Check out Matters of Style Marketplace on One Kings Lane

Check out my latest vintage finds on One Kings Lane!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Le Bon Bemelmans!

Though our blog often focuses on interiors, fashion, and photos of fabulous people and places, we'll be the first to stay that true style is about more than the things you can see- it's also a way of living. People who have lived "stylish" lives, in our opinion, aren't always those that have the fanciest house or the swankest upbringing or the closet full of choice clothes. Stylish people live with a certain joie de vivre, an appreciation for their surroundings, an ability to comfortably relate to people from every strata of society, and ideally, also have a gift for capturing their interesting lives via photography, art, or the written word.

Someone that I consider quintessentially stylish is Ludwig Bemelmans. His odd-sounding name might not ring a bell, but I'm sure this does- 

In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines,
Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines...
They left the house at half past nine, in rain or shine,
The smallest one was Madeline.

That's right, Bemelmans is the author and illustrator of beloved children's book Madeline. A staple of little girls' libraries everywhere, Madeline was named after Bemelmans's wife...but her spunky personality was based upon Bemelmans himself and his precocious daughter Barbara.

Not many people realize that Bemelmans actually penned quite a few books for adults that are based upon his interesting and well-traveled life. These are not boring, dry travel books recounting mundane details - these are books that put you in the thick of the action and just wish that you could have sat next to Bemelmans one night at a dinner party. He has a knack of humorously capturing people, places, and atmospheres, all of which convey a sense of richly lived life in a bygone era. He is central to every story, but you never get the impression that he talks about himself too much. His style is straightforward and self-aware, often humorous, and extremely impressive considering English was actually his third language. 

I started out reading Hotel Bemelmans, but over the last year, my collection of Bemelmans books has grown significantly. The only book I haven't finished is La Bonne Table, the book at the bottom.

Bemelmans was born in Austria in 1898. After his father left his mother for the governess, Bemelmans's mother moved the family to live with her parents in Germany. Young Ludwig did not take well to discipline and struggled in school; his mother sent him to work for his uncle at a hotel in Austria. After an altercation where he shot a fellow employee, his mother gave him the option of reform school or America. He chose the latter, and at the age of 16 arrived alone in New York City, where he found work at the "Hotel Splendide", which in real life was actually the Ritz-Carlton. All of this (and more) is recounted in his memoir Hotel Bemelmans. 


Bemelmans joined the U.S. Army during World War I and was known as a prankster- you can read about his experiences in his memior My War with the United States. He was never sent overseas to Europe because of his Austrian heritage and ties to Germany, and spent a good amount of time in upstate New York and in the midwest. Afterwards he returned to New York and continued to work in hotels, sketching some of of the guests on the sly, including the portly lady you see below.

The 30's were the golden age of New York hotels and Bemelmans recounts this era in a way that makes you feel as if you were there. If you thought people threw huge parties these days, imagine débutante parties for hundreds starting at 11pm with dinner and ending at 8am with breakfast, with countless cases of champagne in between. One patron wanted to re-create Miami and Venice in the ballroom and had a lagoon built and dyed with 50 gallons of turquoise ink, complete with a gondola. And of course, with every party, there were musicians playing fast and furious.

In case you're not convinced that Belemans lived in a bygone era, in the story "The Hispano," he recounts how he happened to acquire a Hispano-Suizo luxury car with- get this- REAL leopard skin seats! PETA would not approve, I know...but a fascinating story.

Fast forward a bit, and Bemelmans ended up becoming a successful author, screenwriter, illustrator, and painter. He contributed to magazines such as "Town and Country," "Vogue," "The New Yorker," yet considered himself an artist first and an author second. He traveled extensively to Europe and to South America and his various memoirs recount these trips in glorious detail.

Bemelmans painted the murals on the wall at the bar of the Carlyle Hotel in New York in exchange for room and board for his family for a year. Quite a bargain! Next time I am in New York I am just dying to stop and have a drink at Bemelmans Bar.

His many "New Yorker" covers display his unmistakable artistic style.

If you're interested in delving into the world of Bemelmans, I'd highly suggest starting out with Hotel Bemelmans and How to Travel Incognito.

Bemelans died in 1962, and I was interested to learn that he is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.


I highly suggest picking up one of Bemelmans's books; they would be perfect to take along on your spring and summer travels. Although Anthony Bourdain may have recently cornered the market on bad-boy-behind-the-scenes books about the hospitality industry, Bemelmans really set the standard in this genre. Sure, Bourdain has that whole drug-addiction thing in his corner in terms of proving his rebel credentials. But Bemelmans- well, he befriended a con man and let him babysit his daughter, because he knew all the policemen would be watching over them in suspicion and she'd be extra safe. He was thrown in a German prison after getting drunk and mocking Hitler using a cigar butt as a mustache. After crossing the Atlantic in a first class cabin, he deliberately sought a 3rd class cabin on the return so he could see what that was like too and meet some interesting people. Belemans lived a daring and stylish life and, luckily enough, did us the favor of writing about it. 


bluehydrangea said...

Who knew??!! Loved this post and I can't wait to get one of his grown up books. I always loved Madeline, wonder what she was like all grown up?

Pemberley said...

Excellent post today. I grew up in New Jersey, outside of Princeton and met a boy named Paul when I was 15. He is Bemelmans grandson. I was fortunate enough to spend many evenings at their house, at the kitchen table listening to stories from Mimi, Pauls grandmother, who as you know was where the name Madeline came from. Barbara is Paul's mom and there is a twin brother James and a younger brother John. John lives outside of New York and is a childrens' book illustrator thus carrying on the family tradition and talent. They still own the family horse farm where Barbara still lives. The farm used to host one of the best three day shows in the country. Today Barbara keeps an assortment of animals, all rescued, and about a dozen minuature horses saved from abuse. Mimi passed away many years ago. I will always cherish the time I spent getting to know her. Once when I was living in Washington DC I sat next to Art Buchwald in a French resturant. I happened to see Mimi shortly afterwards and mentioned it. She lit up and told us about living in Paris and the parties thay would host with the Buchwalds. Are there any people like that now? I'm not sure.

Again, great post. Most people see the cartoon or a doll and don't know the back story.

domesticgoddess said...

Very good read. Well researched. Thank you for the read.

pcw said...

Bemelmans Bar is a delightful spot in NYC; such an authentic gem. A great place to people watch and enjoy champers and strawberries!

Laura said...

Wonderful post, thank you!

Blog Widget by LinkWithin