You probably know Ludwig Bemelmans best from his wonderful Madeline books for children: “In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines/ Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.” I certainly did; I could go on to quote nearly the entire book by heart.
But as it turns out, Bemelmans was more of a bad boy than even his feisty heroine would suggest. He was born in Germany, was a persistently poor student, and went into his family’s business of breweries and hotels as an alternative to the brilliant career in the army they had hoped for him. There, too, however, he failed and floundered, his temper and inclination getting in his way, and at last, after he shot a headwaiter in an argument, his family sent him to America, hoping he would do better there.
In America, Bemelmans found himself back in hotels. Although he did many other things on the side (including painting — there are still frescoes in hotels in New York that he executed — screenplays, novels, and of course children’s books) he worked at the immensely grand Ritz-Carlton for years. In Hotel Bemelmans, we have a wonderful series of essays about his experiences there in the 1920s and 30s, thinly veiled as the Hotel Splendide.
I was expecting these essays to be riotously funny. And they are funny: Bemelmans is a keen observer of odd human behavior both behind the scenes and in the clientele. He describes one fearsome, touchy woman and her French waiter, who bowed, scraped, danced, and pirouetted his way through his orders, trying to be cute:
They sat down, and Madame complained, as she often did, about the fact that the menu was printed in French.
“What is,” she asked the maitre d’hotel, “what is an escalope de veau à l’ancienne?”
He lifted his leg and with a flat hand showed her from what part of the animal the cutlet came. That was easy, but veau was difficult. He thought about the problem for a minute with many grimaces, and then smiled. He bent down, made a cute figure, and put his face close to the hat to say that he he did not know the américain word for veau, but that he would try to explain.
“You have a son, Madame?”
“No,” she said.
“Well, we assume you have a son, Madame.”
“You, Madame, are vache, your son is veau. Escalope de veau is a cutlet of son of cow.”
She laughed her terrible laugh again, called for Monsieur Victor, and said, “Fire that son of a bitch.”
Still, not all his observations are funny (and even the one I’ve just quoted is a certain brand of funny, if you know what I mean.) It reminded me of other writing of the period, of Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker, with an edge of irony and sadness to it. Bemelmans has a painter’s eye for detail, and an eye for the inequalities between staff and clientele, and an inquiring mind about what’s happening to the money during those turbulent decades. This book of essays was great fun, but also worth reading on several other levels. If you’ve ever wondered about the man behind Madeline, I really recommend Hotel Bemelmans.