Ludwig Bemelmans

by May Massee

Ludwig Bemelmans Ludwig BemelmansEvery writer leaves bits and pieces of his own story in his books whether he knows it or not, so I thought I’d look through some of Ludwig Bemelmans’ books to see what he says about himself here and there. The trouble is, I find a paragraph that shows what a good story teller he is and half an hour later I realize that I’ve just gone on reading and haven’t written a word about Ludwig.

I’ll begin again, with My War with the United States, the first book he published for adults, after he had written Hansi and The Golden Basket for children. Those books showed that he could tell a simple story with clarity and sparkle which with his pictures made the whole book sing.

The chapters of My War with the United States were translated from the pages of the German diary he kept during his service in the United States Army. He must have been about eighteen and he had been in this country only two years. Here are unforgettable characterizations and descriptions that show an eager young mind learning to understand the American character, so different from the German, and recording pictures of everything he saw.

The Field Hospital, Unit N, to which I belong, was recruited in New York. The men are mostly college students or graduates, not ordinary privates. Some of them are older, and professional men; for example, the one who has his bed next to mine in the barracks is a Professor of French at one of the large universities … I am very glad of his friendship; he seems to take the whole business we are engaged in as if it did not concern him, as a vacation, never has a serious thought … But he is happy, and most so when we push a wagon with bread from the bakery back to the barracks every evening; then he sings and says that this is the best time he has ever had, that he IS completely happy. Perhaps he has been in some terrible life and now feels happy because he is away from that. He tells me that Schopenhauer states with authority that Happiness is the absence of Unhappiness, which is so obvious and foolish that a backward child could make this observation, but he says I must think about it. I looked this up and it is right; only Schopenhauer says the absence of ‘Schmerz,’ which is pain, and in German the word pain covers more than just pain — it means sorrow, trouble, unhappiness. And so Professor Beardsley is perhaps right…

In our free time we go to motion pictures and entertainments for the soldiers. One is as dull as the other. On Sundays we go to churches, and afterwards people ask us to their houses for dinner. In all these houses is a soft warm feeling, a desire to be good to us, and the food is simple, good, and plentiful. We also take walks together, and Beardsley has pointed out a piece of scenery which he named ‘Beautiful Dreck.’ It was a bitter landscape composed of railroad tracks, signal masts, coal sheds, a factory building and some freight cars, a gas tank, and in the background some manufacturing plant, black with soot. Some of the windows of this building were lit by a vivid gray-blue light and yellow flames shot out of several chimneys. ‘That is,’ he said, ‘beautiful Dreck, and we have lots of it in America.’

Dreck is a German word for filth and dirt but it also means manure, mud, dirty fingers. It is a large, able word, patois, almost bad; it covers all that was before us, and thereby it can be seen that Professor Beardsley knows much. He told me St. Louis had a particularly good portion of ‘Beautiful Dreck,’ but that the best he knew could be seen in the Jersey Meadows, where it covers almost a whole countryside.

I wish we had space to quote the story of the time one of the prisoners he was guarding took Ludwig’s gun to pieces to show him how it worked and Ludwig couldn’t put it together again. It’s all very unorthodox and very soberly told as true comedy should be. And there is deep tragedy here too as must be in an army hospital for the insane. The young man observed and studied about it all and his judgments were wise and kind. There is a beautiful chapter “Tirol in Buffalo,” full of almost unbearable homesickness, that gives the Austrian background the boy loved.

In short, if you would know the young Ludwig you could not ask for a better script than My War with the United States. The diary must have been written in 1917–18. The book was published in 1937. The twenty years between had been crammed with living and working — the banquet manager, storing up more tall tales of hotel life, the artist perfecting his own style of drawing, the traveler shuttling from New York to the West Coast or from New York to Europe and back again. His restless energy can never let him alone — he has so many skills that he is driven from one to another and in between he writes a play or opens a restaurant or takes a Mediterranean cruise — it’s all the same to Ludwig.

Hansi (1934) and The Golden Basket (1936) and My War with the United States (1937) established Ludwig as an import ant writer-artist or artist-writer with a cosmopolitan genius all his own. He has written many brilliant, witty, amusing books from then to now. But Father, Dear Father (1953) is my favorite and to me is the best portrait of Ludwig today — probably because it is largely the story of a trip to Europe with his small daughter, Barbara, and a remarkable miniature poodle, Little Bit. Barbara asks searching questions and her father’s answers give background, philosophy and hopes. Here is a sample:

“‘Some of the people you write about are awful — most are.’

“‘Yes, some are awful, and I have portrayed them as best I can. I have written some very bitter social satire.’

‘“Well, I’m sorry, Poppy, but I never got that. You make them all charming and too, too utterly divine.’

“‘I’m not a prosecutor. I don’t condemn. I put the form, the shape, the being, on canvas and on paper, and I let the reader decide for himself.’

“‘Well, maybe you start out that way, and then, no matter how awful, you fall in love with your characters, and they all turn mushy and nobody is really bad — they’re just odd. In fact, sometimes the bad are much more lovable than the good. And now that I come to think of it, almost always. Anyway, it’s not social satire.’

‘“Well, maybe it’s not social satire but comedy of manners and in a world in which there are less and less manners, especially among the young, it’s a very hard thing to write. As for hating people, I’m sorry, but I find it hard to hate anybody, and impossible to hate anybody for long.’”

Another day they had been talking about Ludwig’s Austrian accent which he has never lost, and Barbara asked:

‘“Do you think in German?’

‘“That’s another thing that puzzles me — no, I don’t.’

‘“In English?’

‘“No, I don’t think in either. I think in pictures, because I see everything in pictures, and then translate them into English. I tried to write in German; I can’t. I made an attempt to translate one of my books, and it was very difficult and sounded awful. Then the Swiss publishers Scherz engaged an old lady, the widow of a German general, to translate the book, and when I read it I said to myself, “How odd! It’s another book.” I liked it, but I never could have done it myself.’

‘“What do you mean by pictures?’

‘“Well, when I write, “ A man comes to the door,” I see it as a movie — I see the door, precisely a certain kind of door, and I see the man.’

‘“In color? Do you dream in color?’

‘“That depends on the subject. Happy dreams are usually in color, especially flying dreams.’…

‘“You love painting more than writing?’

‘“Yes, I would rather paint than write, for writing is labor.’

‘“Do you think you could be a great painter?’

‘“Yes, the very best.’

‘“But why aren’t you?’

“‘Because I love living too much. If I were unhappy as Toulouse-Lautrec was, or otherwise burdened, so that I would turn completely inward, then I would be a good painter. As is, I’m not sufficiently devoted.’

‘“Is it the same with writing?’

‘“Well, yes. My greatest inspiration is a low bank balance. I can perform then.’

“‘To make money?’

‘“Yes, to make money.’

‘“But that’s awful!’

‘“Well, it has motivated better people than I.’

‘“For example, whom?’

‘“For example, Shakespeare.’

‘“And if you had all the money in the world would you just be a cafe society playboy and waste it?’

“At such turns in the conversation I impose silence.

‘“Poppy—’

‘“Yes, what now?’

‘“About the people you write about.’

‘“We’ve had that argument before, and I’ll run through my little piece again for you. I was born in a hotel and brought up in three countries — when I was six years old I couldn’t speak a word of German, because it was fashionable in Europe to bring up children who spoke nothing but French. And then I lived in other hotels, which was a very lonesome life for a child, and the only people you met were old ones, below stairs and upstairs. In my youth the upstairs was a collection of Russian grand dukes and French countesses, English lords and American millionaires. Backstairs there were French cooks, Roumanian hairdressers, Chinese manicurists, Italian bootblacks, Swiss managers, English valets. All those people I got to know very well. When I was sent to America to learn the hotel business here, I ran into the same kind of people, and these I know very well and I can write about them, and one ought to write about what one knows. I can write about you, or Mimi, or a few other people, but I can’t write about what you call “ordinary people” because I don’t know them well enough. Besides, there are so many people who do, and who write about them well.’

“‘Could you write about German ordinary people?’

“‘I can write about Tyroleans, and Bavarians, whom I have known in my youth, woodchoppers, teamsters, boatmen, peasants, and the children of all these people.’

“‘But how did you find out about them, and understand them, when you didn’t speak their language?’

“‘Oh, I understood them, as a foreigner does.’

“‘When you were older?’

“‘Oh no, in my childhood; or better, when I started living and occasionally ran away from the hotel.’

“‘And did you like that more than the hotel?’

“‘Of course. The hotel was like an all-day theater performance and one played along, but the other was real and important and something you never forget. I ran away often and played with other children, but I was always brought back.’

“‘Do you speak German with an accent too?’

“‘Yes, of course.’

“‘Do you speak any language correctly?’

“‘Well, I have the least accent in French, or else the French are very polite, for they always say how very well I speak it for a foreigner.’

“‘That’s all rather sad, Poppy.’

“‘Well, it has its advantages. It’s like being a gypsy, belonging everywhere and nowhere. When you are in Paris you want to be in New York and vice versa.’”

Right now he is in this country to accept the Caldecott Medal but tomorrow he flies back to Paris.

This article, originally published in the August 1954 issue of The Horn Book Magazine, is part of our Caldecott at 75 celebration. Click here for more archival Horn Book material on Ludwig Bemelmans and Madeline’s Rescue.

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