Paris, Texas

Once upon a recent time, a plucky girl named Madeline traveled to the Lone Star State, bringing along her eleven mates. They saw all the sights, up hill and down dale, had thrilling adventures—and thereby hangs this tale.

October 1999By Comments

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. “We managed to sell books and clothes at the same time.” The text and the sketches were bound into a small book that was given away to customers.

Madeline’s Texas adventure was later published in Good Housekeeping without the references to Neiman Marcus. Marciano, who discovered a slew of sketches and dummy books among his grandfather’s possessions, believes Bemelmans was planning a whole book about her Lone Star State escapade but never got around to publishing it.

A few years ago Marciano was working in computer graphics and trying to think of a way to get some of his grandfather’s lesser-known books back in circulation. “He did dozens of other picture books that did well at the time, but none had the lasting impact that Madeline did,” he says. When Marciano found the Texas material, he decided to use it as an opener for two other Bemelmans stories: “The Count and the Cobbler,” about a baby who engineers a happy Christmas for his poor family, and “Sunshine,” which is based on a treatment Bemelmans wrote for a Frank Sinatra movie about a music teacher who staves off a greedy landlord who wants to evict her on Christmas Eve. (The movie was never made.) The two stories, along with a short memoir by Bemelmans’ daughter, Barbara, are the “Other Holiday Tales” of the new book’s title.

An abridged version of the book, called Madeline in Texas, is being sold exclusively through the store that started it all. In the foreword, Stanley Marcus writes that he is earmarking the dividends of one share of Neiman Marcus stock for a Madeline college scholarship fund “because I love Madeline and the memory of my friend Ludwig Bemelmans.…It will be a constant reminder of Madeline and her curiosity.” The scholarship, which will be available only to students at Dallas’ Hockaday School, is for study in the U.S., France, or England.

The illustrations for the Texas story were drawings in pencil or pen-and-ink, so Marciano realized that new pictures would have to be done for the book. Bravely, he decided to step into his grandfather’s shoes. “It was incredibly daunting,” he says. “I’m still worried whether I did him justice.” Marciano began his task by going through all the Madeline books and copying his grandfather’s work. “It was just an exercise,” he says. “When I began the real illustrations, I closed the books.” He also took his own Texas tour, accumulating trinkets and postcards of the major landmarks—such as the Alamo, the state capitol, and the Texas Star Ferris wheel, all of which make an appearance in the book. It helped as well that he was in the process of writing another book, Bemelmans: The Life and Art of Madeline’s Creator (Viking), which is also being released this month. The final section documents how his grandfather put a Madeline book together. “Doing that really helped give me insight,” Marciano says. “He had hundreds of working sketches for each book.”

Most of the illustrations for the Texas story are based on original Bemelmans sketches. “The gestures are very much my grandfather’s,” says Marciano, whose full-color drawings are clever enough to approximate the real thing. Bemelmans, however, once said that a drawing should “sit on paper as if you smacked a spoon of whipped cream on a plate.…It has to be instantaneous, a flash.” Unfortunately, Marciano’s illustrations don’t have this brilliantly haphazard quality. They seem a bit belabored; the lines don’t sing. But that shouldn’t ruin the fun for Madeline fans, especially Madeline fans in Texas, and anyway, the new setting discourages direct comparisons.

As for the text, Marciano cobbled it together from drafts and notes that his grandfather left. “We stuck to his text as much as we could,” he says. “We did have to cut some.” For instance, Marciano eliminated a section in which store detectives use their guns, believing it to be not quite appropriate today. The legendary Texas Rangers still make it into the book, however, and with Genevieve’s help, save the day. As the story says, “In Texas, when anyone’s in danger/You call upon the Texas Ranger.”

By the end of the tale, it’s clear that any symmetry I imagined with Madeline was just an illusion. After all, she’s an heiress now, and the charms of the state aren’t enough to keep her here. Nevertheless, I’ve had an enchanting visit with an old friend, and I’m sure that the images of twelve little girls on horseback in two straight lines will resonate with my small Texans—with any small Texans, for that matter—the way Madeline in Paris has always resonated with me.

Jeannie Ralston wrote about multiple-births expert Helen Kirk in the April 1997 issue of Texas Monthly.

Related Content