To readers of all ages, Ludwig Bemelmans is known for one 48-page reason: Madeline.
The beloved children’s book debuted back in 1939, but today it’s still read aloud at bedtimes and wrapped in pastel paper for baby showers. It’s even been ranked among the all-time bestselling children’s books. Yet it’s far from Bemelmans’s only published work.
An exhibit at the Penn Library is illuminating not just Madeline, but also the rest of Bemelmans’s oeuvre—articles and cover art for The New Yorker, books and essays about food and travel and hotel life, serious novels, and even some gruesome and explicit drawings he sent to friends.
The show’s title, Covered with Vines: The Many Talents of Ludwig Bemelmans, is partly a nod to Madeline’s famous opening line (“In an old house in Paris/That was covered with vines/Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines”), but it also references “the feeling I had, as I started to put the show together, that there were an enormous amount of ‘vines’ that cover an extraordinarily complex writer,” says Daniel Traister, who curated the show.
There have been other Madeline and even other Bemelmans exhibitions recently, but Traister says the one at Penn features “huge amounts that haven’t been shown before.” That includes a newly discovered archive of letters that the author sent to friends in New York—and that contain “some extremely odd and weird and complicating stuff,” as Traister puts it. For starters, there’s the drawing of a man in a blood-soaked apron who’s dismembering a woman with a saw. Her head peeks out of a bin behind him.
“You just wonder how to absorb that view of Bemelmans with the view you have if all you know are his children’s books,” Traister says.
But there’s plenty for Madeline aficionados, too, including a final mockup of the book just before it went to press and other Bemelmans kids’ books that are now out of print.
Most of the material comes from Jean Kislak—a Bemelmans collector who is married to Jay Kislak W’43. There are also pieces from Penn’s own collection, and from alumnus Steven Rothman C’75, who says he discovered the author while studying at Penn.
After growing up on Madeline and other Bemelmans children’s books, Rothman says he came across the author’s travel books on food and hotels during his undergraduate years. He started buying them less to build a collection and more because he just liked reading them.
“I’m the sort of guy that if he’s reading something, he wants to own it,” Rothman says. “So I started buying up a lot of Bemelmans books as I saw them.”
“I like almost all of his stuff,” he adds. “He’s a good observer, as you would expect from an artist, and he always writes with an outsider’s eye.”
Traister says he’d like Covered with Vines to spark new Bemelmans scholarship—perhaps a complete biography, which doesn’t yet exist. But even more than that, he’s hoping people will explore Bemelmans’ novels and books for adults. “I wound up reading just about everything the guy wrote in preparing this show,” he says. “And I had an absolutely lovely time doing it.”
Daniel Traister will lead a tour of the Covered with Vines exhibit during Homecoming weekend: Saturday, Nov. 7, from 4-6 p.m. The show is on view through Dec. 21 in the Rare Books and Manuscripts floor in Van Pelt Dietrich Library.
—Molly Petrilla C’06
Photos below are courtesy Emily White, Kislak Center.