​Madeline, the Everygirl who never grows old

Celebrating 75 years of Madeline 06:05

The very best books of childhood manage to stay young, generation after generation. Count Faith Salie first in line, to mark a big birthday for "Madeline":

"In an old house in Paris, that was covered with vines,
lived twelve little girls in two straight lines ...
The smallest one was Madeline."

For generations of children, those familiar lines signal the beginning of another tale of "Madeline."

The beguiling little girl with bright red hair and dapper blue coat made her debut in 1939. And with nearly 14 million copies sold, Madeline's appeal shows no signs of wearing off.

So why is she so enduring?

"She's an Everygirl," said Jane Curley, the curator of an exhibition at the New York Historical Society celebrating Madeline's 75th birthday.

"She's brave. She's adventurous. She's funny. She's what every little American girl wants to be."

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The feisty little girl, it turns out, is still full of surprises.

Curley said, "People think that she's French, and she's not. She's an American girl who happens to be in a French boarding school."

Also, "People think that Miss Clavel is a nun, and she's not."

Though set in a school, the books are anything but academic.

"One thing I love about the Madeline books is there are no classrooms," said Curley. "The kids are out seeing the world. They're having adventures."

While traveling through Europe, meeting ambassadors, gypsies and magicians alike. It's the tale of a girl who gets herself in and out of trouble -- not unlike her creator, Ludwig Bemelmans.

John Bemelmans Marciano. CBS News

John Bemelmans Marciano, grandson of the author, told Salie, "He had always said it was a combination of his daughter, my mother, his wife and his mom that it was based on. But I think really it was himself who was the smallest in class, who was going getting into trouble.

"He had a very difficult childhood. His father left the family when he was only five years old. He definitely had a hard time of it in many ways. But he was also someone who, no matter how hard things got, really embraced life."

Born in Austria in 1898, Ludwig Bemelmans was a terrible student who often ran afoul of authorities. At 16, he had to choose between attending reform school or emigrating to America; he chose America.

He found work as a busboy at the Ritz Hotel in New York City, all the while beginning to develop his true calling.

"He loved the hotel business," said Curley," but all the time that he was here he was drawing on the backs of menus, standing behind the potted palms, or using the bakery's [tile] wall as a place to draw, and then mop off the wall."

For years, the self-taught Bemelmans worked his day job while pursuing his art. He published a comic strip, and illustrated for magazines like Town & Country.

Then in 1935, he married Madeleine Freund and had a daughter, Barbara. Life was hard at times, but the bon vivant took it in stride. "My greatest inspiration is a low bank balance," he said.

But it was a vacation on a French island and a chance meeting with a little girl that provided his greatest inspiration.