It’s hard to be one of New York City’s most well-known hidden treasures without letting fame change you over half a century. But Bemelmans Bar remains a vital remnant of Old New York, a throwback to a period of the 20th century when the best bars were found in hotel lobbies and the only kind of service was white-glove. A pianist tinkles standards in the middle of the room, and even at its busiest, the atmosphere is hushed and convivial. Though to most of its patrons he’s just “that Madeline guy”— the author and illustrator of the classic children’s book series about eponymous French orphan, Madeline—the bar is the embodiment of its namesake, Ludwig Bemelmans, who was at his happiest in hotels.
Born in the Austro-Hungarian empire at the turn of the 20th century, Bemelmans was destined to hotel life. After a rocky early childhood in which his father had an affair with his governess and then ran off with a third woman, he grew up in his family’s Tyrolean hotel. As a young teen, he entered service there apprenticing to his uncle in the classic European tradition, while bouncing in and out of schools. His lausbub years, as he described them (German for something akin to “rascal”), ended at 16 when he wound up before a judge after shooting another waiter in the stomach. The judge’s options: reform school or America. He chose the latter and arrived in New York as World War I began, a German-speaking immigrant with no family, little cash and a few letters of introduction to New York hotel management.
The Ritz-Carlton found a job for him and there he stayed for the next 15 years, finding comfort and order within the structures of formal restaurant work as so many misfits have. In fact, in the foreword to the essay collection Hotel Bemelmans, Anthony Bourdain notes his own Kitchen Confidential as a direct descendent of the author’s cutting, observant essays detailing the gluttonous highs and petty lows of restaurant life.
His murals at The Carlyle were done in exchange for 18 months’ free lodging for himself and his family at a time when creditors were howling. He would quip, “My greatest inspiration is a low bank balance,” but the fact was, he couldn’t help but draw, sketching fanciful creatures and mordant caricatures on napkins, matchbooks and menus wherever he was. Of the many murals Bemelmans completed over the years, the bar at The Carlyle is his only work still intact and available for public viewing.
But as Bemelmans said in that same collection, “Every waiter, like every prisoner, has a dream,” and his dream was art, the only pursuit that had held his interest throughout his lausbub days. His breakthrough finally came when, at work one day, the menus on which he’d absent-mindedly sketched caricatures of a pair of guests were accidentally handed to the very same guests to place their orders. They left in a fury, but Bemelmans’s manager recognized the talent in his work and insisted he use an empty suite as his studio in his off hours from then on.
A prolific bon vivant, Bemelmans published some 40 books during his lifetime: 15 for children, a handful of novels and the rest collections of the acerbically autobiographical essays and illustrations he’d write for anyone who would pay, from Harper’s to The New Yorker to Vogue. He developed film scripts for MGM—where he made himself at home by drawing caricatures of studio head Louis Mayer on his office walls—and bounced between Europe and the U.S., living in hotels and skirting his bills.
His murals at The Carlyle were done in exchange for 18 months’ free lodging for himself and his family at a time when creditors were howling. He would quip, “My greatest inspiration is a low bank balance,” but the fact was, he couldn’t help but draw, sketching fanciful creatures and mordant caricatures on napkins, matchbooks and menus wherever he was. Of the many murals Bemelmans completed over the years—including the Austrian restaurant Hapsburg House in New York City, a Parisian nightclub on the Île St. Louis and the playroom on Aristotle Onassis’s yacht—the bar at The Carlyle is his only work still intact and available for public viewing.
That mural, completed in 1947 and officially titled “Central Park,” is a world in which louche rabbits in fedoras slouch like film noir antiheroes, hippos trip gaily through the grass and dapper llamas doff tiny top hats. It’s a grown-up’s counterpart to Disney’s Fantasia. There’s no narrative to the painting, just vignettes dotted about the room partitioned by willowy trees and tufts of grass. A snowy night scene takes up one corner, while on the opposite wall, a group of Madeline-esque little girls in blue smocks and yellow hats walk in two straight lines. An orange, tobacco-stained haze coats the walls, the effect amplified by glowing table-top lamps and recessed lights around the edges of the gold-leafed ceiling. It’s a brilliant effect that’s half art gallery, half dive bar; reverent yet teetering on the edge of decay.
That effect is even more remarkable in contrast to another art-centric New York City hotel bar, the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis, which just reopened after extensive renovations. Painter Maxfield Parrish’s work shines at the helm of that lacquered, leopard-printed room, lit a little too brightly to be welcoming. Even the grade-school humor of the painting’s much-hyped secret (ask a bartender and he’ll tell you; hint: it’s flatulence-related) can’t overcome the stiffness of the room; it’s not a bar for lingering. Bemelmans, however, is a comfortable black hole, where drinkers can lose hours in the blink of an eye. Low leather banquettes that circle the room are brilliantly sectioned to create nooks for couples, and round cocktails tables are large enough to comfortably hold multiple martini glasses with ice-chilled side cars and a snack server that never runs low.
It’s a New Yorker’s bar, its closeness and elaborate table dynamics designed for those accustomed to navigating crowded subways and sidewalks. A trio of corn-fed Midwesterners one night drew all eyes as they attempted to unassumingly cross the room in one piece, so ungainly were they amongst the slender-stemmed lamps and low-slung club chairs. The cocktail menu is heavy on golden-age classics like the Vesper and the Aviation. But like all good hotel bars, Bemelmans serves all patrons without judgment, from the woman who ordered her Cosmo with a maraschino cherry to the table of 20-somethings who nursed one round while tearing through multiple snack refills as quickly as they arrived.
In his later years, Bemelmans would threaten to have his tombstone read “Tell them it was wonderful,” a play on both his perennial good nature and his love of food and drink. Though he never did get the phrase set in stone, Bemelmans Bar is that monument incarnate, a celebration of the glamour of hotel living as he knew it, with a sense of humor and a no-nonsense backbone.