Book: Hotel Bemelmans by Ludwig Bemelmans

Interesting look behind the scenes of a fancy hotel in the early 20th century

Ludwig Bemelmans
Hotel Bemelmens
Overlook Press, 2005
ISBN: 1-58567-706-X
302 pages

Ludwig Bemelmans was born in 1898 into a family of hotelkeepers in a small town in the (then) Austrian Tyrol mountains. He was sent to school in Germany, but the discipline didn't suit him well. After being expelled from several schools he went to work in a hotel belonging to an uncle. That didn't really work out either. It seems that he was a bit of a ne'er-do-well and his family eventually, um, encouraged him to emigrate to America.

In America he had various jobs (including soldier and set designer) and he's famous these days for his series of books about a French girl named Madeline. But he spent some years working at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in New York and this book contains 24 stories or, maybe, vignettes, in which that hotel is fictionalized as the Hotel Splendide. The stories were all originally published in other books between 1938 and 1942 but those books are long out of print and it's good that the best stories from them are back in print.

The stories are simple in structure. Each is about a remarkable character or a memorable event. But they're no less interesting for that because the characters are very remarkable and the events very memorable. It's not completely clear to me to what extent the characters and events are fictionalized. My guess is "a bit". But it's entirely clear that Mr Bemelmans writes from a deep knowledge of the people and kinds of people he writes about. The stories aren't generally explicitly funny, but they are often fascinating and generally very endearing.

Take, for example, the beginning of the story about how Mr Bemelmans came to drive a Hispano:

    The best source of information about he guests of
    the Hotel Splendide was not its credit department
    or the manager's office but the couriers' dining
    room. Under the heading of couriers came the
    chauffeurs, valets, butlers, nurses, and footmen
    who were not employed by the hotel but ttravelled
    with the guests as their personal servants. To
    them were assigned small rooms on the air shafts;
    they were fed a table d'hôte menu in the couriers'
    dining room. This apartment was a market for
    scandal, a place to which they all rushed and in
    which they lingered over the second and third cups
    of coffee, comparing notes, exchanging griefs and
    complaints. In English, French, German, Italian, and
    Spanish, and in all the various dialects of these
    languages, the infirmities and vices of the great
    were laid bare. (pp. 190-191)

There's one story about the manager, Otto Brauhaus, who hardly ever fired someone permanently, one about the elaborate debutante balls that were routinely given at the hotel, and another about a waiter who dreamed of being a professional boxer and once used his skills from the ring on a very rude customer.

The book is good but not great; the stories are interesting but they don't draw the reader in much. Still, the book provides a remarkable look behind the scenes at a glamorous hotel in New York of a very different era.

There's a generous selection of illustrations by Mr Bemelmans that you may like more than I do.
And there's a minor editing error in that there's "bathroom" where "ballroom" is wanted on page 291.

Posted: Fri - November 7, 2008 at 01:38 PM   Main   Category: