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  • Writer's pictureSteven Hansen

Bemelmans Bar: A Storybook ‘Nursery’ for Grown-ups

Ludwig Bemelmans, the author and illustrator of the popular “Madeline” books for children, was commissioned to hand-paint whimsical Central Park scenes on the walls and table lampshades of the bar of the Carlyle Hotel, an iconic New York City watering hole.

Instead of cash, he arranged to be paid with free lodging at the Upper East Side hotel for the 18 months it took him to finish the job before it opened to the public in 1947.

In the wraparound murals at Bemelmans Bar – named in the illustrator’s honor -- gentleman rabbits, elephants, giraffes and dogs stroll around the park as citified boulevardiers, along with Madeline and her friends and other assorted humans and animals. (There’s even a robbery in progress, if you can find it.) The artist’s charmingly loopy style creates the perfect vibe for getting a cheery buzz from the bar’s impeccably mixed and served cocktails. And the red-jacketed barmen could be Bemelmans storybook characters themselves, come to life.

The soft colors of the murals and the 24-carat gilded ceiling create the overall effect of a glowing treasure chest where the magic and charm of the city is exquisitely preserved. The bar (and famous Café Carlyle across the hall) is one of the few places that still maintains a dress code, encouraging patrons to look their very best. Indeed, the “after-work” crowd looks as though they have stepped out of the pages of GQ and Vogue. Jazz and American songbook standards are performed nightly by the likes of Billy Stritch, Bob Mosci and the Loston Harris Trio.

The Hotel Carlyle was one of the first – and still one of the finest – residential hotels in New York. John and Jackie Kennedy, Mick Jagger, Truman Capote and Princess Diana all have called the Carlyle their home while in the city. The hotel is one of the few places in New York City that never seems to change, thank goodness.


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31 may 2021

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