The Life of Madeline Creator - Ludwig Bemelmans

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Whether introduced to Madeline through the original books, the cartoons of the 1990’s, or the more recent live action movies, many people like all of us here at have a special place in their hearts for her. I am one of them, so I wanted to pay tribute to Ludwig Bemelmans, the author and illustrator who created the small, brave schoolgirl character.

Ludwig did not have an easy childhood. His mother faced numerous hardships, and it no doubt affected her son. However, the boy did not allow it to define him or to hold him back, and he went on to become a celebrated children’s books author.

Life In Europe

Ludwig Bemelmans was born in Meran, Austria-Hungary, on 26 April 1898. His father was Lambert Bemelmans, a French-speaking painter and hotelier from Belgium. His mother was Frances Fischer, a German woman.

Not long after Ludwig was born, the family moved to Gmunden, a town in a picturesque part of Austria. However, their idyll was shattered in 1904, when Lambert left his pregnant wife, as well as the nanny whom he had also got pregnant, for another woman. Rather than raise her children in a strange town all alone, Frances took her little family to her hometown of Regensburg, Germany.

The future children’s book author did not enjoy school, and found it very difficult to adapt. Eventually, Ludwig was sent to be an apprentice to his uncle at an Austrian hotel, but according to a 1941 interview, that did not end well. Ludwig Bemelmans told a reporter from the New York Times that the headwaiter beat and whipped him so badly that he retaliated by shooting and wounding the man.

It was then that Ludwig’s grandfather gave him the choice of joining his father in America, or of staying and attending reform school in Europe. He chose to travel to the USA; a move that would play a significant role in his later career as a writer and illustrator of classical children’s books.

Art In America

After Ludwig Bemelmans arrived in the US, he continued to work within the hospitality industry. He signed up with the US Army in 1917, and even rose to the rank of Second Lieutenant, although he was never sent to Europe because of his German background. He became a US citizen in 1918.

Ludwig took a step closer to become a children’s book author when he tried his hand at being an artist while still working in hotels during the early 1920s. It was a difficult period in his life, but, to his credit, the young man did not give up on his dream.

In 1926, Ludwig Bemelmans resigned from his hotel job to become a cartoonist. He was lucky enough to see his series, the Thrilling Adventures of the Count Bric a Brac, appear in the New York World, but his initial success was short-lived. The paper ran the series for six months, and then cancelled it.

Sometime during that period, Ludwig met artist and illustrator Ervine Metzl. The two became friends, and it was while he was at Ervine’s studio that he met Madeleine Freund, who worked as a model under the name ‘Mimi’. Romance blossomed, and Ludwig and Madeleine got married. The happy couple became the proud parents of a girl they named Barbara.

Into Children’s Books

Ludwig Bemelmans met Viking Press children’s books editor May Massee sometime in the 1930s. It was a meeting that provided him with the opportunity he needed, because in 1934, Ludwig published his first book for young readers, Hansi.

A few years later, the hotel worker-turned-author created what would become his most famous and beloved character. I’m talking about none other than Madeline – and believe it or not, Viking Press refused to publish the book!

The publishers Simon & Schuster clearly could see what Viking could not, and so they published the classical children’s book in 1939. You probably do not need me to tell you that the story about the Madeline’s emergency appendix removal was a hit with parents and with young readers.

Ludwig Bemelmans then turned his attention to writing and illustrating other books. It wasn’t until 1953, the same year in which he bought a bistro in Paris with the hope of converting it into a studio, that he published Madeline’s Rescue, the second children’s book to feature the character. Ludwig went on to publish four more Madeline books, as well as other titles for children and adults. A fifth Madeline book was published in 1999, long after his death.

Ludwig died of pancreatic cancer at aged 64 on October 1, 1962, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. His delightful stories of Madeline live on, and continue to amuse parents and children all over the world.

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