12/15/06 - madame marie tussaud

In today's excerpt - Madame Tussaud's (1761-1850) wax museum:

"A self-made woman in an age of male hegemony, she used her grit, audacity, artistic skill and entrepreneurial talents to build one of the most successful brands in the commercial world. Over 200 million visitors have experienced her waxworks shows; the long queues have become landmarks in their own right outside her original Baker Street site in London and its branches ...

"Born ... in Strasbourg, Tussaud claimed to be part of a distinguished Swiss family, though in reality she was descended from a long line of executioners (perhaps offering a genetic explanation for her penchant for horror). Papa had absconded and Marie's eighteen-year-old mother took the infant to Berne, entering domestic service for Dr. Curtius, a maker of wax anatomical models with a profitable sideline in erotic wax tableaux. Curtius soon spotted little Marie's precocious talent, and enlisted her to help with the waxworks. ...

"The menage moved to Paris ... and when the opportunistic Curtius became a prominent Jacobin, his dinner party circuit expanded to include the revolutionaries Marat and Danton; Marie would be reacquainted with them during the Terror, when she modelled their corpses. ... [Soon she] was playing a starring role in the Terror. Stoically picking her way through the newly stormed Bastille, with Robespierre as a guide (she soon would soon be casting his decapitated remains), stepping through the gore in the Tuileries, fainting away as Marie Antoinette climbed the scaffold but reviving in time to collect the royal head, Tussaud seems to have been present at every important occasion. On her release from prison, where her cellmate had been none other than Napoleon's Josephine, Tussaud recounts that the authorities had compelled her to produce death masks of the executed. ... There is little to substantiate Tussaud's claims for this period; indeed [Kate] Berridge suggests that Curtius and Marie had a cozy arrangement with the public executioner, who procured the bloody models for them. ...

"Crossing the Channel [with her wax models to] Georgian England ... the new middle classes flocked to the exhibition, which offered them history, news and celebrity gossip, not just about monarchs, statesmen and military figures, but also notorious criminals and fashionable actresses. Tussaud's medium was perfectly suited to the era's new culture of impermanence. As fashions came and went, those no longer in the public eye were removed and melted down."


Sarah Howard


'Chambers of Horror'


The Times Literary Supplement


October 27, 2006


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