To the One I Love the Best: Ludwig Bemelmens

“I trail the chiffons of time.”

To The One I Love The Best is an unusual, witty memoir written by Ludwig Bemelmens. The book centres on Ludwig’s relationship with the eccentric, fabulous Elsie de Wolfe, Lady Mendl, an American actress who became an interior designer. Bemelmens, born in Austria, came to America in his teens. In New York, he worked as busboy and a waiter but spent free time working on art. He eventually became a writer and illustrator, and the Madeline series are his most famous works. But back to the memoir…

Bemelmens ended up in Hollywood, and it’s here he became the friend/protege of Lady Mendl. He has a job in Hollywood, and although the studio rents a suite for him at the Beverly Hills Hotel, he decides to rent “a shack at the beach in Topanga, for forty dollars a month.” He intends to spend as little as possible so that he can save in order to be an “itinerant painter travelling across America.” One day he receives an invitation for cocktails at the home of Lady Mendl. They had never met.

Lady Mendl’s Beverly Hills home, known as After All, is splendid, but Lady Mendl is fabulous. She is 90 and “weighed about ninety pounds without her jewels.” Her servants and staff are devoted to her. Lady Mendl immediately names Ludwig, Stevie (with no explanation) and sets up an apartment within her house for his use. She speaks about herself in the third person as “Mother,” and she is constantly accompanied by her poodle Blue Blue. Lady Mendl is eccentric, and has very definite ideas about diet, exercise and beauty:

Beautiful things are faithful friends, and they stay beautiful, they become more beautiful as they get older.

To her the toilet is “that monstrosity–the unspeakable porcelain fixture,” and in Ludwig’s apartment the toilet is “hidden” in a Louis XIV can chair. When it comes to designing she believes in the “three genies of the fairy whose name is Good Taste, and they are called ‘Simplicity,’ ‘Suitability’ and ‘Proportion.‘ ” If she knows nice people who own ugly houses and furniture, she won’t visit or allow them in her home, while a “rotter” who has good taste will be a frequent guest.

Her relationship with her husband is peculiar. He wines and dines other women, and seems somewhat in awe of his wife, and he often asks for Ludwig to act as a marital intermediary. Yet Sir Mendl is protective of his wife and eccentric in his own way too:

You know these American women’s voices. They come from talking too loud. That’s why everyone here has a sore throat. Now, you’ve never heard of a sore throat in the South of France or in Italy; it doesn’t exist. They talk your head off, but in a low, melodious voice. The loud noises are part of marriage here; couples thrive on conflict. As for me, I love peace and quiet, especially in marriage, and, by god, in England you have it!

And here’s Lady Mendl confronting her husband’s taste:

You search the world for beauty, for beautiful things to live with; you fill your home with the most exquisite pieces and you place them right; all is perfect, and then in comes your husband wearing that awful coat–that inseparable, impermeable, confounded trench coat–and ruins all the effect so carefully established.

Lady Mendl, tiny and determined, commands every room she enters. She takes Ludwig, “Stevie” under her wing and then tries to promote his paintings. He attends parties, goes to dinner, and meets an array of characters. Witty, light and a glimpse at a glamorous past, To The One I Love The Best pays homage to a tenacious woman of taste.

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8 responses to “To the One I Love the Best: Ludwig Bemelmens

  1. Love that bit about American loud voices!

  2. At 70 she did head stands and walked on her hands.

  3. Now that’s the kind of 90-year-old I aspire to become!

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