The Man Who Dreamed Up Madeline

A dashing nonconformist himself, Ludwig Bemelmans conferred a winning waywardness on his headstrong heroine

One afternoon in the late 1930s, writer and artist Ludwig Bemelmans, Austrian-born but now living in New York City, sat sketching out the plot of a children's book. His idea involved a jaunty convent-school heroine, Madeline by name, whose adventures in Paris (with side trips to London and the French countryside) possessed a timeless and insouciant charm.

Soon after Madeline appeared in 1939, the title began selling steadily for Viking. Today, of course, Madeline has become a phenomenon, the six titles having generated a flood of spin-offs, from backpacks and wristwatches to dolls and toothbrushes.

Writer Robert Wernick (who himself lives half of each year in Paris) takes us behind the books to the man who created them. Like the character he created, Bemelmans, it turns out, was a true free spirit, a freewheeling, free-spending, freelance writer-artist who brought his own quirky joie de vivre to his creations. He once wrote to an editor that he had a line ready to be incised on his tombstone: "Tell Them It Was Wonderful." From Vienna to Paris to New York and back to France again, Madeline's many fans will discover, life was indeed a lark for the footloose and fancy-free Ludwig Bemelmans.

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