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​Madeline, the Everygirl who never grows old

Contributor Faith Salie looks back at the ongoing appeal of Ludwig Bemelmans' heroine, the little girl known as Madeline
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.

"There was one motorized vehicle on the island, which managed to run him over, and thankfully [it] was the ambulance," Marciano laughed. "And it brought him to the hospital where there was a crack in the ceiling that had the habit of looking like a rabbit, and a little girl in the room next door who came in and proudly showed off her appendix scar to my grandfather and everyone else at the hospital."

The seed was planted.


Bemelmans returned to New York and wrote the opening lines of "Madeline," incorporating tales his mother told about her childhood school, where the little beds were in rows, and all the girls dressed alike.

Marciano says the main character was named after his grandmother Madeleine, kind of, as her name was pronounced Ma-de-lynn, which, he said, "doesn't rhyme with anything."

The first "Madeline" book was an immediate success, and five more followed, catching the eye of Jacqueline Kennedy.

"The first lady wrote Bemelmans a fan letter in about 1961," Curley said. "He sent her a drawing back [on which] he wrote, 'To Jacqueline's baby.' And a friendship ensued. And they even talked about writing a book where Madeline would come and visit Caroline in the White House."

Bemelmans passed away in 1962. But his fictional little girl lives on. There were toys, cartoons, and movies based on "Madeline."

Then, 15 years ago, John Marciano, Bemelmans' grandson, revived the series, and fulfilled Mrs. Kennedy's wish in 2011 with "Madeline at the White House."

Marciano told Salie, "I think Madeline's so timeless because kids haven't changed, and she really captures the spirit of a particular kid, They love the language. They love what's happening. They love that every other kid is cowering, and she is brave."

What endures is a little girl who isn't afraid of experiencing the ups and downs of life.

A little girl who never grows old.

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