Why you should care
Because sometimes inspiration, and literary immortality, is just a freak accident away.
Video by Melanie Ruiz.
One of fiction’s youngest heroines turns 75 this year. The mischievous girl, Madeline, with her blue dress, yellow hat and devil-may-care ways, remains one of the most beloved characters in children’s literature. But before Madeline came to live in “an old house in Paris that was covered with vines” — and in the minds of millions of children across the world — she was the offspring of her equally feisty creator, Ludwig Bemelmans, and a bizarre mishap that sent the Austrian-born American writer, like his most famous character, to a French hospital in need of urgent care.
Like Madeline, young Ludwig was a boarding school misfit who inhabited a richly textured but rather parentless world. When his Belgian father left his German mother when Ludwig was a boy, the diminutive lad was sent to live with a wealthy uncle who owned a chain of luxury hotels in Austria.
“Unruly, impertinent, never serious [and] always late,” according to one biographer, Bemelmans was kicked out of several boarding schools and fired from a string of hotel jobs. Finally, in 1914 at the age of 16, he was shipped off to America where he became a busboy at the Hotel Astor in New York.
Like Madeline, what the adventuresome Bemelmans excelled at most was getting into some rather unexpected binds.
After serving as a lieutenant for his adopted country in World War I, Bemelmans would go on to an eclectic career in New York and Paris as a restaurateur, artist and writer, designing covers for The New Yorker and writing articles for Vogue and Town & Country and even penning film scripts for MGM. But, like Madeline, what the adventuresome Bemelmans excelled at most was getting into some rather unexpected binds.
Once during the 1930s, Bemelmans and his wife stopped at a beer garden in Berchtesgaden, Germany, that had a view of Hitler’s mountaintop retreat, the “Eagle’s Nest.” A live broadcast from the Nazi leader happened to come on the radio, prompting fellow diners to fall silent and turn deferentially toward the mountain out the window.
To the great horror of everyone present, Bemelmans — saying “Pooh-pooh to the tiger in the zoo” — placed a cigar stub on his top lip and offered up a mock Nazi salute as well as his best impression of the Führer’s halting speech pattern. The petulant artist was hastily hauled off to jail and charged as a subversive. Perhaps “afraid of disaster,” an American vice consul would get there “fast and faster” to secure Bemelmans’s release and shepherd him Miss Clavel–style back to safety in New York.
But the incident that would convert Bemelmans from just another free-spirited artist into an eternally beloved author took place once again on the other side of the Atlantic.
While holidaying on the small Île d’Yeu, just off the coast of western France, he was merrily riding a bicycle down the wrong side of the road — his hands in his pockets and a sack of six lobsters over his shoulder — when he was struck by the only vehicle on the island, a baker’s delivery truck.
At a nearby hospital, Bemelmans was placed in a narrow bed, and the scenes he witnessed around him would one day change from merely odd to iconic.
As he would later recall, “The sisters in that small hospital wore large, starched white hats that looked like the wings of a giant butterfly. In the room next to mine was a little girl who had had her appendix out. In the ceiling over my bed was a crack ‘that had the habit of sometimes looking like a rabbit.’ ”
After he had recovered from his injuries and was back in Manhattan, Bemelmans sketched out the story of the first Madeline book on the backs of menus at Pete’s Tavern on East 18th Street. The beautifully illustrated tale — set in Paris and just over 400 words — was a Caldecott Honor Book in 1940, and his six Madeline books would go on to sell 13 million copies worldwide.
Bemelmans would not reap much financial reward from his creation during his lifetime, and despite consorting with the likes of Greta Garbo and Aristotle Onassis, he struggled to keep what money he had, often roaming from place to place, exchanging his art for hospitality. He painted the stunning murals at the eponymous Bemelmans Bar in the Carlyle Hotel in New York, for example, in exchange for 18 months room and board.
Nor did Bemelmans make any real plans for his retirement or death, choosing instead to put his trust in fate and his work, and informing his wife, “Madeline will be our Social Security.” And a year before his death from pancreatic cancer in 1962, he penned a letter to his daughter, asking her to “frame and hang in your bathroom” not one of his classic illustrations but the following piece of wisdom:
1. Sell when things go well
2. Buy when people cry
3. Always be protected / Stop-loss the unexpected
Not bad for investment advice but a somewhat ironic prescription from a free spirit who spent his life courting the unexpected and relying on others for protection. Perhaps what Bemelmans discovered through his adventures — and embodied in his alter ego, Madeline — was the perfect hedge for life’s unexpected outcomes: to embrace fate’s surprising turns with grit, if not outright enthusiasm. (“Tell them it was wonderful” went his proposed epitaph.)
After all, if, like Madeline, you are “not afraid of mice” and love “winter, snow and ice,” then there’s not much that the world can do to get you down. And should disaster strike, the “biggest surprise by far” will simply be a scar — that you can show off to your many admirers.
“That’s all there is, there isn’t any more.”