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Ludwig turned out to be an undisciplined and rebellious scholar, so much so that his mother sent him to his uncle Hans without finishing school. The aim was for boy to learn “something decent” in the latter’s care. However, there was to be no happy ending: during a quarrel Ludwig shot and seriously injured an employee at one of Hans Bemelmans’s hotels (supposedly a cruel head waiter who had beaten the boy with a whip). The 16-year old Ludwig was then sent to his father, who was living in the USA, where he worked in various hotels and restaurants over the next years.
In 1917 he joined the US Army, serving for most of the war in a military hospital. In 1918 he became an American citizen. In the 1920s he returned to the catering trade, at the same time unsuccessfully trying his hand as an artist. In 1925 he designed the “Hapsburg House” restaurant, of which he was a co-owner.
Bemelmans’s first book, a children’s book with the title “Hansi”, was published in 1934 and describes scenes and people from his childhood in South Tyrol. His breakthrough finally came with his fifth book in 1939: the first volume in the “Madeline” series, a story in verse and illustrated by the author himself about a self-assured little Parisian girl. In all seven books were published about Madeline’s adventures. The first film adaptation of the books was an Oscar-nominated short film in 1952. It is essentially the Madeline books that have kept alive Ludwig Bemelmans’s memory in the USA; in the German speaking world, however, his work is less well-known.
Ludwig Bemelmans published some 50 titles, among them travel writings and novels for adults, such as “Hotel Spendide” and “The Blue Danube”. This last novel describes, in comical and critical scenes, everyday life in Germany in the Nazi period; the book is in part based on his personal experiences on a trip to Germany in 1935, during which he was briefly arrested for having imitated Hitler in public.
Bemelmans in addition wrote various screenplays and made films (one with Fred Astaire) and also wrote and drew for renowned American publications, such as Vogue, the New Yorker, Fortune and Harper’s Bazaar.
In his later years Bemelmans, by now a successful author and illustrator, mixed with American and international celebrities. He died of pancreatic cancer in New York in 1962 and was buried in the military cemetery at Arlington, Virginia.