Ludwig Bemelmans, author and illustrator of more than 40 books for children and adults, was
born in the Austrian Tyrol on April 27, 1898. His father was a painter; his mother was the
daughter of a prosperous brewer.
Bemelmans was a rebellious child, and never completed his formal education. When he was a teenager, his parents apprenticed him to his Uncle Hans, who owned a string of resort hotels in the Tyrol. After the 16-year-old Bemelmans shot a head-waiter during a dispute, his family gave him the option of going to reform school or emigrating to America.
Bemelmans chose the latter and arrived in New York in 1914, carrying two pistols with which to fend off hostile Indians. Once again, his career as a waiter was disastrous. After losing a job because he arrived wearing one yellow and one white shoe, Bemelmans enlisted in the Army. His antics as a military man and his difficulties in adjusting to the ways of his adopted country are the subject of his hilarious memoir, My War with the United States.
By the end of World War I, Bemelmans was a U.S. citizen. He returned to New York and continued to work in hotels and restaurants. Since his arrival in America, Bemelmans had been honing his artistic skills, taking art lessons when he could afford them.
In the twenties and thirties, Bemelmans grew both as an artist and as a restaurateur. In 1925, he decorated and became part owner of a restaurant known as the Hapsburg House, and travelled extensively in America and Europe. By the early thirties, he had gained limited recognition as an artist and, most importantly, he met May Massee, the revered children's book editor at the Viking Press. She was to become one of the most influential people in his life.
Bemelmans' first children's book, Hansi, was published by Viking in 1934. It was followed by a string of moderately successful children's stories. In 1939, Bemelmans presented his latest work, Madeline. Editors at several publishing houses felt the book was too sophisticated for children, but it was finally published by Simon and Schuster on September 5, 1939. All five subsequent Madeline books were published by Viking, which remained his principal publisher for adult and children's books.
Bemelmans married Madeleine Freund in 1935, and they had a daughter named Barbara. Although he named his beloved character after his wife, Bemelmans said that watching his daughter gave him many of the inspirations for his Madeline books.
While Bemelmans' notoriety as a children's author grew, he continued to contribute writings and drawings to magazines such as Vogue, Town and Country, The New Yorker, Fortune, Harper's Bazaar, McCall's, Holiday, and Stage. He also published many adult books with Viking, including Tell Them It Was Wonderful and Hotel Splendide.
Throughout the 1950s, Bemelmans was as prolific as ever without giving up his interests in travel and the restaurant business. He became involved with show business, designing the set for a Broadway show and doing several projects in Hollywood. The murals he painted at New York's Carlyle Hotel bar are famous for their delightful whimsy.
After the success of Madeline's Rescue, for which Bemelmans received the Caldecott Award in 1954, he continued to write about the adventures of the Parisian schoolgirl in Madeline and the Bad Hat (1957), Madeline and the Gypsies (1959), and Madeline in London (1961). Viking published Madeline's Christmas, which appeared originally in McCall's magazine, in 1985. Bemelmans died in New York City on October 1, 1962.