UPPER WEST SIDE — A tribute to the mischievous French schoolgirl who's captured American hearts for 75 years opens Friday at the New-York Historical Society.
"Madeline in New York: The Art of Ludwig Bemelmans" traces the story of the author and how he created the famous character at the center of his children's books. The exhibit also spotlights his talents as a painter, memoirist, cartoonist and clothing designer.
In all, more than 100 works depict the life and creative process of the man behind the bold Parisian redhead beloved by millions.
A couch and coffee table covered with all the "Madeline" books, as well as a bar reminiscent of Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel stocked with his other works, means visitors can pore over his writing.
Whimsical cartoons depicting his time as a hotel worker at the Ritz line the exhibition rooms, in addition to paintings of "Madeline" character Miss Clavel, a copy of the first "Madeline" manuscript, and large murals that once hung in the playroom of shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis' yacht.
"He's a diabolically clever writer who can always find the funny angle," explained curator Jane Curley, adding that Bemelmans "was also a bad boy."
Half Belgian and half Austrian-Hungarian, Bemelmans was a failed student who in 1916 got into trouble with the Austrian government and was given a choice between reform school and coming to the U.S.
He spent the first 15 years of his life working in hotels — including the Ritz, which he later wrote about — and painting in his spare time.
Discovered by a powerful children's book editor in the early 1930s, the first edition in the series of his six "Madeline" books was published in 1939.
The book was a hit in part because it portrayed "the Paris we were fighting for" during World War II, Curley explained.
The series also drew its success from appealing to both children and adults.
"There are deep layers to these books," Curley said. "They are so nuanced."
Bemelmans used the books as therapy, she added.
"He's recasting his story of a hard childhood as one of magical adventures," Curley said.
Bemelmans died while writing a seventh "Madeline" book with the help of Jacqueline Kennedy in 1962. The book, "Madeline at the White House," was finished in 2011 by his grandson John Bemelmans Marciano, who also published two other books.
The exhibit also showcases Bemelmans' friendship with Kennedy through an exchange of letters between the two.
"Madeline in New York" is open from July 4 through Oct. 19 and accessible for the price of museum admission.
Afternoon teas with a Parisian menu featuring Madeline readings will be held on July 16, July 23, Aug. 13, Aug. 20, Sept. 10, Sept. 11 and Oct. 8 from 3 to 5 p.m. The cost is $50 for adults and $40 for children.