According to our host, we were having a “quintessential New York experience” in Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel on East 76th Street and Madison Avenue. I was enjoying a local brew, while my wife sipped a signature Carlyle cocktail.
All around us, the walls were covered in murals by Ludwig Bemelmans, depicting whimsical scenes of Central Park in all four seasons: elephants skating in the Central Park rink, sheep frolicking on the Sheep Meadow, a brass band playing, rabbits dancing in a circle, animals observing people (including the mayor) in cages, while a rabbit and an elephant sitting beneath an umbrella enjoy lunch served by a dog. It’s a riot of color and action that reflects Bemelmans’s love of animals.
Bemelmans, of course, is best known as the creator of the “Madeline” books, about a spirited little French girl who lives in a house covered in vines with 11 other girls watched over by the long-suffering Miss Clavel. Madeline and her classmates appear in the paintings, walking in two straight lines in front of Miss Clavel and waving at a robber stealing a painting from the Metropolitan Museum of Art while Miss Clavel looks on in horror.
Jamie Beck, the Carlyle’s marketing manager, sees the murals almost every day, but “I always find something new,” she told us.
The bar is cozy and intimate, dominated by a grand piano that provides entertainment every night. Beck calls it “old-style New York.”
This was all part of our Madeline day in New York, where we’d come to celebrate the 75th birthday of the adventurous girl beloved by generations of children (and their parents).
After our drink at Bemelmans Bar, we took a crosstown bus to the New-York Historical Society Museum and Library on Central Park West to see the new exhibit, “Madeline in New York: The Art of Ludwig Bemelmans.”
Framed drawings from the first Madeline book, published in 1939, greet me like old friends. Among them are the children’s sadness at seeing the wounded soldier, Paris in the rain, and the two rows of girls leaving the house at half past 9. The images evoke priceless memories of sharing Madeline and her adventures with my children.
Dominating the room is a beautiful framed blue-shaded “Madeline at the Paris Flower Market.” There’s also a prototype “Madeleine,” who appeared as a character in Bemelmans’s 1936 book “The Golden Basket.”
Enjoying the drawings was 6-year-old Emma Jones of New York, who said that she likes the paintings “because they’re pretty.” Her 3-year-old sister, Madeline (not named for the character), told me that Madeline is her favorite character in the stories.
“Madeline is special for all kids,” said their mother, Natalie Jones. “The drawings are so vivid. It looks really beautiful. And Madeline is a lovable character.”
We followed the sound of laughter and chatter to the reading area, where a lively group of kids was listening to a Madeline story. It was nice to see that a character from 75 years ago could still enthrall children.
Nearby is the actual hat that served as the model for the clown hat worn by bad-boy Pepito and some early sketches of this character. But Pepito isn’t all bad. Madeline is so successful at instilling a love of animals in him that he frees the animals in a zoo. A drawing of his daring act hangs nearby.
Bemelmans got the inspiration for Madeline while he was in the hospital, where he met a little girl who showed him her appendix scar. On the ceiling of Bemelmans’s room was a crack that sometimes looked like a rabbit.
The son of a Belgian father and a German mother, Bemelmans arrived penniless in New York in 1914. He worked for many years at the Ritz Hotel, joined the army and eventually became a U.S. citizen. By the late 1920s, he had started a career as a cartoonist.
“Bemelmans is such an unusual character, it sort of informs the show,” said chief curator Stephen Edidin. “He knew all sorts of people — thieves and millionaires.”
He never forgot his life in hotels, though. On one wall of the exhibit is a bittersweet series drawn for Town & Country magazine, depicting the life and people of the old Ritz, where Bemelmans started out as a busboy. One of the images is a self-portrait of an elegantly dressed Bemelmans sipping champagne. Other scenes show M. Diat, the head chef, and the Senegalese porter Amadou, whose ambition was to be a chauffeur, although he didn’t know how to drive. The last panel shows workmen about to start demolition with the title “OK, Boys – Take it away.”
Bemelmans wrote other books for children and adults, and illustrations from these are also on display at the Madeline exhibit. He did covers for the New Yorker and a series of murals for a restaurant in Paris that he briefly owned. He even painted murals for the playroom of Aristotle Onassis’s yacht, two of which are on display. He was a bon vivant who knew everybody. He loved the city, and New York remained his home for the rest of his life.
“I hadn’t realized that he was a New Yorker,” Natalie Jones said.
And that’s the point of the exhibit.
“Madeline is a real New Yorker in many ways. She’s feisty,” said Edidin, pointing out that the character was created right in New York at Pete’s Tavern, on East 18th Street near Gramercy Park, close to where Bemelmans used to live.
And so we ended our day where Madeline was born, at Pete’s, saluting her birthday with a glass.
Even Miss Clavel couldn’t object to that.
Lee teaches journalism at Bucknell University.