Ludwig Bemelmans and La Colombe

“In an old house in Paris, that was covered with vines, lived 12 little girls in two straight lines…the smallest one was Madeline.” So began each of the seven Madeline books, written by Ludwig Bemelmans, who was born on this date in 1898.

Most people, on hearing his name, recognize him as the author of this children’s series or as a prolific illustrator whose work appeared in (and on the cover of) the New Yorker, and in Vogue and Town & Country.

He took a commission to create the murals in the Bemelmans Bar of The Carlyle on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a whimsical depiction of animals and Madeline. He was paid for his art, not in cash, but in free room and board at the hotel for himself and his family for the time it took to finish the work, roughly a year and a half.

A Mural in the Bemelmans Bar, NYC

But did you know of his short-lived career as an innkeeper? Innkeeping was in his blood. His uncle had owned inns in the Austrian Tyrol, and young Ludwig had worked for him before coming to New York, where he worked his way up from busboy to assistant banquet manager in the old Ritz at Madison and 46th Street. As his income from his art increased, his involvement in the hospitality industry declined, but over the years, he had a stake in several properties.

In 1953, Bemelmans bought an hôtel particulier located at number 4, rue de la Colombe, on the Île Saint-Louis. “It was precisely what I had been looking for — a lovely house, half palace, half ruin, an old house covered partly with vine,” he wrote in his memoir, My Life in Art. 

Jacques Yonnet, La Colombe

It had once belonged to la Belle Ferronière, a mistress of François I. He named it La Colombe and imagined himself as le patron of a bistro that would be the preferred watering hole of le tout Paris.

He set about making the dream a reality, but his dream house was a decrepit mess, and dealing with the Parisian bureaucracy presented obstacle upon obstacle. Finally, it opened with everything it needed for the event of the season — except bathrooms. He hadn’t been able to obtain a permit. Undaunted, Bemelmans hired a taxi to shuttle his patrons to and from nearby facilities.

He painted the walls with murals. These were less whimsical than those at The Carlyle, but provided a visual chronicle of Parisian bistro life — the waiters, the clientele, the action — born of years of observation. They beckoned one to come in, sit for a while, and take a glass or two.

Bemelmans, Woman with a Dog

He was living the dream and loving it, but the dream was a financial drain. A 1954 New Yorker cover incorporated many elements of Bemelmans’s murals, bringing attention to the bistro, but it was too late to save La Colombe, and he was forced to sell to Michel Vallette, who ran it is a cabaret and restaurant until the mid-80’s. The bistro changed hands again, and the murals were believed to have been lost.

Bemelmans, Under the Roof (New Yorker Cover, June 26, 1954)

It wasn’t until 2012 that Jane Bayard Curley, curator of an exhibition of his work at the New York Historical Society,, discovered the panels at auction. They are now in the collection of the Ocean House hotel in Watch Hill, Rhode Island (USA).

Madeline lives on in the Bemelmans Bar of The Carlyle, the only remaining public display of his art.

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