September 18, 2014
Madeline, the classic children’s book character created by Ludwig Bemelmans, turns 75
by Claire Kelley
In a house in Paris that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines…
Madeline, the beloved children’s book character created by author and illustrator Ludwig Bemelmans and first published in 1939, turns 75 years old this year. The New York Historical Society is celebrating with an exhibit featuring original drawings, paintings, and sketches in honor of the anniversary.
While Madeleine’s adventures take place in Paris, the books’ author lived in New York after emigrating from Germany as a child, and worked at the Ritz Carlton for more than 15 years. Bemelmans started writing the original Madeline book in Pete’s Tavern in Grammercy Park. According to the Wall Street Journal, he was inspired to write the story after being encouraged by Viking editor May Massee who admired his paintings. In his telling of the story, Bemelmans writes of her influence on him and how he found time to write:
About seven years ago a typographer brought Miss Massee to my house for dinner. It was a dreary building of six rooms in a noisy neighborhood. The windows of my living room looked out at a cobweb of telegraph wires, a water tank, and a Claude Neon sign that flashed “Two Pants Suits at $15.00.” To hide this mise en scène, and because I was homesick for my mountains, I had painted outside of my windows a field with blue gentians, the foothills around Innsbruck, and a peasant house with a Forester sitting in front of it, on his lap a wire-haired dachshund, and a long pipe dividing his white beard. “You must write children’s books,” decided Miss Massee.
And with her help I started to write. I bought a typewriter; he became my enemy, and after walking around him for days I locked him up. I waited for “the good hour,” when the little silver bell rings inside, when writing seems effortless and right. These good hours come between long stretches of time, and they arrive unannounced, in a street car, in the bathtub, in bed, in the corner of a cheap restaurant.
Bemelmans was injured in a bicycle accident and ending up in the hospital next to a girl who saw a crack in the ceiling that looks like a rabbit — just like Madeline does when she goes to get her appendix out.
Penguin estimates 14 million copies of the Madeline series have been sold world-wide.
Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.