It all started in 1939, with a humorous, rhyming picture book about a petite Parisian schoolgirl. She’s a mischievous red-head with spunk and attitude, who becomes the envy of her classmates when her appendix is removed (true story).
Madeline is the feistiest of 12 little girls in two straight lines, wearing identical coats and flat sailor chapeaux. A brave role model for her young female readers, she seems totally fearless when telling a tiger in the zoo, “pooh, pooh!” — proving that being smart and strong is cool, even if you’re a mademoiselle.
Since her whimsical debut 75 years ago, Madeline still remains one of the world’s most popular and beloved fictional characters. And, through her whirlwind escapades in Paris, London, and the French countryside — brought to life by her creator Ludwig Bemelmans’s enchanting watercolor illustrations and light-hearted storytelling — she has charmed her way from the original book through all five sequels, which have become true classics.
You can probably find at least one “Madeline” storybook on every kid’s bookshelf.
Who was Bemelmans?
A hundred years ago, a footloose, frustrated, misfit teen from Austria arrived in New York City. Needing a creative outlet, he began to draw on walls — of his apartment, in restaurants — everywhere. Starting his first career as a busboy at the Ritz Hotel, he taught himself how to sketch on the backs of menus and kitchen tile walls.
“His ambition was to be a cartoonist, until the brilliant children’s book editor at Viking discovered him, and said, ‘You must write children’s books!’ ” says exhibit curator, Jane Curley.
The first lines of “Madeline” were written on the back of a menu at Pete’s Tavern in Manhattan.
Bemelmans claimed to have no imagination; all his books are mostly based on his experiences and people he knew. Madeline herself was actually a mix of personalities: his daughter, Barbara; his wife, Madeleine; and his mother. The schoolgirl was also her creator’s alter ego, along with her favorite companion, Pepito, who expressed Bemelmans’s wild and naughty side as a child.
Like Madeline, Bemelmans was a free spirit; he liked living large.
“His circle of friends ranged from mobsters to millionaires. He loved commissions like this one, where he got to stay on board a luxurious yacht, just as he stayed rent-free at the Carlyle, while he painted the murals at the bar there,” said Curley.
And he loved to travel.
“For ‘Madeline and the Bad Hat,’ he visited Spain; for ‘Madeline and the Gypsies,’ he followed Gypsy caravans and circuses around for an entire summer in 1958. Of course, it was fun for him!” explains Curly.
And his message — which runs through all the Madeline books — is one of “courage, optimism, and delight in life, even in the face of challenges,” says Curly.
The “Madeline” series includes “Madeline,” 1939; “Madeline’s Rescue,” 1953; “Madeline and the Bad Hat,” 1956; “Madeline and the Gypsies,” 1959; “Madeline in London,” 1961. Bemelmans’s grandson has continued the series with books written and illustrated in his grandfather’s style: “Madeline and the Cats of Rome,” “Madeline at the White House,” and “Madeline and the Old House in Paris.”
At the upper-crust Carlyle Hotel on the Upper East Side, in the 1940s, Bemelmans was commissioned to paint murals in exchange for room and board. In face, if you visit the hotel’s swanky Bemelmans Bar, you can enjoy a cocktail surrounded by his whimsical illustrations of city landmarks.
For youngsters who want to feel like they’re part of “Madeline” and love music and dressing up fancy, Bemelmans Bar serves high tea and kid-friendly food from Saturdays from October through a week before Christmas. Singer and pianist Tina deVaron even takes singing requests and makes it a truly unique family experience.
Madeline’s Tea at the Carlyle [35 E. 76th St. at Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side, (212) 744–1600, www.rosewoodhotels.com/en/the-carlyle-new-york/dining/bemelmans-bar].
To celebrate the 75th anniversary, the New-York Historical Society on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is honoring the little darling of Paris and her creator with a special exhibit and family event from July 4 to Oct. 13 — featuring more than 90 original artworks by Bemelmans, as well as the weekly Madeline’s Tea Party on Wednesdays.
To commemorate the anniversary, a lavish slipcased edition of the original book can be viewed or purchased at the New-York Historical Society. It includes a full-color panoramic pop-up spread of Paris, with all the famous landmarks, including Madeline’s house.
Madeline in New York: The Art of Ludwig Bemelmans at the New-York Historical Society [170 Central Park West between W. 76th and W. 77th streets on the Upper West Side, (212) 873–3400, www.nyhistory.org/exhibitions/madeline-new-york]
Madeline’s Tea Party at the New-York Historical Society [170 Central Park West between W. 76th and W. 77th streets on the Upper West Side, (212) 873–3400, www.nyhistory.org/programs/madeline-s-tea-party July 4 – Oct. 13, July 16, July 23, Aug. 13, Aug. 20, Sept. 10, and Oct. 8, 3–5 pm. $40 per child, $35 members; $50 per adult, $40 members.