He’s one of my favorite writers. Not so much for the Madeline books, which are admittedly charming, but for his writing (and illustrating!) about food and hotels.
This includes books like Hotel Splendide, and various others in which Bemelmans ever so slightly fictionalized the people he lived and worked with in various European and (later) American hotels and restaurants, from childhood to adulthood. The books are full of his illustrations of those people — wonderfully idiosyncratic drawings from which the personalities of those drawn look out with a cantankerous quality that I think possibly had a whole lot to do with the artist.
I think particularly of Bemelmans’ affectionate tales and sketches of the manager of the Splendide (which is in New York and is, I think, a roman a clef version of the Ritz-Carlton as it was in the grand old days). One night Herr Brauhaus comes in late, catches his night staff slacking off, and fires them all — then, soft-hearted creature that he is, lets them talk him out of it. “No, not now, come back, tomorrow you are fired.” (One by one the doormen and bellboy and all the others plead with him to reconsider his decision.) “Mr. Brauhaus walked out again and around the block. When he came back, he called them all together. He delivered what was for him a long lecture on discipline, banging the floor with his stick, while the dachshund smelled the doorman’s pants. ‘I am a zdrikt disziblinarian,’ he said. They would all have to work together; this hotel was not a gotdemn joke, Cheeses Greisd. “‘And now get back to work.'” …This episode and many others are illustrated in a style that’s cheerfully unforgiving — the overfed patrons, the underfed wait staff, nothing glossed over or unduly concealed: New York hotel life of the 30’s and 40’s all laid out before you, as it were, on a plate, with no more garnish than it absolutely needs.
Many of the hotel and restaurant stories, and numerous shorter works, including lots of illustrations and recipes, and a selection of Bemelmans’ collection of period menus (he was always drawing on them…) appear in La Bonne Table. I would quote something from that here, but I lent the book to a chef I know, and he hasn’t returned it yet. Time to get a spare copy, I guess… La Bonne Table is definitely worth a read: having read it first, nothing in Kitchen Confidential surprised me in the least. Ludwig got there first.
He’s buried in Arlington National Cemetery. A good day to stop by with a flower, if you’re in the neighborhood. (Or a souffle…)
Happy birthday, Ludwig!