They left the house at half past nine
In two straight lines in rain or shine-
The smallest one was Madeline.
Those lines ought to be instantly familiar to anyone who’s spent time reading as, or to, a child. My love of Paris may have started with childhood exposure to the Madeline books and I was lucky, for a period in my life, to have an original sketch from one of them hanging in my foyer.
The author was the irrepressible Ludwig Bemelmans, a man about whom I never knew much. I allowed the work–and that means the children’s books–to speak for itself. Uncharacteristically I exhibited little to no curiosity about this rhyming painter and teller of gentle tales. Luckily I have begun to address this shortcoming beginning with this memoir of his early adulthood.
Bemelmans success in the arts came much later than the timeframe of this memoir which encompasses his life from birth through, I’m guessing, late 20s. Bemelmans was born (he doesn’t tell us the year–I looked it up) in provincial Germany in 1898 to the daughter of a local brewer who had married a Belgian. Though the First Word War never intrudes on this tale it must have been a challenge growing up in the ascendant German nationalism that led to Flanders Fields.
For young Ludwig mixed parentage wasn’t the only trial. Not a natural student, our hero flunks out of the boarding school the family traditionally sends its young men to. His expulsion includes almost everything except dummkopf uttered as an expletive. When his mother retrieves him, and his wardrobe with the number ’51’ inscribed as his identifier, she frets that nothing will become of him.
What to do with the lad, though. He’s given a try working at the brewery where, despite the family connection and the grandfather and uncle he adores, he does not succeed. And so it’s off to his father’s side of the family, and Uncle Hans who has built a small hotel empire centered in the Tirol.
That’s about equally successful as experiments go. Ludwig takes to hotel life right away but not in the sense of discovering his career. He likes the comforts and early on discovers how to get up early and have some wine with his breakfast, taking the edge off before it’s even been bolted on. This is also the point where art first enters the tale as his aunt makes him a birthday present of a painting set.
The wine-fueled start to his day is soon discovered and he’s sent to another of the hotels, the idea being that he can’t be both nephew and employee. That, it turns out, is a concept that attaches itself and travels along and so, within a year, Master B. has burned through all the properties and is sent off to New York with a letter of introduction in his pocket.
I’m going to interject some reality here though it’s all after the fact; while I was in the midst of the book such concerns were far, far away. This was a different world and it’s proper to refer to Bemelmans as Master since he has most likely not reached his maturity. This is a fourteen- to sixteen-, maybe at most eighteen- to twenty-year old kid pounding beers and wine and working a full day. Also, there’s a war raging or just ended so there’s a good chance he’s taking a boat to America through a submarine zone. I don’t think it’s a situation most modern parents would pick for their kids.
It’s in New York that the author begins to get his act together, yet even that takes a while. He rotates through a number of hotels all of which seem to be staffed like a Ritz-Carlton. He doesn’t work at flea bags and lands, ultimately, at the Hotel Splendide, a grand dowager with all the trimmings: restaurants, banquet halls, big suites, in-house laundry, a huge commissary and a staff comprised of one loony after another.
So we meet the manager, Cheeses Chreistd, so-called by the staff because the name of the Lord is the first utterance when he begins cursing. There’s Monsieur Victor, who runs the restaurant. There’s SigSag who runs the banquet business. There’s a Senegalese pot scrubber who years to wear a fancy uniform and be a doorman but is happy to be driven around in an open-topped car by the author. There are guests galore, some domestic, some foreign, some semi-permanent whom the staff alternately loathe and love.
As with many such books, once the writer’s hit his stride the plot slips away and we skip from vignette to vignette. When that’s done well, as it is here, you hardly notice. So except for Bemelmans taking art classes the biography disappears and the party takes over. It’s quite a party, too, funded as it is by the hotel’s paying guests.
The book is illustrated thoughout with line drawings by the author. This is something you don;t see much of anymore. Vonnegut used to do it. So did Tom Wolfe. But I can’t recall seeing it done more recently which is odd given we live in an age where commercial interests have decreed any succesful artist an expert in all media. In this case, remember, the author actually is a talented visual artist as well.
I would recount a tale or two but, really, what’s the point? This book has one job: to entertain you with tales of life in a now very long gone age that is strangely familiar. Sit down with it and enjoy the ride. You could do worse than to hang out with Bemelmans and his friends.
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