Paul T. Gilbert

goto bio

goto bertram

goto bertram is back

goto circus stories

goto key to culture

goto pictures

goto links

goto contact

goto home

read a Bertram story: Bertram and the Hippopotamus
Bertram and the Ibex
Bertram and the Lion

New!After over half a century of being out of print, two Bertram books are about to become available again! See the new Bertram is back page for details.

Paul T. Gilbert was just over fifty when he began writing and publishing the Bertram stories, but the inspiration was planted years earlier, making up bedtime stories for his two young sons.

These stories would always start with a telephone call to a mythical Mrs. Smith (who was always in the bathtub). Peter and Paul, Jr., would stand by, hearing one end of the conversation. "You don't say, Mrs. Smith! He cut a hole in the sitting room floor so the giraffe could stick his head up in it? And Baby Sam nearly fell into it?" and then he would proceed to tell another story about Bertram and his latest adventure, always involving a strange, talking (or sneezing or hiccoughing or whistling), wild or even mythical or in a few cases imaginary animal, which Bertram would generally run across by accident, after pestering his distracted Mama for one. His little brother, Baby Sam, was usually involved in the ensuing chaos, along with Bertram's friends Ginny Banning and George Fish, nosy neighbor Mrs. Cree, and Julia Krause, Baby Sam's nursemaid. It was generally left to his cool-headed father, usually off to Omaha on business, to return home just in time to rescue them from whatever particular form of havoc they were experiencing.

Modeled After Family and Friends

The Bertram characters were modeled after family and friends, to different degrees. Bertram, with his longing for unusual pets, resembled Gilbert's son, Paul, Jr., who loved and collected animals, small ones at least, but it's doubtful he ever wanted a usual one like a dog. Paul's younger brother Peter might have been Baby Sam, and the sometimes exasperated and bemused mother in the stories seemed like an exaggerated version of Gilbert's wife, Ilse. Ginny Banning, Bertram's friend, was based on a real person, Virginia Banning Kenney, whose recent obituary noted she was the inspiration for the character. In addition, people who lived in Chicago at the time, anywhere near Kenilworth, have recognized locations and landmarks in the Bertram stories.

Ilse apparently was the one who encouraged Gilbert to write down the Bertram stories he had been inventing for his sons over the years—and the Depression was another encouraging factor, since he'd lost his job with the Chicago Evening Post. He submitted his first story, Bertram and the Hippopotamus, to Child Life Magazine, and it was published in March, 1932. More stories followed and soon Bertram became one of the most popular features of the magazine, and Gilbert was writing the stories as fast as he could to keep up with the demand.

The Child Life Stories and Books

Between 1932 and 1942 nearly seventy Bertram stories were published in Child Life Magazine, and many of them were collected into books, which are listed on the Books & Links page. Bertram and his Funny Animals and Bertram and his Fabulous Animals, with whimsical illustrations by Minnie H. Rousseff, were the first two to come out, followed by Bertram at the North Pole and Bertram in Africa, which were chapter books rather than stories and were serialized in Child Life. Bertram in Africa, especially, reflects the endemic racism and stereotypes of the time, despite the fact that Gilbert did have a genuine interest in other cultures and people. Anne Stossel illustrated those two and also the last collection to be published, Bertram and his Marvelous Adventures, which came out in 1951.

During the 40's Gilbert faced some copyright issues, since at that time he did not personally own the copyright to the stories published in Child Life, so he invented another character, Egbert, who was very similar to Bertram. Those stories appeared in the book Egbert and His Marvelous Adventures, which was illustrated by H. A. Rey, later of Curious George fame. The Bertram stories also had a short run as a syndicated cartoon strip, first appearing in the St. Louis Star Times in 1940. The overwhelming success of the stories and books slowed to a murmur in the 50's and the books were soon out of print, though they are collectible and can still be found on the internet.

Bertram's Future?

Many fans and admirers felt he would continue on in history, as the stories were so appealing, colorful, clever and funny. Steven Vincent Benet referred to them as classics, saying "I would put Bertram on the same shelf with such favorites as 'The Wizard of Oz' and 'The Peterkin Papers.'" William Lyons Phelps called them "so witty, original, and entertaining as to give their author a permanent place in American folklore." Gilbert's dead-pan humor was the most remarkable aspect of his work—a subtle humor of situation, involving the characters in the most absurd and impossible predicaments, only to extricate them when their plight becomes unbearable. He was an expert in that form.