“In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines …” Happy Birthday, Ludwig Bemelmans

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Today is the birthday of Ludwig Bemelmans, author of the beloved Madeline books. Here is a really interesting biographical sketch of him.

When he was a teenager, his parents apprenticed him to his Uncle Hans, who owned a string of resort hotels in the Tyrol. After the 16-year-old Bemelmans shot a head-waiter during a dispute, his family gave him the option of going to reform school or emigrating to America.

Bemelmans chose the latter and arrived in New York in 1914, carrying two pistols with which to fend off hostile Indians. Once again, his career as a waiter was disastrous. After losing a job because he arrived wearing one yellow and one white shoe, Bemelmans enlisted in the Army.

“Once again, his career as a waiter was disastrous.”

He served in the Army in World War I, and he is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

I always loved the Madeline books, and still do. Madeline: the red-haired feisty rebellious girl in the convent school, the one who always gets in trouble (even if it’s just getting her appendix taken out) but also the one who is also most loved.

I loved how Miss Clavel would wake up in the middle of the night, in her cavernous bedroom, sitting up in her cavernous bed with the draperies hanging above it … saying to herself: “Something is not right!”

She got a candle, and ran down the hallway (the illustrations are so dramatic, so wonderful) and burst into the dormitory, to see Madeline moaning in her bed, all the other little girls sitting up, awake, worried. Madeline is rushed to the hospital to have her appendix taken out.

Things might have gone very wrong that night if it weren’t for Miss Clavel’s powers of prophetic thinking. How many problems could be solved if we woke up in the middle of the night, alarmed, and said to ourselves: “Something is not right!”

I loved the watercolors as a child. I loved the urban setting, the beautiful blotchy rain-wet images of Paris, with the “12 little girls in 2 straight lines” going on their daily walk with Miss Clavel.

I’m sure it will not come as a surprise that my favorite of the Madeline books as a child (and I still own a copy) was when she and Pepito, the little boy next door, join the circus.

Actually, they are forced to join the circus, since they are kidnapped by gypsies at a local carnival in an actually alarming scene if you think about it realistically. They have been abducted. Their old life has vanished.

I mean, look at that gorgeous artwork.

The two end up embracing their new circus life. As a little girl, I found that book to be so magical. I loved how so much of it took place at night. There is one particular illustration of the small company of circus performers sitting around a campfire in the middle of nowhere, their caravan parked nearby. The night around them is dark, a midnight-blue wash of watercolors … and the bright jester costumes and the Pierrot get-ups of the gypsies gleam out from the dark, like magic little gems. I wanted to sit around that campfire. Today, it reminds me of the whimsical beautifully-rendered scenes of the traveling band of performers in Sylvia Scarlett. It has that magic, that ability to transport.

Of course, since Madeline and Pepito had been KIDNAPPED by the gypsies poor Miss Clavel was losing her MIND back in Paris. This time, Miss Clavel’s precognitive powers failed her. At no point when she took the 12 little girls to the carnival did she think to herself: “Something is not right!”

Oh well. Even French nuns with powers of prophecy have their off days.

Happy birthday, Mr. Bemelmans. Glad you didn’t end up being a waiter. Seems like we all are much better off because of your original failure in the service industry.

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12 Responses to “In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines …” Happy Birthday, Ludwig Bemelmans

  1. melissa says:

    I love these books. I wish I could get a hold of my library records from growing up, because I remember checking these out over, and over, and over. Especially Madeline and the Gypsies, and Madeline in London – with the horse that gets so sick eating flowers.

    I can recite so much of Madeline. I love the book.

    • sheila says:

      I love it when they go to London, too! His illustrations are just so superb and evocative. I love the one about the horse and I also just love Pepito!

  2. Bybee says:

    His early work resume cracks me up.

  3. Brendan says:

    Okay, ya got two choices, kid. I DON’T WANNA HEAR IT…YA SHOT THE GUY, ok???

  4. Betsy says:

    I have wonderful memories of my father reading me these books…

  5. Betsy says:

    I had to call my mother to get the correct details… because Madeline is a book that a child can memorize before being able to read, I would “read” along with my father. Apparently I could not say ‘rabbit’ and would always say ‘wannit’. So he changed the line “A crack in the ceiling had the habit of sometimes looking like a rabbit” to “the ceiling had a crack on it, reminiscent of a wannit” – so we wouldn’t mess with the rhyming scheme. It’s a part of our family history.

  6. Sarah says:

    Really interesting blog. Just a quick question, I’m wondering if you know the title of the carnival illustration? It would help me out a lot as I am doing a project on childrens book illustrations

    • sheila says:

      Title? I’m not sure what you mean – it’s included in the book Madeline and the Gypsies and can be found there!

      Good luck!

  7. Jon Low says:

    Nurse Clavel ran fast…. (next page) …And even faster! (her long robes trailing almost horizontally as she leans forward at 45 degrees…)

    Magic!

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