Spread a Little Sunshine: A Classic Returns and an Interview with Barbara Bemelmans
Years ago in the very depths of the main location of New York Public Library, deep under Bryant Park, there lies a book collection. In this collection, if you knew where to look, you once could find the official children’s reference collection of NYPL. And once upon a time, I spent my days going through that very collection, finding books long forgotten by the bulk of humanity. Books by famous authors. Books that actually stood the test of time.
Books like Sunshine:
What Madeline did for Paris, Sunshine does for NYC. And as of last month this lovely book has at last come back into print. But where did it come from? How did it originate?
To begin, here’s the plot summary of the book:
First published in 1950, this classic picture book by the creator of Madeline tells the story of a music teacher and her crotchety landlord who will do anything for peace and quiet. Readers will meet Miss Moore, a sweet and eccentric older woman who moves into an apartment in New York City and, with the help of her students, outwits her landlord, Mr. Sunshine, when he tries to evict her after learning that she intends to run a music school in her apartment. Full of charm, umbrellas, and a little bit of Christmas Eve magic, Sunshine—as the 1950 publication states—is an enchanting tale with the “gentle touch of Madeline, as well as some thoroughly ridiculous situations. [It is] a unique guide to New York City, showing its landmarks as they could only be seen through the eyes of Ludwig Bemelmans.”
Perfect for fans of the original Madeline series, Sunshine will delight children and their parents, as well as visitors to and inhabitants of New York City.
And when offered the chance to interview Barbara Bemelmans, daughter of Ludwig Bemelmans, and the person who provided the Afterword to the newly republished book, I was humbled and honored.
Betsy Bird: First and foremost, thank you so much for speaking with me about the new edition of SUNSHINE, out this year. I think that a fair number of Americans are most familiar with your father’s MADELINE books, and remain unaware of his copious adult works, to say nothing of his children’s books outside of the twelve little girls in two straight lines. Before we delve too deeply into SUNSHINE itself, could you give us a bit of a sense of your father and what he was like?
Barbara Bemelmans: My father’s daily routine began with an hour-long bath, during which he read what interested him in The New York Times and Daily News, after shaving and patting his neck with eau de cologne, he dressed and had a demitasse.
My father was blessed with energy, purpose, courage, self discipline, curiosity, talent, the ability to appreciate both beauty and what he referred to as “beautiful dreck.”
Painting was his passion. He was constantly sketching on the backs of menus or the inside of matchbook covers. He had white paper pasted on the walls of the living room and painted green chestnut leaves on it. He worked long hours at his easel, sometimes with a bottle of champagne in a silver ice bucket nearby. Many of his letters ended with a sketch.
I was surprised to learn that he found writing a chore. His two fingers typed his letters, articles and books on a Smith Corona or Olivetti.
Among LB’s favorite things were a life of travel, good food, good service, amusing people, Havana cigars, dogs, horses, well behaved children, cars and stationery. His suits were made at Brooks Brothers, his shoes at Loeb’s in London. As a brilliant raconteur, he was on the invitation lists of the top hostesses. He spent a night in the Lincoln Bedroom during the Kennedy administration and a weekend at San Simeon. He had many good friends.
I never remember him sitting around in his pajamas with no plans for the day.
There were times when he would be in a “dark” mood but my mother and I did not often know why at the time.
He could be illogical. Having left a dressing gown at one of three hotels, he notified all of them. When the one that had the robe returned it, he concluded it was the only honest hotel in Europe.
He could be insensitive asking me if I would mind (at the age of 5) if he gave the Old Spice I had chosen for his Christmas present to the doorman.
For the most part he was generous and encouraging.
Before his death he wrote to Pat Covici, his editor at Viking that he wanted the inscription on his tombstone to be “Tell Them It Was Wonderful”.
Betsy Bird: What is your relationship to the book SUNSHINE? And how has it come back in print to us today?
Barbara Bemelmans: The book begins and ends at Gramercy Park, which is the New York area where I spent my childhood. Gramercy Park is the sole private park in Manhattan. It is open to the public only on Christmas Eve. The doorman from the now defunct Hotel Irving would walk me to the closest park gate, unlock it with his key, then close and relock the gate once I was inside. Bozy, my father’s dog, a Bouvier des Flandres appears in three of the book’s pictures, as does Kitty de Belvedere, my Yorkshire Terrier, and tenth birthday present.
The picture of the brownstone which housed Miss Moore’s music school looks very much like the building where I briefly took violin lessons.
The book is available again thanks to the wisdom of the publisher Thames and Hudson, who chose to include SUNSHINE as part of their series of 20th Century Children’s Classics.
Betsy Bird: I’m just charmed that you owned a terrier named Kitty de Belvedere, honestly. Now the two title characters of this book are old grumpy Sunshine and the delightful Ms. Moore. Amazingly, they are both older people, and they are our protagonists (albeit at odds with one another). Where on earth did your father get the idea for this book?
Barbara Bemelmans: Mr. Sunshine was, I’m certain, inspired by a landlord who, during a dire housing crisis (during WWII), refused to renew the lease on our apartment at 20 Gramercy Park. The landlord occupied the first four floors. We had most of the fifth (top) floor. He had decided to kick us out so he could convert our apartment into a movie theater for his guests.
Miss Moore was probably a combination of the ladies that my father had known or observed.
Betsy Bird: When we think of MADELINE we have this palpable sense of Paris in all its glory. Part of what is so remarkable about SUNSHINE is that it, in a very real sense, brings New York City to life in the same way. It’s a bit grittier, a bit more crowded, but very recognizably NYC. What was your father’s relationship to the city? It certainly feels loving here.
Barbara Bemelmans: My father arrived at Ellis Island on Christmas Eve 1914. He was 16. For the next 48 years (until his death in 1962), New York was his home and the place to which he always returned.
He was homesick for Tirol in the early years, but appreciated the freedom, informality and goodwill he found in New York.
He took advantage of all the city had to offer – the theatre, the movies, museums, wonderful French, German and Italian restaurants, the Oyster Bar at Grand Central, Nedick’s, Coney Island, and Central Park where he would let his dog run after dropping my mother at Columbia University when she was pursuing her PhD in Comparative Literature.
The city provided Poppy with the subject matter for stories and pictures. He was a frequent contributor to the New Yorker and Town & Country. The Museum of the City of New York had an Exhibition of his paintings. The NY Historical Society honored him with an exhibition. The Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel where my father decorated the walls with scenes from Central Park is still a favorite 72 years after it opened.
Betsy Bird: Out of curiosity, is there any chance that Ms. Moore’s name came in any way from New York Public Library’s Anne Carroll Moore? I know she was a mover and shaker in the field of children’s literature, and wondered if it might be an homage.
Barbara Bemelmans: My immediate reaction was “No” to your question that asked whether Miss Moore’s name was inspired by Anne Carroll Moore. But, on second thought, it could have been. My father knew so many people who, at the age of twelve, I would not have met. I also seem to remember that my father’s mother had a very close friend, Miss Moore. Or maybe her friend was Miss Clavel.
Betsy Bird: English was not your father’s first language, and yet he somehow managed to write picture books in rhyme that always scan absolutely perfectly. Did he have a natural affinity for language? I know plenty of native born speakers who would barely dare to write such continual rhymes on the page.
Barbara Bemelmans: My father had been in the United States for 24 years when he wrote Madeline in rhyme. By then, he was surely as fluent in English as he was in German and French.
For the first six years of his life, Ludwig spoke only French. He lived with his beloved French governess, Gazelle, in a little house. The house was hidden away on the property of his Belgian father’s inherited hotel, The Golden Chip. My father wrote poignantly of the glorious days he spent on the beautiful lake in Gmunden with his Gazelle.
When my grandfather abandoned his family in favor of his mistress and America, young Ludwig and his mother went to live with her parents in Regensburg. Her father had a brewery there. For the next ten years, Ludwig spoke German.
At 16, my father, having failed at school and not working out at his uncle’s various hotels, was given the choice of going to a German reform school or America. He chose America.
Unquestionably my father had a wonderful ear for language.
Betsy Bird: Finally, can we hope to see more of your father’s lost gems back in print in the future?
Barbara Bemelmans: I certainly hope so.
Considerable thanks to Ms. Bemelmans for taking the time and care to answer my questions today. Thanks too to Harry Burton of Thames and Hudson and to Sophia Seidner of Jill Grinberg Literary Management LLC for helping to arrange this discussion.
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