Madeline in America and Other Holiday Tales Arthur A. Levine Books; 1st ed edition (October 1, 1999)
THE FIRST TIME I LOOKED AT A MADELINE BOOK, I was six years old and living in Switzerland with my family. I know that Ludwig Bemelmans’ whimsical drawings of girls in a French boarding school lodged deeply in my imagination because, on a trip to Paris around that time, I remember seeing a group of young girls in blue uniforms walking down a narrow street and feeling that the book had come alive for me. I wanted to jump into the middle of those schoolgirls and become Madeline’s best friend. To this day, Bemelmans’ smudgy backdrops of mansard rooftops, the Eiffel Tower, and the old house covered with vines evoke Paris for me as intensely as the smell of Gauloises or roasting chestnuts.
Having read all the Madeline books when I was young, I thought I knew everything there was to know about her: that she was rescued from the Seine by a dog named Genevieve, that the Spanish ambassador lived next door for a while, that she once traveled to London. Then several weeks ago I discovered that the plucky redhead had some secrets. Without my knowing it, she had somehow sneaked over to Texas, her only trip to the United States, and this month a new book is coming out about her adventures here. Not only is the timing perfect—I now have two small children of my own—but the geography of this happy reappearance makes me feel that I have a secret symmetry with Bemelmans’ heroine: I saw her in Paris, and now she has followed me to the Lone Star State. In this new book, Madeline in America and Other Holiday Tales, which Scholastic is publishing to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of Madeline’s debut, Madeline and her eleven schoolmates trade in their Breton hats for Stetsons as they make their way through the state in their customary two straight lines. The text is by Bemelmans, who died in 1962; the drawings, however, are by his 29-year-old grandson, John Bemelmans Marciano.
How Texas got the honor of hosting one of the most beloved characters in children’s literature is a story in itself. In March 1955 Bemelmans—an Austrian artist-writer and bon vivant who lived in New York—came to Texas with his wife to write a travel story for a magazine. His first stop was a visit to Stanley Marcus of Neiman Marcus, whom he had met years earlier in Paris at a salon hosted by a mutual friend. At the time of his Texas trip, Bemelmans had produced two of his six Madeline stories and a variety of other books and magazine articles. He had also drawn Madeline and company in a Paris snowstorm for the cover of a Neiman Marcus catalog. “He told me, ‘I can go anywhere I want in Texas, but I’m coming to see you first,’” Marcus recalls. “‘I think you know as much about Texas as anyone. I want to look in your store and see what the giants in Texas are wearing.’”
Marcus, who describes Bemelmans as the “single most charming spirit I’ve ever run into,” showed his guests around Dallas, with the most memorable excursion being a visit to the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo. “He’d never seen anything like it,” Marcus says. “It was so foreign to his experience. He was excited about the whole thing, but he didn’t like the savage aspects, like the bull riding. But he said it was a lot tamer than bullfighting.” Something else that didn’t sit so well with him was the “peculiar” food at the rodeo. “He ate too many corny dogs,” Marcus says, “so by the time we drove back to Dallas, we had to call a doctor, who told him that he should have gone into training before eating four corny dogs in an hour’s time.”
Beyond Dallas, Bemelmans and his wife got to see a great swatch of the state, from the Piney Woods to the King Ranch to West Texas. “He loved Big Bend,” says Marciano. “My grandmother still talks about it as the most beautiful place on earth. She loved the size and scale of it.” Bemelmans himself was struck by the possibilities of his young protagonist out west. “I’m sure he loved the idea of drawing little girls with cowboy hats,” says Marciano. “He had an innate sense of what appealed to people, and everyone loves the little girls in cowboy hats.”
During Bemelmans’ visit, Marcus asked him to write an original story, “Madeline’s Christmas in Texas,” for Neiman’s holiday promotion. Bemelmans worked up a narrative that has Madeline coming to Texas at Christmastime for the reading of the last will and testament of her great-grandfather, who has left her his entire estate. Of course, she is accompanied by her eleven schoolmates and Miss Clavel, their teacher, and, oh, yes, her dog, Genevieve. (Good thing she inherited all that money so she could cover the airfare.) After they arrive, an attorney gives Madeline a tour of all her holdings, including a ranch (which readers will recognize as the King Ranch and which in Bemelmans’ world features a gold mine) and a share of “the greatest store in the world.” Neiman Marcus, naturally.
Madeline and her companions drive around in a Texas-size convertible, ride horses, survive a stampede, and eat chili out on the range. Not only are Madeline’s Texas roots revealed, but we also learn her last name, Fogg—which was chosen, Marciano says, because it was easy to rhyme with. The text is made up of characteristically winsome couplets such as “Yippiyay! We’re just in time to usher/ In a million barrel gusher.” During the 1955 holiday season, the story, with its dose of Texas bravado, was serialized in Neiman Marcus ads in Houston and Dallas papers, accompanied by pen-and-ink drawings by Bemelmans. In the store there were Madeline windows and merchandise tie-ins. “We sold Madeline’s hat and Madeline’s coat,” says Marcus, remembering the orchestrated synergy.