Ludwig Bemelmans is perhaps best known for creating the plucky Parisian schoolgirl Madeline, and while the Caldecott and Newbery winner devoted himself to children’s books, his eclectic résumé also included soldier, novelist, hotelier, restaurateur, set designer and itinerant interior decorator. The New-York Historical Society opens an exhibition today celebrating Bemelmans and his work.
Bemelmans’ life was a uniquely American story. When the First World War broke out, Bemelmans – then a young hotel worker recently emigrated from Austria – enlisted in the Army as a medical attendant. In 1937, he published his memoirs called My War With the United States. (Viking Press) While he never saw combat – Bemelmans was stationed at Fort Ontario and Fort Porter in New York – the book examines how soldiers suffering psychiatric issues were treated during the war. He also describes how he lived in American barracks while speaking German better than English, reading German books, and even keeping his German Shepard on base. Bemelmans’ unmistakable style graces the cover with a pen and ink drawing of a cannon stationed in front of a fort. Taphophiles can find Bemelmans’ tombstone at Arlington National Cemetery where he was buried 1962 in section 43, grave 2618.
After the war, Bemelmans wrote and illustrated for magazines like Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Town and Country and the New Yorker. He also painted murals on the interiors of restaurants and bars. (The bar at the Carlyle Hotel was renamed Bemelmans Bar after he covered the walls with his whimsical interpretation of Central Park and its habitués.) He also designed sets and costumes for Broadway productions. The artist’s own home reflected his desire to illustrate on any blank surface; – a map of Paris was plastered on the ceiling of his Gramercy Park bedroom, and painted donkeys wearing real straw hats adorned the dining room walls.
Out of all his vocations, Bemelmans most enjoyed creating children’s books and felt that young readers deserved stories that respected their curiosity and sense of wonder. He once said, “We are writing for children, but not for idiots.”
The Historical Society’s exhibit includes over ninety original artworks from all six Madeline books; drawings of the old Ritz hotel where Bemelmans first worked in New York; murals from a Parisian bistro and panels from the Onassis yacht “The Christina O,” where the artist decorated the playroom walls with scenes from his beloved schoolgirl series.
The exhibit runs through October 13th. The New-York Historical Society
is located at 170 Central Park West at 77th Street. Admission, hours of operation and more can be found at http://www.nyhistory.org/.
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Reprinted with permission from Fine Books & Collections, author