Call it Culture?: Madeline in New York

For those of you who don’t already know:

In an old house in Paris, that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines… The smallest one was Madeline… And nobody knew so well how to frighten Miss Clavel.

And that was only the beginning of her illustrious career on page and screen.

“And saved her from a watery grave.”

The original Madeline books were written by Ludwig Bemelmans, and they are a little off by modern standards. The completely adorable fan letter from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis gives some indication of what I mean. In it, she scolds him for giving her daughter the idea that falling into a river and nearly drowning is the surest way to get a dog who will eventually give birth to 12 puppies. Madeline and the Bad Hat reads like a dating guide that puts The Rules to shame. I guess that’s because, in Bemelmans’ words, he was writing “for children, not idiots.” (Which is probably why the books are still loved today. As a new parent, it’s a relief to pick up a children’s book and be genuinely surprised by the plot.)

This year, the New York Historical Society ran an exhibit celebrating the 75th Anniversary of Madeline– and Bemelmans time in New York.

Bemelmans was a successful cartoonist and author and, I found out, a quasi-failed hotelier. Apparently, he was born into the hospitality business and, while  he worked well in a succession of roles at the Ritz-Carlton, he tried and failed several times to run his own establishments and was not quite able to pull it off.

So what if you might not want this man handling your finances? 75 years later, his art is still celebrated. He once walked in on his agent using some of his sketches to start a fire. After angrily reclaiming them, he managed to sell every one for a profit. So, he clearly understood some essentials well enough!

He lived a rather interesting life. After the exhibit’s tease, I will probably try to seek out some of his adult fare and will definitely never read his Madeline books again in quite the same way.


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