Ludwig Bemelmans, the Austrian-born American writer and artist, had no retirement savings but used to tell his wife, “Madeline will be our Social Security.” When he died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 64 in 1962, his estate was valued at only $200,000.
Today Bemelmans’s legacy has evolved into a family business worth millions, and as he predicted, it all revolves around a valuable piece of intellectual property named Madeline—that fearless, independent Parisian schoolgirl he created (although his descendants talk about her as if she were real). In six books, starting with the original Madeline published in 1939, she has an appendectomy, gets lost at the circus and nearly drowns in the Seine.
Madeline books have sold more than 13 million copies. Yet, her recent perils highlight the challenges of protecting and building on an intellectual property inheritance. Unlike other famous literary legacies mined to huge economic advantage after the author’s death—for example, those of Dr Seuss and Agatha Christie—the Madeline brand has only partially tapped its potential. Now her future is clouded by a lack of succession planning.
Artistic talent skipped a generation from Ludwig Bemelmans to his youngest grandson, John Bemelmans Marciano, 43, born eight years after his death. Marciano has written and illustrated eight Madeline books—the latest, Madeline and the Old House in Paris, published in October.
But Marciano hasn’t inherited the keys to the kingdom. Those are still held by his mother, Barbara Bemelmans, 77, the late artist’s only child. Ludwig Bemelmans left the copyrights to Madeline, 11 other children’s books and about 20 adult books, as well as all his paintings and drawings, in equal shares to Barbara and to his wife, Madeleine. Barbara has been in sole charge since her mother died in 2004. Despite demand for Ludwig’s artwork, Barbara hasn’t sold anything in recent memory and stores hundreds of paintings and drawings at Crozier Fine Arts, a New York storage facility.
“They’re good stewards to the extent that they look after what they have” but have been leery of taking the franchise in new and potentially lucrative directions, says Jane Bayard Curley, curator of a Bemelmans exhibit scheduled to open in July at the New-York Historical Society. Both John Marciano and his mother have been unreceptive to ebooks, for example. And they’ve done very little to develop Madeline.com—even after spending more than $10,000 during the late 1990s to buy the domain name from a cybersquatter who threatened to sell it to a porn site.
At times, Barbara acknowledges, she has found the burden of protecting her father’s legacy overwhelming. “If my father had left me a shoe factory, and sometimes I wish he had, that would be simpler,” she wrote in an email to Forbes.
Today the centre of operations for Ludwig Bemelmans LLC is a 69-acre New Jersey horse farm where Barbara and her ex-husband gave riding lessons, held horse shows and ran a summer day camp while raising their three sons. She still lives in a 19th-century farmhouse with two poodles and rents out the huge stable where she keeps her 12 miniature horses.
Nearby is a two-storey building, once a general store, that Barbara also owns. She has filled its capacious downstairs with many of the contents of the Gramercy Park apartment where her father was living when he died 51 years ago. The arrangement gives the impression that Ludwig Bemelmans has just stepped out, with jars of paint brushes, his Olivetti typewriter, tubes of oil paints and a watercolour palette scattered around. On a table are stacks of institutional china: Demitasse cups from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New York (closed in 1951), where Bemelmans worked before he became a writer; dinner plates from the Carlyle Hotel, where he once lived; and more plates, from Lüchow’s, a famous German restaurant (it closed in 1986) in New York that he frequented.
It all sets the scene for Barbara Bemelmans’s show-and-tell about “Poppy”, as she refers to her dad. The family moved 17 times while Barbara was growing up. Ludwig Bemelmans roamed the world, mingling with the rich and famous: Armand Hammer, Greta Garbo, Princess Margaret and Aristotle Onassis. Often Barbara Bemelmans travelled with her bon vivant father, meeting Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway, and lunching with him at the iconic New York restaurant 21. When her dad died, “I realised that I would never get a good table at 21 again,” she quips.
Where Barbara can’t part with anything, Poppy was extravagant. “I never got the feeling that we were poor, but I often got the feeling that we were broke,” she recalls. As Ludwig wrote in one undated letter to his daughter: “I consider money a fluid and that it runs through my pockets like a sieve.” Ludwig’s many letters, along with notes and sketches—on napkins, hotel stationery, the backs of menus and inside of matchbook covers—were a valuable resource for grandson John Marciano when he took up the family franchise after studying art history and studio art at Columbia College and working as a newspaper reporter and editor.
In 1999, John published a biography of his grand-dad, Bemelmans: The Life and Art of Madeline’s Creator
, and his first Madeline book, Madeline in America and Other Holiday Tales, based on a mock-up for a book in his grandfather’s papers.
He spent a year studying and practising his grandfather’s illustration methods and the cadence of his rhymes before venturing out with his own Madeline stories. The first of these, Madeline Says Merci: The Always-Be-Polite Book
(2001), was his most successful, selling 60,000 copies. Others have not been as well received. “The joy and brio of the original books go missing,” panned Publishers Weekly, reviewing Madeline and the Cats of Rome (2008).
Marciano makes no apologies. “I want my books to sit comfortably on the shelf alongside my grandfather’s books,” he says, adding it’s analogous to comic strip characters who “are reinvented and reimagined”. For example, Ludwig Bemelmans corresponded for more than six months, starting in late 1961, with Jacqueline Kennedy, then First Lady, about collaborating on a book that he wanted to call Madeline Visits Caroline
. The project was cut short by his death in October 1962. But Marciano turned the idea into Madeline at the White House
(2011), modelling the President’s daughter after his own little girl, Galatea, now 4.
Still, the bigger issue isn’t creative but legal: Doing a sequel to a book using the same character requires permission of the copyright owner, says Andrew Boose, a lawyer with Davis Wright Tremaine in New York. John Marciano has a friendly arrangement with his mother—he owns the copyright to the text and art in the Madeline books he has produced; she gets royalties from her father’s books. But without a formal licence, Boose says, Marciano could lose the exclusive right to do sequels when his mother dies, assuming she leaves the copyright in equal shares to her three sons. (Fortunately, Marciano has got plenty else going on besides Madeline; his The Nine Lives of Alexander Baddenfield
, a darkly humorous mid-grade reader, was published in October, and he’s negotiating a 13-book deal for his own series.)
But copyright is just one of many tangled issues swirling around Madeline. Neither of John’s older brothers is actively involved in the family business. Paul, 47, gives corporate workshops. Paul’s twin, James, a retired entrepreneur, owns the Madeline website but says he and his mother have “never been able to get on the same page” about what to do with it.
So, Barbara Bemelmans faces a thorny issue that confronts many parents with family businesses in which only one child is actively involved: Whether to divide assets equally among children or in some other way that might better ensure continuation of the family business. “I don’t know what to do, so I don’t do anything,” she admits.
Another continuing dilemma has been figuring out what her father would have wanted. After Ludwig’s death, Barbara and her mother turned down a lucrative deal from Disney. Their lawyers and accountants advised it could bring financial security to the family, but mother and daughter believed Ludwig personally disliked Walt Disney.
As part of a movie deal, in the early 1990s, the women signed a contract that included Madeline product-licensing rights. The producers sold those rights to a Disney subsidiary, DIC Entertainment, which mass-marketed Madeline products, from dolls to home furnishings. Mother and daughter discovered, to their dismay, that they had turned over licensing rights in perpetuity and had no right to approve or disapprove specific items. They were each earning $100,000 to $150,000 a year from the products but were appalled with their quality.
During this 17-year relationship they spent four years fighting to get back the licensing rights. The contract with DIC required arbitration in Los Angeles. Barbara ran up $1 million in legal fees, exhausting her ready cash, and even took a $200,000 equity loan on the farm to cover added costs. Finally, in a 2008 settlement, she got back the licensing rights and enough money to cover her legal expenses.
These days a former DIC employee runs the licensing programme for the family, with these marching orders from Barbara: “Making money is secondary to maintaining the integrity of the character.” Barbara has definite ideas about what Madeline would not wear (no pink and no ruffled socks, for example), and John Marciano, too, must approve all the products.
They now have deals with a dozen US companies plus others in Japan, each of which produces a different Madeline-related product—everything from puzzles and pajamas to costumes and party goods.
In this role, too, John Marciano’s financial arrangements with his mom are surprisingly informal. She sends him cheques, he says. Without a written contract describing his services and compensation, there’s a risk that the Internal Revenue Service could characterise those payments as gifts from his mother, which could count against her $5.25 million lifetime exemption from estate and gift tax, lawyers say.
Equally surprising, given Barbara’s protection of Madeline’s image, is that the family has apparently not registered the trademark to the name Madeline or the name along with an illustration of the character, says Edward H Rosenthal, a lawyer with Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz in New York. Here’s why that matters: Ludwig Bemelmans’s Madeline books will go into the public domain when the copyrights expire starting in 2034, leaving anyone free to publish them. But a trademark can last forever. By registering the trademark for books and other printed materials, for whatever goods the limited liability company is licensing, and by getting international trademark protection, the family could prevent others from making a movie or products, based on Ludwig Bemelmans’s stories, long after the books’ copyrights have expired. Without the trademark the family is left to rely on so-called common-law trademark rights, based on their being the first to use the name or illustration for certain purposes. That’s weaker protection in the US and no protection in countries where the trademark belongs to whomever files the application first.
Lest anyone doubt the importance of trademarks, the Carlyle Hotel has trademarked ‘Bemelmans Bar’ to describe the cocktail lounge where the artist painted murals of New York scenes in exchange for 18 months’ free rent for himself and his family. The elegant bar is the setting for, among other events, Madeline teas held during November and December.
Just as valuable as the books—if not more—is Barbara’s cache of her dad’s art. For example, a set of 15 of his murals adapted from the first three Madeline books, which he painted in 1953 for the playroom of the Aristotle Onassis yacht The Christina, fetched $553,875 at a Sotheby’s auction in 1999. Charles Royce, whose money-management company is known for its small-cap mutual funds, bought two of these panels in a private sale, plus another six murals right of the walls of Bemelmans’s former Paris bistro, La Colombe, and installed them at the Ocean House, his hotel in Watch Hill, Rhode Island.
One of Royce’s latest trophies, acquired last spring for $75,000, is a watercolour-and-crayon drawing from the original Madeline book, showing Miss Clavel and the girls in the Tuileries Gardens right before they go to visit Madeline in the hospital, where she’s recovering from her appendectomy. Royce bought the drawing from filmmaker Gavrik Losey, whose mother, fashion designer Elizabeth Hawes, bought it to commemorate his birth in 1938. Despite that sentimental value, Losey sold it, he says, to help pay for the college education of his youngest child.
The three Marciano brothers, too, grew up with Bemelmans’s paintings on the walls. At night their mother used to lift them up to say ‘good night’ to the characters that Poppy had created. Yet neither he nor his brothers own any of these paintings.
With so much family-owned art of the market in storage, it’s hard to say how much it’s worth. Even Bemelmans’s small sketches now command thousands at auction. The highest price paid for his work, according to Askart.com, was $137,500 for the cover painting of the first Madeline book in 1999.
James Marciano would like to own one of his grandfather’s paintings but has “no assumptions about inheriting anything”, he says. “But it would be nice to have some sort of a plan for the continuation of Madeline.” These are topics his mother feels most comfortable talking about with John, he observes. “My brother Paul and I haven’t been invited to the table for those conversations.” John declined to discuss the subject.
Barbara is leaving a lot to chance, says Barbara Shiers, an estate-planning lawyer with Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz in New York. Without a will, under state law her three sons will inherit Bemelmans LLC in equal shares. A variety of planning techniques could avoid potential disputes among her children and grandchildren, make sure the company is run according to her wishes after she passes away and save estate taxes.
What’s also missing is a structure that her heirs could use to run the business, including a mechanism for decision making. Without it the sons could disagree about everything from licensing movie rights to renegotiating old contracts with Penguin.
In his latest book, Madeline and the Old House in Paris, John Marciano brings back Lord Cucuface—the villainous head of the boarding school that Madeline attends, from his grandfather’s second book, Madeline’s Rescue. This time, during his surprise inspection, he walks off with a telescope found in the attic, unleashing the misery of the ghost who haunts the house. To comfort him Madeline comes up with a scheme to get the telescope back.
Though that story has a happy ending, the conflict bears an eerie resemblance to the rising tensions among the author’s descendants. Perhaps Ludwig Bemelmans is the ghost haunting the old house as they still struggle to figure out what Poppy would have wanted.
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(This story appears in the 24 January, 2014 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)