Celebrity, high fashion, notorious criminals— Madame Tussaud was the first paparazzo
Historians tend to look for the birth of modernity in some pretty serious places, in world-shaking wars or revolutions, or in changing economic and technological structures. But few things feel as modern to most of us as our relentless obsession with celebrity. And in that regard, as Kate Berridge’s Madame Tussaud: A Life in Wax ably argues, there’s a lot to be learned from considering the extraordinary life and times of the flinty-eyed French businesswoman who created the world’s first successful brand name. A survivor of the French Revolution and a pioneering paparazzo who worked in wax rather than photography, Tussaud created what was essentially a 3-D version of People magazine. Her wax museum offered an ever-evolving gallery of famous individuals, notorious criminals and high fashion to a society that lacked a common image bank—but which lusted after celebrity news every bit as much as our own does. Then, as now, the big news was always royal.
Berridge is in awe at her subject’s achievements, but that doesn’t stop her from chipping away at the myth Tussaud shaped like a wax model around her life: her self-proclaimed status as a confidant, however lowly, of the French royal family; her tale of how Robespierre saved her from slipping to disaster on the Bastille’s twisting stairs; her shared jail time with Napoleon’s future wife and empress Josephine; the way she was forced to prove her loyalty to the revolution by creating wax death masks from the severed heads of old acquaintances, including Queen Marie Antoinette. All of this is unproven, Berridge notes, and most of it is unlikely—the 200-page Almanac de Versailles, which “names every spit-mender and commode carrier” in the
royal palace, fails to mention Tussaud.
In an interview, Berridge explains that the myth, which helped Tussaud “sell” her grisly relics to a British audience, obscures Tussaud’s real achievements. “Think of it,” she exclaims, “to have arrived in England, with a child in tow, not speaking the language, putting in 27 very hard years on the road with a travelling show, and to end up with an amazing success at a time when women simply didn’t found business empires.”
Besides, whether royal intimate or not, Tussaud—a genuine artist with a keen eye for detail, especially in dress—was certainly present during some of the most tumultuous years in Western history. She undoubtedly attended the Grand Couvert, that peculiar institution of the ancien régime during which the royal family dined outdoors under the avid eyes of a crush of working-class Parisians and peasants. Tussaud’s memoirs are full of costume detail gleaned from such expeditions, a professional interest derived from her apprenticeship in the waxworks run by Philippe Curtius, her housekeeper mother’s employer and—perhaps—her natural father. There she learned to mould and tint wax heads, and how to artfully insert glass eyes, authentic human teeth bought from itinerant tooth pullers, and hair. (The latter was the most tedious of all the steps: inserted into
a gently warmed wax head strand by strand, the process took almost two weeks.)
And Curtius’s shop was in fact a key player in one of the opening events of the revolution. After word that the king had fired two popular ministers, a crowd converged on Curtius to beg from him his wax busts of the two men to bear aloft in their demonstration. Although the two images were destroyed in a melee with royal troops, Tussaud never forgot the power of signs and symbols to sway a crowd. Arriving in England with her revolutionary relics in 1802, during the short-lived Peace of Amiens, Tussaud cemented her fortunes by latching onto the vicissitudes of British royalty. Particularly helpful was the contemporary war between the Prince and Princess ofWales, which exhibited as much bad blood as the Charles-Diana divide of our time. (When a servant tried to tell Prince George, by then king, that Napoleon had died by saying “Sire, your greatest enemy is dead,” the delighted monarch blurted out, “By Gad, is she?”) After Princess Caroline’s death in 1821, Tussaud’s wax model was visited by thousands.
Tussaud, Berridge reflects, understood basic human nature. “She played to our interest in celebrity and in gore, our need to get close to the famous. And in that regard, wax is better than the real thing—lifelike images with those dead eyes that don’t look back, that don’t judge you judging them.” No wonder the lineup to get into Tussaud’s is now almost two centuries old, with no end in sight. M
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