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Ludwig enjoyed an idyllic early childhood in the mountains of the Austrian Tirol, in a town called Gmunden, where his father Lampert ran a hotel. He barely knew his parentsyoung Ludwig's sanctuary was the garden, where his constant companion was his young and beautiful French governess, whom he called Gazelle, because he could not pronounce Mademoiselle.
This life ended suddenly. When Ludwig was six, Lampert ran away with Emmy, the woman who would become his second wife; like him she left behind a spouse and young child. Gazelle, who was pregnant with Lampert's child, committed suicide. Ludwig and his mother, also pregnant, left for Regensburg, Germany, the home of her family, in a journey that Bemelmans later described:
I found myself in the arms of a strange woman, my mother, who was twenty-four years old then and very beautiful. She held me close and wept almost the entire journey from Gmunden to Regensburg.
We arrived with a night train. My mother was expecting a child. The arrival was so planned that no one would see. A closed coach took us to the Arnulfsplatz. My grandfather wept and repeated, "Armes Weiberl, armes Weiberl," meaning "poor little woman, poor little woman." My grandmother held me in her arms and looked stone-faced, for she had made the path even and promoted the match. It was also said that among her many lovers had been my father.
For a long time, my mother locked herself into her rooms and never went out. That was because she was the first divorced womanin Regensburg. Except for the scandal with King Ludwig I and Lola Montez, no one had ever heard of a case like this. People were marriedmen had illegal children with servant girls and provided for them, and all that was accepted, but marriage was a sacred institution. They did not bother to ask who was the guilty party. The woman was marked. My grandfather, who had been very much against the marriage, insisted on the divorce.
In the beginning Mama tried to replace Gazelle; mostly in tears, she dressed me and undressed me. There were no children's books, and she would tell me stories about her own childhoodof how alone she had been as a little girl and how she was shipped off to a convent school in Altötting, which was run by the kind nuns of an order known as the "Englische Fraülein." She described the life therehow the girls slept in little beds that stood in two rows and how they went walking in two straight lines, all dressed alike. She was much happier there than at home, for her parents had never had any time for her. This made me very sad. She cried, and I cried. She lifted me up; I looked at her closely, and a dreadful fear came over me. I saw how beautiful she was, and I thought how terrible it would be if ever she got old and ugly.
Besides bearing the weight of being a child of divorceworse even than being a bastard childLudwig arrived in Regensburg speaking only French and dressing in the outlandish costumes that his father had provided. "The golden curls came off my head, I was shorn and put into new clothes, high-laced shoes with hobnails." Although his mother wanted him in a private school, he was placed in a public one, as his grandfather insisted on making a solid German citizen out of him. Here he stood out even more, but banded together with similarly outcast boys, who protected one another from "the potato heads," as Ludwig called his fellow pupils.
He failed the same grade repeatedly and was sent off to a boarding school in Rothenburg, which passed "even the dullest of students." Ludwig was deemed hopeless and dismissed. All this caused his mother great pain.
Bemelmans would later write:
She had become hard and was determined to erase all traces of the past from me. But when they saidlook he walks exactly like his fatherthen I would whip along on my toes and walk more so. I was determined not to yield. Part of German discipline is also, that after being punished one must ask for forgiveness and that I could not do. I said to myself that they can kill me, but I won't give in. I will not change, never never never. This enraged especially my mother who felt it her duty that in me she had to undo the wrong she had done to Opapa, herself and me. This went on for years.
Out of all other options for her willfully disobedient child, Ludwig's mother chose to send him back to Tirol to learn the hotel business from his Uncle Hans Bemelmans and Aunt Marie. But Ludwig showed little promise in the family business, and after being tried out at all of his uncle's hotels, he was presented with two choices. He could go to either a correctional institution or America.
Bemelmans began many of his adult books with reminiscences of his childhood, as with "Lausbub," the first chapter of Life Class (1939), a book about his early years in America.
From the very beginning Uncle Hans called me "Lausbub." Lausbub literally should mean "lousy boy," but in South Germany and Austria it is almost a tender word and means something like "rascal."
He always quoted America, telling me often that in America Lausbuben like me sometimes turned out to be very rich men. But in Tirol too, he said, there was bigger opportunity for a Lausbub than for a good boy who did as he was told and would perhaps make a good employee but never be rich.
Here in the hotel I found evidence of a lighter kind of life: the cooking was French, without kraut and heavy dumplings; the conversation had more variety, was not so much of buildings, horses, the Bartels, beer, and the pot de chambre humor of Regensburg. I was disturbed by a sense of disloyalty to my Grandfather, because I felt I should not like anything else but his house and his person.
I had brought some drawings and watercolors and given them to Aunt Marie. When Uncle Hans saw them and heard Aunt Marie suggest that I study painting, he got very angry. Painters, he said, were hunger candidates, nothing in front and nothing in back of them; besides, if I liked painting, I could always hire an artist, when I became rich by following his teachings. He said I must bury the past and start a new life and be a joy and pride to my poor mother and for God's sake not to become an artist like my father.
Aunt Marie would come into the little office when the lectures lasted too long, and say: "I think that's enough for today, Hans, let him go."
My birthday came soon after my arrival, and Aunt Marie bought me a box of the best watercolors and a drawing pad. I had a week of wonderful vacation and was given a horse on which I rode all over the beautiful mountains. Then one day it was decided that from eight in the morning until three in the afternoon I would be an employee and do all the work that was required of me, and for the rest of the time, before and after, and during the night, I would be Uncle's nephew and eat at the family table, and could have the horse.
The mornings in Tirol are the most beautiful time in all the world. I got up at five, saddled my horse, and rode to the sawmill. It stood on a turbulent brook, flanked by high, straight walls of dolomite granite, among tall trees. Near by, under the two tallest and oldest trees, stood a little inn, with a garden, a curved wooden bench, and two round red-stone tables. There I stopped at seven every morning and drank a pint of red wine, dipping the hard peasant bread in it. I stayed as long as I could and then rode in a gallop back to the hotel to be on time for duty.
The first time I did this, Aunt Marie was up, and Uncle Hans out on his morning walk. He had said: "At least he gets up early, the Lausbub; that's something; some of them you can't get out of bed." Aunt Marie always looked at me and felt my head and said it must be the change in altitude. "He has a fever every morning, and look how his eyes shine." But then they found out about the wine and several other things, and Uncle said that this half-nephew, half-employee arrangement was at an end. He said it would be better to send me to one of the other hotels where Aunt Marie could not help me out of every scrape.
And so I was sent first to the Mountain Castle in Meran, and then in the space of a year I ran through all of Uncle Hans's hotels. Every manager was tried out on me; they all failed and sent me back. The last time was after a very serious offense. Uncle walked up and down again; Aunt Marie cried and said to me while Uncle was with his ice machine: "Ludwig, Ludwig, what is going to become of you?"
When Uncle Hans came back he said there were two places for me to choose between. The first was a correctional institution, a kind of reform school, German, on board a ship, where unruly boys were trained for the merchant marine and disciplined with the ends of ropes soaked in tar.
The second was America.
I decided to go to America.
Bemelmans landed in the United States on Christmas Eve, 1914. His father, who had moved to New York and become a jeweler, forgot to pick him up, and he was forced to spend his first Christmas in America on Ellis Island. He and the other immigrants unlucky enough to share his fate were given neckties as Christmas gifts.
While growing up Bemelmans had keenly missed a father figure, and did not easily abandon the idea of being reunited with his father. He found his way to Lampert's home, but he and his father couldn't get along. So Bemelmans was soon on his own, armed only with letters of introduction from Uncle Hans to three of Manhattan's best hotels. He quickly made use of them all, working as a busboy at the McAlpin and the Astor before being taken on at the Ritz-Carlton. It was there that he would largely spend the next fifteen years of his life.
It was not a life Bemelmans enjoyed. Headwaiters and maîtres d'hôtel became his enemies, and the long hours were brutal. At the Ritz, however, he finally found a place where he could succeed. After a two-year stint in the U.S. Army during World War I, he returned to the Ritz, this time in the banquet department, where he worked his way up to assistant manager, a position with an excellent salary and prestige. By the time he was twenty, he had enough money to buy a car and explore the United States, beginning a lifelong obsession with travel. Bemelmans loved the liberty of America, where he was able to travel anywhere without worrying about having the correct papers.
Bemelmans wrote and drew of his time at the Ritz-Carlton more extensively than he chronicled any other period of his life. The Hotel Splendide, as he called it, defined Bemelmans for his adult readership much the way Madeline did for his younger audience.
Foremost in all of Bemelmans' recollections of the Ritz was Albert Keller, a German of immense heft who ran the hotel. He called him Otto Brauhaus in his stories, but he was known to those at the Ritz as "Cheeses Greisd" on account of his favorite expression.
"I shall forever be indebted to the benevolent man Albert Keller, who was my protector," Bemelmans wrote, "who shielded me against the most formidable snob I have ever known, the Maître d'Hôtel of all time, Theodore Titze."
Theodore gave Bemelmans his first job at the Ritz, as a busboy. He was assigned to a waiter Bemelmans called "Mespoulets." Though incompetent in his profession, Mespoulets taught the young busboy French grammar and encouraged him to become a cartoonist. Bemelmans honed his skills on models the hotel provided.
Bemelmans' sketching provided him with one of his favorite Ritz anecdotes:
Theodore's most esteemed guests were two people whom I called Monsieur and Madame Potter Dryspool, and these he seated at the best table on my balcony. With their arrival everybody fell over themselves, for a complaint from them meant instant dismissal. Madame Dryspool had her special Diet. Monsieur Dryspool was blue from drink.
On the side of the base of the marble column was a stack of menus, the backs of which offered very good sketching surface. The palm there protected me, and I was fascinated with the beauty of ugliness for the first time in my life. And very carefully I drew the profiles of Monsieur et Madame Dryspool on the backs of two menus. In a moment of haste, the Maître d'Hôtel who functioned on this balcony, who had just wished Madame and Monsieur Dryspool "good morning" and shoved the footstool under Madame's foot, and put away Monsieur's cane with the rubber cup on the end (gout), looked for menus to hand to themand, thinking I was holding them in readiness for him, tore them out of my hand and handed them to Madame and Monsieur Dryspoolthere was a sudden awful sounda bark from Monsieur and a scream from Madame. Looking at each other's back of the menu, they had discovered the drawings of themselves which, of course, they took for caricature, although they were close likenesses. I then heard the threeMonsieur, Madame and the Maître d'Hôtelcalling Theodore, and I thought it best to go downstairs, take off my tie and change, and go see the Gish Sisters in The Birth of a Nation.
I expected to be through with the Ritz Carlton after that, and only came back for my things. But the timekeeper said that Mr. Keller wanted to see me.
Mr. Keller said: "Gotdem Cheeses Greisd, they are going to sue diss Hotel and it's all your fault." Mr. Keller never could fire anyone, and he was sorry a moment after he screamed at people. He loved art, and he was a friend of the art dealer Reinhart and of Sir Joseph Duveen; they were both daily guests at the hotel. He told them the story. The two menus with my drawings of Monsieur and Madame Potter Dryspool were in a safe place in his office. He showed them to Mr. Reinhart and to Sir Joseph and asked them: "Has this boy any talent?" and both said "Yes."
Keller assigned Bemelmans to the banquet department. "`Show your face once in a while' he said, `and draw. The ballroom is empty most of the timeor one of the small ballroomsso you use them as a studio. Your food and room you have, and laundry too, and a salary.'" In the banquet department, Bemelmans worked under Charles Illert ("von Kyling" in the books) and Willy Mladek ("Mr. Sigsag"), who would become Bemelmans' lifelong friend.
Sharing in the prosperity of the banquet department, where he became assistant manager and was thus entitled to a percentage of the profits, Bemelmans began to enjoy "the most luxurious mode of living." He stayed in William Randolph Hearst's suite when Hearst was in California, which was most of the time, and had a violin-playing valet named Herman Struck.
Bemelmans also purchased a Hispano-Suiza, which led to his acquiring a sort-of chauffeur. He wrote:
One of the backstairs family was a Senegalese porter named Amadou, who lived in a tent made of unused rugs under the stairs of the Crystal Room. There he looked through L'Illustration, and made himself a powerful drink, pouring the leftovers from the various glasses that were removed from banquet tables into a pitcher and seasoning the mixture with lemon and sugar. It was Amadou's ambition to become a doorman or a chauffeur. He went to the Russian tailor who took care of the uniforms of our doormen and had him make a uniform and I employed him as a part-time companion.
Bemelmans brought over his brother from Regensburg to work at the Ritz, but Oscar missed his hometown tremendously. Ludwig was never able to write about his brother directly, so Oscar became Fritzl in "The Homesick Busboy."
Adieu to the Old Ritz
When the Ritz-Carlton was demolished in 1950, Bemelmans wrote and illustrated a commemorative piece for Town & Country, recollecting his years at the hotel. The following is an excerpt.
I forgot to say that I also had a secretary.
Because this was a French hotel, everybody had a French name, and I was known as Monsieur Louis. One day I entered the office, and there was a green slip in the typewriter.
Although there was no business, my efficient secretary sent a daily report to Mr. Keller. She was out of the office, the report was almost finished, I read: Date, department, etc., no parties, no inquiries, etc., and then"Monsieur Louis came down from his room at ten-thirty. Monsieur Louis had his breakfast in the Japanese garden. Monsieur Louis took the houseman, Amadou, with him. Monsieur Louis said he would be back at three." I sat down at the typewriter and finished the note, writing: "Monsieur Louis came back at three. Monsieur Louis read this note. Monsieur Louis went to the châlet de nécessité and while there Monsieur reflected what a bitch he had for a secretary." I thought that Miss Cutting would find the note and that it would teach her a lesson. Unfortunately she did not read my postscript but signed the report and sent it to Mr. Keller.
He stormed up the stairs the next day at eleven, the note in his hand. He bellowed like a wounded bull. On such occasions he was to be avoided. I took the Hispanoand drove around the country. Amadou sat in the back, for he did not know how to drive. It always took three days for Mr. Keller's anger to evaporate.
During his years at the Ritz, Bemelmans' desire to draw intensified, and the hotel provided many excellent modelskitchen workers and waiters, as well as clientele. Bemelmans dreamed of becoming a cartoonist, a career that he thought would allow him to draw and also earn a good living.
An esteemed guest, who lived at the hotel, was a famous cartoonist. He was known for his generosity in tipping and for never looking at a bill. The entire staff from the maîtres d'hôtel to the chambermaids considered him a "gentleman par excellence." Spurred on by a waiter with whom I worked as a bus boy, I decided to become a cartoonist. By 1926, after years of work and countless disappointments, it seemed as if I had achieved my goal. I sat up in the cupola of the old World building with a group of funnymen: Webster, Milt Gross, Ernie Bushmiller, and Haenigsen. Walter Berndt, who drew "Smitty" in the Daily News, helped me a great deal. There was constant laughter in that cupola.
Unfortunately, there were so many complaints about my strip, which was called "Count Bric a Brac," that after six months, during which no syndicate had picked it up, I was fired. It was a bitter time, for I had to go back to the Ritz; and the old cashiers and the maîtres d'hôtel said, "Ah, Monsieur Bemelmans, who felt himself too good for this dirty trade, is back again. Tiens, tiens [Well, well]."
What followed was the bleakest period in Bemelmans' life. He had married an English ballet dancer named Rita Pope, who had come to New York with the Anna Pavlova Company in the mid-1920s. The marriage was tempestuous and soon began to break down. Bemelmans would later write about a ballerina he had been set to marry, but who disappeared when she found out he had been a waiter. But it was Bemelmans himself who was not happy with or proud of his life, and his divorce made him face it.
One day, I looked into one of the many mirrors of the Ritz. The rosy cheeks were more rosy than they had been when I arrived from Tirol, but this was due to indoor exposure. The capillaries had exploded from too much drinking. I had a stomach. I gasped when I walked up the stairs. Morally, I felt as disgusting as I looked, and I said to myself, how many more of these meals, how much more of this life before you look like Theodore the penguin-shaped maitre d'hôtel or, what is even worse, like some of the guests. You will be unhappy, useless, a snob, a walking garbage can. Get out, throw yourself into life. All you can learn here, you know.
In July of 1929 Bemelmans, determined to become a full-time artist, rented a fifth-floor walk-up studio in Greenwich Village. He sold some drawings and in September resigned from the Ritz, with terrible timing. The Depression hit, and people had no money for art. He sold nothing more, and returned to work at the Ritz. Then in August 1931 came the worst. Ludwig's brother Oscar, who had come from Regensburg to work at the Ritz nine years earlier, died after falling down an elevator shaft at the hotel. Bemelmans was overcome with guilt about the accident, for Oscar had never wanted to come to America. Unlike Ludwig, Oscar was born and raised in Regensburg, and he loved the city as much as Ludwig despised it. Ludwig had hoped bringing Oscar to America would save him from Regensburg's crude and small-minded ways. Instead, Ludwig found himself escorting his brother's body back to Regensburg, to be buried in the town cemetery.