Manhattan’s restaurant world has been home to many larger-than-life figures, but none with more enduring wit and charm than Ludwig Bemelmans. The scion of a beergarden-owning Tyrolian family, he came to New York in 1914 at the age of 16, reputedly to escape a stint in reform school after shooting a waiter in his uncle’s hotel.
Bemelmans is best known as the author and illustrator of a beloved series of books about Madeline, one of “12 little girls in two straight lines” in a Parisian convent school. But he earned his daily bread as waiter and then assistant banquet manager in Manhattan’s great hotels. For most of his career, Bemelmans catered to the very wealthy at the old Ritz-Carlton at Madison Avenue and 46th Street, a hub of high society where socialites such as Barbara Hutton made their debut. Keenly observing all that went on, he produced a series of wry and vibrant books that chronicled life in the hotel’s restaurants and suites.
Much of his best material is collected in La Bonne Table, originally published in 1964 and reprinted in 1989 by publisher David R. Godine but now sadly out of print. The stories in La Bonne Table are a composite of grandly bad behavior by the prewar A-list, rippled through with the kind of behind-the-scenes shenanigans that Anthony Bourdain and others have assured us persist in contemporary restaurants.
But if modern-day stories of sex in the walk-in cooler are meant to shock and titillate us, Bemelmans is more interested in making his characters human. He brings grandes dames and high-powered publishers down to earth by exposing their pretensions, and elevates the previously anonymous waiters and cooks by revealing their souls.
The beefy, blustering German manager of Hotel Splendide (Bemelman’s pseudonym for the Ritz-Carlton in much of his writing) never really means it when he fires someone in a torrent of “Gotdems!” and “Cheeses Greisd!” Fifteen minutes later he and the offender are sharing a drink in his office. The waiter known as Mr. Sigsag—dining out on his day off—terrorizes the staff at Luchow’s restaurant on Union Square with infuriating, well-intentioned advice on how a restaurant really should be run. And Beau Maxime, a bankrupt Parisian hotelier now waiting tables in the Siberian outpost of the Ritz’s balcony, perfects a display of piteousness that is sure to wring a generous tip from the Midwestern tourists assigned to his section.
In many ways the grand old days vanished, replaced by tracksuit-wearing retirees the way the original Ritz-Carlton itself has been replaced by an anonymous office building featuring a Men’s Wearhouse on its ground floor. But in La Bonne Table a lost slice of Manhattan life re-emerges in a mixture of hauteur and affection that no writer since has managed to rival.
Matt Sartwell is manager of Kitchen Arts & Letters, a bookstore in Carnegie Hill that caters to lovers of food and drink, well-behaved and otherwise.
Illustration by Ludwig Bemelmans