Happy Birthday Ludwig Bemelmans!

April 27, 2015 | Pat

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Yes I KNOW it's a wedding cake
Cover of Hotel Bemelmans selected mostly because it has a cake on the cover

Ludwig Bemelmans was born on April 27th 1898 in Meran, Austria-Hungary. French was his first language: his father was Belgian and Ludwig spent most of his time with a French governess, "Gazelle" (which is easier to say than "Mademoiselle"). His father ran off with Gazelle when Ludwig was six and so he moved to Regensburg with his German speaking mother. Having no children's books she told him stories of growing up at a convent school.

Ludwig's own schooling was difficult, in addition to the challenge of learning German and speaking with a strange accent, his professors regularly lunched at his grandfather's brewery and were constantly telling the old man "that I would not pass the examinations, that I was unruly, impertinent, never serious, always late, and kept bad company." Sure enough, Ludwig had to repeat his year. Then he had to repeat it again and was sent to a private school in Rothenburg "for backward boys, where even an idiot could slowly be advanced. But even there I failed again to pass."

He did not do much better as an employee. He wanted to be a painter like his father but an uncle thought he should work in hotels and happened to own several. Ludwig was soon fired from each one in turn and given a choice: reform school or emigrate to the U.S. where his father was living. He chose the latter.

Ludwig eventually got better at keeping hotel jobs and was also able to pursue his interest in painting. He met and married Madeleine Freund, who had recently left a convent and was modelling in a friend's studio. He also met May Massee, a librarian who had become a children's book editor for Doubleday. His first book Hansi, was published in 1934 (available at the Osborne Collection).

Hansi by Ludwig Bemelmans. Cover

 A few years later he wrote Madeline and showed it to May, now at Viking. She rejected it, saying it was "too sophisticated for children" but Simon and Schuster thought differently and it has remained in print since 1939.

Cover of Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans

Despite his growing success, he still found ways to get himself into trouble. That same year while vacationing in Germany, he was briefly arrested for a Hitler impersonation in which he used a cigar stub in place of a moustache! A subsequent strip search revealing his painted toenails did little to alleviate the Gestapo's wrath. Fortunately for Ludwig, by then he had been an American citizen for nearly a dozen years and he was eventually freed after paying a fine of 100 Reichsmarks. He would go on to write six more Madeline books -- Fifteen children's books in all and a considerable body of writing for grown ups too.

Madeline's Rescue
Cover of Madeline's Rescue
Madeline and the Bad Hat
Cover of Madeline and the Bad Hat



Madeline and the Gypsies
Cover of Madeline and the Gypsies
Madeline in London
Cover of Madeline in London


Madeline's Christmas
Cover of Madeline's Christmas
Madeline in America
Cover of Madeline in America

Main Source Material

Lunch with the Emperor
Cover Image from When You Lunch with the Emperor by Ludwig Bemelmans

When You Lunch with the Emperor: The Adventures of Ludwig Bemelmans (Adult Book)