When I write about a book, I like to spend time learning as much as I can about the author and illustrator, their artistic methods and their literary inspirations. I’m always curious about the story behind the story.
However, there are some books that are so iconic and familiar that it can be difficult to see their treasured images and verses afresh, to separate the story from our long-engrained impressions. It’s a little like that old optical illusion in which one either sees a young lady or an old woman — your brain usually interprets the picture one way and it can be difficult to grasp hold of the alternate image.
Such was my experience when researching “Madeline” and its author/illustrator Ludwig Bemelmans for my post about the ultimate little girl’s library.
Despite evidence to the contrary, I was one of the many who assumed Madeline had no family. Indeed, many believe that “old house in Paris” was an orphanage. I also was under the impression that Madeline was French, as was her author — anyone who would attempt to rhyme “again” and “rain” simply couldn’t be American, could they? And I was certain that Miss Clavel was a nun.
I had to throw many of my preconceived notions out the window after coming across this NPR interview with Bemelmans’ grandson, John Bemelmans Marciano, who has revived the Madeline empire in recent years with new titles like “Madeline and the Cats of the Rome” and “Madeline and the White House.”
“It’s not an orphanage; she’s not a nun; and Madeline is not French,” Marciano told NPR. “I used to get almost indignant over it, but these things take on a life of their own and sometimes misperceptions are the stuff of legends.”
According to Marciano, although Madeline attends a French boarding school, she is an American with parents bearing the surname Fogg. This detail was apparently buried in a manuscript Bemelmans drafted in the early 1950s after a visit to Texas. Marciano discovered the text and accompanying sketches while researching his grandfather and published it posthumously as “Madeline in America and Other Holiday Tales.”
Of course, if you had been looking for it, you would have taken note of the dollhouse Madeline received from “Papa” during her hospital stay in the original book. In addition, Madeline flies home on a magic carpet in “Madeline’s Christmas” and is shown happily celebrating on her father’s lap with a mother and two younger siblings nearby.
As for Miss Clavel, Marciano insists that her apparel is that of a nurse. However, Marciano was born eight years after the death of his grandfather, so even his assertions may be a little faulty at times.
Most revealing of Madeline’s genesis is the acceptance speech Ludwig Bemelmans gave after being awarded the 1954 Caldecott Medal for “Madeline’s Rescue” (he had previously received a Caldecott Honor for “Madeline” in 1939).
Bemelmans explains that he never had ambitions of writing a children’s book, that all he ever wanted to be was a painter. However, he said the methods necessary for becoming a successful artist did not appeal to him; he did not want to exhibit himself, he did not like “the kissing of hands,” and he did not want to see his work sold and taken away.
Madeline became Bemelmans’ solution; a method of painting what he loved and presenting those images to an appreciative audience without having to comprise himself:
“You will notice in ‘Madeline’ that there is very little text and there is a lot of picture,” Bemelmans said. “The text allows me the most varied type of illustration: there is the use of flowers, of the night, of all of Paris, and such varied detail as the cemetery at Père la Chaise and the restaurant of the Deux Magots. All this was there waiting to be used, but as yet Madeline herself hovered about as an unborn spirit.”
So what brought about Madeline’s birth? Bemelmans traced the spark of creation to a mishap he experienced during a vacation by the sea in France. While bicycling home to his rented beach house with the catch of the day slung over his shoulder, Bemelmans was hit by the island’s only automobile.
Here’s cause to question Marciano’s familiarity with his grandfather’s legacy. Marciano asserts in an interview with the literacy website Reading Rockets that his grandfather was conveniently hit by an ambulance that subsequently delivered him to the hospital. But Bemelmans recalls to the finest detail “a four horsepower Super Rosengart belonging to the baker of Saint Sauveur, the capital village on the island. This car was a fragrant, flour-covered breadbasket on wheels.”
In fact, Bemelmans said he had to walk himself to the hospital, lobsters in tow. But this misfortune proved an important catalyst:
“I was put into a small, white, carbolicky bed, and it took a while for my arm to heal. Here were the stout sister that you see bringing the tray to Madeline, and the crank on the bed. In the room across the hall was a little girl who had had an appendix operation, and, standing up in the bed, with great pride she showed her scar to me. Over my bed was the crack in the ceiling ‘That had the habit, of sometimes looking like a rabbit.’ It all began to arrange itself. And after I got back to Paris I started to paint the scenery for the book. I looked up telephone numbers to rhyme with appendix.”
To flesh Madeline out more fully, Bemelmans drew inspiration from many of the women in his life. Her name is a more rhyme-friendly version of his wife’s Madeleine. Her appearances matches sketches Bemelmans made of his daughter, Barbara, enjoying her first trip to Paris, including a visit to the zoo.
The details of daily life in the old house in Paris are based on stories Bemelmans mother told him about her girlhood in a convent in Bavaria.
“I visited this convent with her and saw the little beds in straight rows, and the long table with the washbasins at which the girls had brushed their teeth,” he said.
That convent school was, of course, overlooked by nuns, which most likely shaped Miss Clavel.
Even more interesting are the autobiographical components of Madeline’s character
“I myself, as a small boy, had been sent to a boarding school in Rothenburg,” Bemelmans said. “We walked through that ancient town in two straight lines. I was the smallest one.”
It’s no wonder Madeline has been so dear and familiar to three generations of children and adults. She is a masterful collage of very real and special people.
Finally, I was fascinated to learn more about Bemelmans’ international upbringing, which, in turn, provides explanation for the author’s unusual rhymes. He was born in an area of Austria-Hungary that is now part of Italy where he spoke French exclusively until the age of six. (“It was fashionable in Europe to bring up children who spoke nothing but French,” Bemelmans explained) At that time, Bemelmans’ father left the family for their governess and Bemelmans’ mothered moved the children to Germany, where he picked up his second language. He spent the remainder of his youth in Germany and then Austria, learning the hotel business. In 1914, he immigrated to the United States to further his apprenticeship in the hospitality industry. He joined the United States Army in 1917 and became a U.S. citizen in 1918.
Bemelmans’ former editor, May Massee, cites his 1953 memoir, “Father, Dear Father,” as one of the best sources of biographical information available on the author. Within its pages, Bemelmans has recorded the experiences and conversations of his trip to Europe with his daughter, Barbara. Barbara expresses somewhat exasperated curiousity about Bemelmans’ diverse cultural background and complex accent.
“Do you speak German with an accent too?’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘Do you speak any language correctly?’
‘Well, I have the least accent in French, or else the French are very polite, for they always say how very well I speak it for a foreigner.’
‘That’s all rather sad, Poppy.’
‘Well, it has its advantages. It’s like being a gypsy, belonging everywhere and nowhere.’”
As a result of his efforts to mimic his grandfather’s inventive prose, Marciano says he’s come to appreciate Bemelmans’ oddities:
“I think there’s something great about inconsistency,” he told NPR. “It keeps you on your toes as a reader.”
However, he sympathized with Bemelmans’ editors, citing his grandfather’s attempt to rhyme the words “Genevieve” and “beef” in “Madeline’s Rescue.”
“In German…the ‘v’ and the ‘f’ is the same,” he said. “I can just imagine (the editors) saying: ‘No. It does not rhyme in English.’”
For more captivating information about Ludwig Bemelmans, his writing process and the history of his books, read the entirety of his Caldecott Medal acceptance speech, as well as the whole of his editor’s reflections on the author. In addition, Forbes offers an interesting look at the Madeline dynasty, past, present and future.