Martin Bodmer was born on 13 November 1899 in Zurich-Enge. The Bodmers were an old Zurich family that could trace its origins back to the 15th century. Their fortune had been made by several generations of silk manufacturers whose motto was nulli cedo, second to none. The family home was originally zur Arch (nowadays the Bärengasse Museum) near the Bahnhofstrasse. In 1899 the family lived at Freudenberg. The family business, zum Saffran, stood on the banks of the Limmat.
Martin Bodmer was the youngest of five children. His father, Hans Conrad, died in 1916 when he was 16. At the age of 18 he obtained his high school leaving certificate (maturité) and became an avid reader. During his studies at the University of Zurich he spent a summer in Heidelberg and travelled to Paris.
He always had a taste for books and at the age of 15 he bought a German translation by August von Schlegel of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Der Sturm, illustrated by Dulac, Munich, Bruckmann, 1912). Shortly afterwards, his mother Mathilde (Tilly) Zoelly, gave him a valuable copy of Goethe’s Faust (Dusseldorf, Ehmcke, 1908-1909). With her youngest son’s interests in mind, she organized literary gatherings with well-known authors such as Hofmannsthal and Valéry. Bodmer carried out his research on German literature as if it were a real intellectual journey. In 1921 he established the Martin Bodmer Foundation to award the Gottfried Keller Prize (Martin Bodmer-Stiftung für einen Gottfried Keller-Preis). The prize rewards contemporary authors whose works are related to Switzerland.
His mother died in 1926. In 1927, he married Alice Naville at the Fraumünster in Zurich. They had four children, three sons and a daughter. In 1930, he launched Corona, a literary journal that published the best texts of the year in German. Alice Bodmer continued to organize gatherings with contemporary writers – among them Paul Valéry, a family friend.