist’s grandson and a children’s book author in his own right, learned something new about his grandfather from the show. “I didn’t know he had ever designed any textiles or that he had put the face of [French prime minister] Léon Blum in Madeline,” Marciano told SLJ. Bemelmans had said during his Caldecott acceptance speech, “One day I had a meeting with Léon Blum, and if you take a look at the book, you will see that the doctor who runs to Madeline’s bed is the great patriot and humanitarian Léon Blum.” The exhibit also contains fabric created by Blum’s family textile company, featuring a design of gazelles and flamingos, that the fashion designer Claire McCardell used to create sportswear for the department store Lord & Taylor in the 1940’s.
Marciano was also intrigued to see the original book dummy for Madeline on display. “I was flabbergasted that it still existed,” said Marciano, whose latest book is Whatever Happened to the Metric System? (Bloomsbury, 2014). “I was fascinated to see how much it was still in his earlier style and how radically he transformed his style while working on the book.”
The exhibit prompted Marciano to reflect on tales he has been told about his grandfather. “What I always think about with my grandfather are the stories my mother tells of his restlessness—how he would take her to plays and leave after the first act, how he was always traveling or planning to travel.”
As for the whereabouts of his grandfather’s Caldecott Medal, Marciano said, “Long gone, I imagine. I’ve never come across it or heard about it.”
Curator Jane Curley’s favorite item is Bemelmans’ drawing of the Tuileries Gardens from the first “Madeline” book. “It’s a gem of a drawing, purest vintage Bemelmans,” Curley told SLJ. “It has the best back story, having belonged to Bem’s old girlfriend Elizabeth Hawes, who is one of the towering figures of American fashion of the 20th century.”
Curley spent three years assembling the exhibition, traveling from Kansas to Paris in the process. Additional items include lampshades from the Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel in New York City, where the mural that the artist painted in 1947, in exchange for living accommodations, remains intact, and a fan letter from Jacqueline Kennedy, written while she was first lady, which launched a friendship between the author and former first lady.
The show also includes works from Bemelmans’s other books, including a watercolor from Parsley (Harper, 1955), a book about deer and the environment that Bemelmans developed with the famed children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom. Another item, created by artist Adrienne Ottenberg, is Bemelmans’ New York: A Map of His Favorite Haunts, Some Still Here and Some Departed.
“4 Facts About Ludig Bemelmans
and Madeline You Didn’t Know”:
- Madeline was a combination of his mothers, wife, and daughter. He remembered his mother’s stories of convent schools, with the little beds in two rows, the two straight lines, and the girls all dressed alike. But it was also a part of Bemelmans himself (the smallest in class, always in trouble.)
- Best known for his Madeline books, Bemelmans was also a novelist and nonfiction writer, as well as a contributor to The New Yorker (he did many cover illustrations for this magazine), Vogue, Holiday, and Town and Country. Late in life, he decided to pursue his lifelong desire to paint with oils. His work is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museé National d’Arts of Paris.
- Born in Tirol, Austria, Bemelmans enjoyed an idyllic childhood until he was six, when his father left his family. Both he and his pregnant mother left for her family’s home in Germany, where she was the first divorced woman in Regensberg. This began a series of highs and lows in the author’s life.
- When Bemelmans traveled to America as a young man in 1914, he found work as a busboy at the Ritz-Carlton. Here, he began sketching caricatures of the guests. In one instance, he gave some patrons some insulting sketches of them instead of menus. Narrowly escaping being dismissed, Bemelmans was encouraged by his boss to continue drawing.
Madeline in New York: The Art of Ludwig Bemelmans runs at the New-York Historical Society until October 19. It will be on view at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, MA, from November 15, 2014 to February 22, 2015.