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Children's book star 'Madeline' focus of New York exhibit

| Friday, July 4, 2014, 8:33 p.m.
REUTERS
The image “The little girls all cried ‘Boo-hoo!’ ” from the Ludwig Bemelmans book “Madeline and the Bad Hat” is on exhibition in the New-York Historical Society. (Reuters photo)

NEW YORK — Madeline, the plucky French schoolgirl depicted in illustrated children's books, was created 75 years ago, and New York is marking the anniversary of the iconic character with a special exhibition.

“Madeline in New York: The Art of Ludwig Bemelmans,” which opened in the New-York Historical Society on Friday, chronicles the story of the red-haired Parisian girl from Bemelmans books, which have spawned dolls, a television series and a live-action film.

“ ‘Madeline' is one of the greats in the picture book world,” said Jane Bayard Curley, curator of the exhibition. “She is somebody who survives and thrives in the face of life's troubles.”

More than 90 original artworks, including drawings and paintings, as well as menus, match books and one of the New York covers illustrated by Bemelmans, make up the exhibit. One of Curley's favorite artifacts is the original manuscript of “Madeline.”

The show, which runs through Oct. 19, recounts Bemelmans' life in New York as a bon vivant, hotelier and artist. It is the first New York exhibit to recognize his work since 1959.

Born in 1898 to a Belgian father and German mother, Bemelmans spent his youth at a family hotel in the Austrian Tyrol and at his grandfather's brewery in Regensburg, Germany. He was a failure academically and ran into trouble with the law.

“He was a flop,” said Curley. “His options were reform school in Germany or America. He chose America.”

He passed through New York's Ellis Island in 1914, and eventually found a job as a busboy in the city's famed Ritz Hotel, where he worked for more than 15 years.

Ambitious, enterprising and creative, Bemelmans “had shpilkes,” according to Curley, using the Yiddish word for impatience. Drawing upon the colorful characters he met through his day job, he branched out as an illustrator.

In the summer of 1938, while on vacation with his wife, Madeleine, and daughter on a tiny island off the coast of France he had a bicycle accident. While in the hospital, he met a young girl recovering from an appendectomy. When he returned to New York, he wrote and illustrated the story of Madeline. She is named after his wife, but he dropped the “e” because it was better for rhyming.

With World War II imploding in Europe, the tale of fearless Madeline and her boarding school companions gliding through the City of Light in “two straight lines” struck a chord on both sides of the Atlantic.

“For me Madeline is therapy in the dark hours,” Bemelmans wrote. Readers loved the magical, whimsical rendering of Paris, now shrouded in war, according to Curley.

Organized by The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass., the exhibition also features the velvet hat that inspired the mischievous Pepito, son of the Spanish ambassador.

“While Madeline's story is set in Paris, she is like many precocious New York City kids,” said Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New-York Historical Society.

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