By Ludwig Bemelmans
Overlook. 302 pp. $24.95
Ludwig Bemelmans (1898-1962) is known to untold millions around the world as the author of six delicious books (for children, but loved by many adults as well) about the adventures and misadventures of Madeline, the French schoolgirl, but there was far more to him than that. He had "acquired," as he once wrote, "a reputation as a lover of life and a professor of happiness." He traveled the world over and found fun wherever he went. As Anthony Bourdain writes in his introduction to this new selection of Bemelmans's miscellaneous writing:
"He was the original bad boy of the New York hotel/restaurant subculture, a waiter, busboy and restaurateur who 'told all' in a series of funny and true (or very near true) autobiographical accounts of backstairs folly, excess, borderline criminality and madness in the grande Hotel Splendide -- a thinly disguised double for the author's one-time employer, the Ritz Carlton. He was a legendary bon viveur, hustler/operator, raconteur and man about town. . . . He was also, at various times, a set designer on Broadway, a painter, decorator, Hollywood screenwriter and the author of over 200 titles in scores of languages. He was a man of many parts and much mystery. . . . The kind of uber-snob only a lifetime waiter can be, he used his knowledge of languages, food, wine and the complex hierarchy of the upper classes to cow, entertain, manipulate and enchant while careening through life seeking pleasure in all its forms, leaving an amazing body of work, many friends and a trail of unpaid bills behind."
Between 1938 and 1942 Bemelmans published four books about his life in hotels and restaurants -- "Life Class," "Small Beer," "Hotel Splendide" and "I Love You, I Love You, I Love You" -- all of which have been out of print for ages. "Hotel Bemelmans" is a greatest-hits selection of two dozen reminiscences culled from those books and previously uncollected material as well as a generous sample of his charming drawings. It begins with his boyhood in the Austrian Tirol and ends with the final adventure of Mespoulets, "probably the worst waiter in the world," whose tables at the Splendide's restaurant "were in a noisy, draughty corner of the balcony . . . a kind of penal colony to which [the manager] sent guests who were notorious cranks, people who had forgotten to tip him over a long period of time and needed a reminder, undesirables who looked out of place in better sections of the dining room, and guests who were known to linger for hours over an order of hors d'oeuvres and a glass of milk."
When Bemelmans joined the Splendide as a teenager -- as a waiter in one of his uncle's hotels in Austria, he'd shot a headwaiter in an argument and been shipped to America -- he was assigned to Mespoulets as a commis de rang, or assistant waiter, one step above a busboy. In a book that contains many strange and endearing characters, Mespoulets is perhaps strangest and most endearing of all. His only real talent was calligraphy -- he wrote elegant menus for the dining room -- but as a waiter he was a disaster. Precisely why the hotel kept him on staff is something of a mystery, but in his remote corner he was lord and master:
"There, in the shadow of a dying palm tree, he functioned loudly and ineptly, breaking plates and glasses, spilling soup on people's sleeves, mixing up orders, and talking back to the guests. He was tired and miserable. In a dress suit shiny with the drippings of every soup and sauce on the menu, he could be seen leaning on a banister, biting his nails, looking into space, and waiting for the occasional undesirable customers whom Monsieur Victor sentenced to his tables."
Eventually Mespoulets went quite around the bend; the story of his strange decline is told in "The Murderer of the Splendide," which serves to underscore for the reader that hotels and restaurants exist in worlds all their own, barely comprehensible to those of us who live in what passes for the normal world. For one thing, men and women who spend their working hours serving the well-to-do, powerful and self-indulgent tend to absorb by osmosis some of their traits, if not their wealth or power -- though the power of a maitre d' is not to be underestimated. For another thing, the intimacy waiters, housekeepers and the like are afforded with these people gives them an especially keen understanding of their fallible humanity. Here, for example, Bemelmans describes the clientele at the Splendide's private dining room:
"The suite was frequently used for gay dinners and for instantaneous courtships. It was also engaged for the discussion of serious affairs. Men important in business or with positions of responsibility in Washington met here, and in the course of an evening a violent change often came on them. They arrived with dignity and they looked important and like the photographs of them in newspapers, but in the late hours they became Joe or Stewy or Lucius. Sometimes they fell on their faces and sang into the carpet. Leaders of the nation, savants, and unhappy millionaires suffered fits of laughter, babbled nonsense, and spilled ashes and wine down their shirt fronts. Some of them became ill. Others swam in a happy haze and loved all the world."
Some of the high-stepping people at these parties were also high-rollers on Wall Street who, feeling absolutely no pain, became financial consultants. There "was always at least one who backed the maitre d'hotel, a favorite waiter, or the wine steward against the bar and said, 'Ambrose, I am going to make you rich!' . . . . and then, slowly, thoroughly, as if for an idiot, it was explained to him what stock to buy and when to sell." As a result, Bemelmans says, "I became rich several times. It was not unusual, after a small dinner, for one of the waiters to make a thousand dollars or a bus boy five hundred." Nor was it unusual for the same waiter or busboy to lose the same amount (or more) later, for these were the Roaring Twenties and everyone was buying on margin.
The principal source of revenue for the hotel and its dining rooms was Society, "the people who are photographed much and appear in the rotogravure sections, who are found at the Atlantic Beach Club, in Miami, and occasionally murdered or mixed up in fashionable messes; also Italian aristocracy, young men who give morning concerts or dancing lessons, and movie stars."
Bemelmans spent much of his life in the service of these creatures, but as the preceding paragraphs make plain, he scarcely took them as seriously as they took themselves. He makes fun of them gently for the most part, though sometimes he smoothly inserts the rapier and then turns it swiftly, to fatal effect. "No Trouble at All" describes a party put on by a ghastly society woman ("her skin had the texture of volcanic rock seen from the air with dirty snow swept into the crevices") for her boorish husband, while "Grapes for Monsieur Cape" is about an elegant older gentleman who was always accompanied by his fetching young "niece." All of which is great fun, but the best parts of the book are those in which Bemelmans writes about Mespoulets and the other mostly anonymous service people who are a lot more interesting than the Society they serve.