Thursday, August 18, 2011
Ludwig Bemelmans: Whiskey and Whimsey
My earlier post, Dr. Seuss Sells the Sauce” (July 2010), chronicled the beer and whiskey ads created by the famous children’s author. Although Ludwig Bemelmans may not be as well known, his children’s books have been avidly read for decades. Like Seuss, Bemelmans, shown here, used his distinctive artistic style to draw a series of ads for a whiskey maker. His pictures remain a marvelous, whimsical legacy.
Bemelmans, who was an author as well as an illustrator, was born in the Austrian Tyrol in 1898. Employed at 16 in his uncle’s restaurant, he shot a headwaiter in a dispute and the family gave him the option of reform school or emigrating to America. He chose the latter and as he said...” I bought two pistols and much ammunition. With these I intended to protect myself against and fight the Indians.”
After landing in New York City, he soon joined the U.S. Army during World War I, despite just barely being able to speak English. His antics as a soldier, including firing his pistol at unruly prisoners he was guarding, were captured later in his humorous memoir, “At War with the Army.” After the war Bemelmans writings and art began to gain important recognition. It was not until 1934, however, that he published his first children’s book and followed in 1939 with the adventures of a Parisian school girl named Madeline (named after his wife). As shown here, his delightful drawings were an instant success and the Madeline stories became a series, ending only with his death.
As his fame as a children’s author grew, he continued to contribute drawings and writing to national magazines such as Vogue, Town and Country, The New Yorker, Fortune, Harper’s Bazaar, McCall’s, Holiday and Stage. It was perhaps natural then that the Hiram Walker Company of Detroit and Walkerville, Ontario, one of America’s largest distilleries, would tap Bemelmans’ talents for advertising its flagship brand, Walker Deluxe Bourbon. This whiskey for years had featured a black waiter serving whites -- a theme that probably was losing its market appeal as the Civil Rights era dawned.
As a result, from 1957 to to 1959 Bemelmans drew a series of color ads for Walker Deluxe. By my count there were 11 in all, of which 5 are shown here. The consistent theme is the enjoyment of the whiskey by people who clearly are very, very rich, but each illustration has a waggish twist.
The first ad shown here is of a butler taking a nip from the Walker Deluxe bottle. This caused one contemporary observer to ask: Oh, Ludwig Bemelmans, it’s a mere hop, skip, and a jump from little Madeline causing mayhem in the orphanage to butlers helping themselves to a swig from the drinks cart, isn’t it? Please note the dog in the picture at left: His arch attitude mimics the butler.
The next two ads are similar in theme. In the first, a group of three yachtsmen are served whiskey by a cabin waiter. They are clearly on a yacht while in the background their own yachts are anchored nearby. The second features three Texas oil tycoons, hats and shirts of the type, enjoying a drink while in the background their limos and sports cars, with uniformed drivers, await. Snob appeal with a twist.
The next ad features at least four waiters serving a number of gents (no women appear in any of the 11 Bemelmans ads) in an African safari tree house. The waiter at far left, as in the first picture, is helping himself to a nip of whiskey before serving it. Note that no waiter in any of the ads is a person of color. Hiram Walker executives apparently had seen the error in that depiction.
My favorite is the last image. It shows a waiter serving two portly gentlemen sitting beneath the trophies of prior hunting expeditions. Each animal is worth examining for its slightly different expression, ranging from anger to puzzlement. Bemelmans has injected into this scene, just under the rabbit, top left, the framed picture of an elderly woman, probably the mother of one of the drinkers. They apparently see no irony in her appearance among the trophy heads.
During the 1950s Bemelmans became involved in show business, designing the set for a Broadway production and doing several stints in Hollywood. The murals he painted at New York's Carlyle Hotel bar are still prized for their delightful whimsy. He died in that city in October, 1962 at the age of 64.
Ludwig Bemelmans is buried in Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, D.C. There his gravestone records none of his many accomplishments as an artist and writer. It states simply, Cpl.U.S.Army, World War I. Of that service to his adopted country, Corporal Bemelmans clearly was justly proud.