Tues. Paris Reading Rec: Ludwig Bemelmans

My second-to-last entry in my year-long list of Paris reading recommendations is devoted to Ludwig Bemelmans. Unlike my other Paris reading recs, I'm not going to recommend just one of his books, but all of them, especially the ones he wrote (as the characters in my novel Paris by the Book put it) "for grownups."

Bemelmans (1898-1962) wrote and illustrated one of these most famous children's book series of all time, Madeline, but that work represented a relatively small part of his life. He was a serious artist who worked in oil paints near the end of his life, and throughout his life, he was in constant demand as an illustrator for magazines--he drew dozens of New Yorker covers--and advertisers. He opened (and closed) a number of restaurants, and was an indefatigable traveler. (The Beinecke Manuscript library at Yale University has a small cache of his papers, which could double as a display of hotel stationery purloined from around the world.) 

He was, at heart, a sketch artist--equally skilled in 'drawing' with both brush and typewriter.  A great place to get introduced to these sketches (both verbal and visual) is his anthology, Tell Them It Was Wonderful. It collects fragments of memoirs from throughout his life, but what attracts me most (of course) are his essays set in France. One, "The Isle of God," recounts an episode when Bemelmans found himself in a hospital during an otherwise idyllic summer vacation. A little girl was recuperating from her own illness in the next bed over and together the two of them dreamed up stories about the cracks in the ceiling. One thing led to another, and Madeline was born. (Look in the Madeline book for its own take on ceiling cracks!)

Another favorite essay of mine is "La Colombe." In the 1950s, Bemelmans went to France on assignment for the late, great Holiday magazine. While in Paris, he befriended a number of clochards--the term translates to 'homeless' but not quite--and followed them to a bar they frequented in the shadow of Notre Dame. He was charmed. So much so that he bought the bar and began an expensive process of renovating it, top to bottom. 

The result was disastrous, financially and otherwise. The opening night party arrived before the plumbing did, so Bemelmans hired two limousines--one labelled, "Mesdames" and one "Messieurs"-- to spirit women and men who needed a bathroom to nearby apartments. Still, it was a grand party, and how could it not have been with Bemelmans at its center and extensive murals (now relocated to a Rhode Island hotel) on the walls. 

The bar has changed hands many times since, but you can still go there, sit down, have a glass of wine, sample their paté. The address is 4, rue de Colombe, but you'll also know it by the bas relief dove (pictured below) on the side of the building. The legend goes that early on in the building's life--in the 13th century--two doves had taken up residence here. The male dove went off one day to look for food, and when he returned, the building had collapsed, his mate somewhere inside. He circled for days, weeks, years after, searching for her. 

Is the bas relief dove a homage to him, or her? Or to Bemelmans, who died too young? It's impossible to say, though my novel, in its way, is about this mystery, about what it means to lose someone and subsequently search for them. When I visited the bar not too long ago, I was surprised to find a plaque on the side that listed all the building's most important dates, going back to the 1200s. There was, gratifyingly, an entry for Bemelmans, but, hauntingly, the notation indicated that he'd sold the bar quickly, not because of plumbing woes, but a "chagrin d'amour." A heartbreak. Who broke his heart? A lover? The bar? Paris?

"In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, lived 12 little girls in two straight lines..." -- perhaps, but nothing in Bemelmans's extraordinary life was so orderly. 


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