A scion of an old Zurich family (fifteenth century) that included several generations of silk manufacturers who established the family fortune and took as their motto Nulli cedo, or “I yield to none,” Martin Bodmer was born on 13 November 1899 in Zurich-Enge. The family home was originally zur Arch (today the Museum Bärengasse), near Bahnhofstrasse, and on one bank of the Limmat stood their business, zum Saffran. The family lived in Freudenberg. The youngest of five children, Martin lost his father, Hans Conrad, in 1916, when Martin was only sixteen. He passed his maturité degree at eighteen and began to read voraciously. He studied at the University of Zurich, with stays in Heidelberg and Paris.
Martin’s passion for books led him to purchase with his own pocket money at the age of fifteen a copy of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in August von Schlegel’s German translation (Der Sturm, illustrated by Dulac, Munich, Bruckmann, 1912). Shortly after that his mother, Mathilde (Tilly) Zœlly, gave him a rare edition of Goethe’s Faust (Dusseldorf, Ehmcke, 1908-1909). She felt special affection for her youngest child and regularly invited literary figures like Hofmannsthal and Valéry to her home, in response to the young man’s aspirations. Martin himself experienced his studies in German literature as a genuine intellectual adventure. In 1921 he created the Martin Bodmer Foundation for a Gottfried Keller Prize, to honor contemporary authors whose writings held some interest for Switzerland. His mother died in 1926.
In 1927 he married in Zurich’s Fraumünster Alice Naville, with whom he was to have three sons and a daughter. In 1930 he launched a literary review, Corona, which published the year’s best writing in German. Alice Bodmer continued to invite contemporary writers to their home, including Paul Valéry, who was a family friend.