When You Lunch With The Emperor
Forget those 12 little girls in two straight lines. Madeline creator Ludwig Bemelmans was a character and a half. Sent to America at the age of 16 after, the back-flap bio insists, he shot a headwaiter at his uncle’s hotel, the endlessly charming and effortlessly extravagant Bemelmans started on the career he really loved—a professional peripatetic, gourmand of life, and self-embroidering raconteur. His biography of sorts is collected in When You Lunch With the Emperor, a series of juiced-up anecdotal essays divided into the flexible categories of “Childhood,” “Work,” and “Play.”
Telling tales that befit the world’s most cosmopolitan drinking buddy, Bemelmans recounts one plausible-if-you-knew-him story after another, like the time he had the bad timing to be arrested by the Gestapo the day his toenails were painted red, or how he and his daughter conspired to rescue jointly a toy poodle from shipboard quarantine, or the evening, enthralled by a stage actress, he raced from the theater at intermission and depleted his bank account to fund an enormous gift of flowers, only to have the misinformed florist deliver it at the most stunningly wrong—and possibly criminal—point in the performance. The book’s middle passage—“Work”—encompasses the bulk of the stories, tales from his days as a waiter in a five-star Manhattan hotel. The pressures of the job and the staff’s small triumphs behind the spoiled patrons’ backs are timelessly familiar to any restaurant employee, as well as a window on Gilded Age New York from the point of view of the bowers and scrapers propping up the movers and shakers.
Bemelmans’s first language wasn’t English, and so his revelatory descriptions bypass all clichés. An energetic orchestra conductor “swam over the notes.” An enormously fat woman’s ponderous stroll down a hotel corridor looked like “several pieces of comfortable furniture piled together under a velvet cover and being slowly pushed along on little wheels.” And this, about his blissful childhood: “Like the pages of a children’s book, the days were turned and looked at.” Lunch With the Emperor is effortlessly devourable, as enchanting as Bemelmans’ children’s stories but with all the delicious liberty (and beverages) of adulthood. Only one of his tales is formally summed up this way, but it could apply to any of them: “It’s always wonderful when something altogether wrong ends right, without the help of either religion or the police.”