If you are 50 or younger and grew up in a house where books were treasured, you are likely to have fond memories of "Madeline," a book by Ludwig Bemelmans about a little French girl's adventures and misadventures. Like much of the best children's literature, it is at once funny and faintly frightening, whimsical and mysterious, and its brief story is accompanied by illustrations -- Bemelmans' own -- that exactly suit its complex mixture of moods. The book has had a large and devoted following since its publication in 1939 and is often listed among the most admired and beloved children's books.
Though he prospered off "Madeline" and its sequels, Bemelmans found much more to do in life than write books for kids. As is delightfully demonstrated by "Tell Them It Was Wonderful," he was a man of the world who traveled in cosmopolitan circles, enjoyed fine food and drink -- to excess, if he could -- and was richly experienced in life's pleasures. The book is a collection of his autobiographical writings, some of them couched as fiction, but its editor, his widow, does not represent it as "an exhaustive or accurate autobiography"; instead it is "an account of his life and a study of his character, insofar as he chose to reveal himself to his readers."
However one wishes to describe it, "Tell Them It Was Wonderful" is charming and amusing. Whether Bemelmans is describing his rather peculiar childhood in Austria, his wild escapades as an employe of several New York hotels, his youthful infatuation with an actress, his visit to the Hearst fairyland at San Simeon or his renovation of a house in Paris -- whatever he writes about, Bemelmans always does so with brio. As he puts it:
"Psychologists say that an excessive intake of food and wine is a substitute for happiness. I like pudding, I like wine, roast goose, Virginia ham, shepherd's pie, and lobster stew. I am hungry and thirsty a great deal of the time, which accounts for the fact that I have acquired a reputation as a connoisseur of wines and as a gourmet. If I am hungry, then, the thing I worry about most is that one day all the goodies will be taken away from me. Oh no, not by the Russians, by someone infinitely kinder, but still taken away. I am speaking of the day or night after which a photograph of me, and a bad one, will appear on the most somber page of the newspaper, and under it my name, and a resume of my career, which was mainly dedicated to the enjoyment of life. At least that is what it will say, for I have also acquired a reputation as a lover of life and a professor of happiness."
To practice this enviable professorship Bemelmans traveled far and wide. "My habitat is mostly bars and restaurants, hotels and depots, and the lobbies and entrances thereof," he writes. "In normal times I am found on the decks of steamships, and on the shores of tropic isles. I arrive suddenly, somewhere far away, and once there I haunt the piers and terminals and curse if there isn't a boat or plane to take me back immediately." This tension between the desire to escape and the desire to return may well have been the consequence of Bemelmans' childhood; his parents were divorced -- in small-town Austria in the first decade of the century, this was scandalous -- and he saw too little of either of them, developing over the years a protective independence that did not entirely disguise a longing for affection.
But he seems to have been even more eager to bestow affection on others than to demand it for himself. His circle of friends was huge, and it was open to all; indeed, many of his fondest memories are reserved for those ordinary men and women, most of them Austrian or German e'migre's, who worked with him at the old Ritz-Carlton on Madison Avenue, and many of the tales he tells about them are filled with humor and love. He was capable of sarcasm, though; San Simeon "has the feeling of a community built by a monastic order that says mass with castanets," and its master was "the most lonesome man I have ever known, a man of vast intelligence, of ceaseless effort, and all he had done was to make of himself a scaffold in which a metronome ticked time away."
Wide though his travels and acquaintanceships were, Bemelmans always came home to his adopted land. Among the most appealing of its many charms is that "Tell Them It Was Wonderful" is a love song to America, its beauty and its ugliness alike. At a time when we are once again debating questions of immigration, it is useful and instructive to have this testimony from a man who came here and found happiness. In return, he gave happiness.