The image was grotesque: Madame Tussaud searching among the guillotined heads of her royalist friends in the Madelaine Cemetery in Paris, taking measurements to make death masks and wax copies: Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Marat, Robespierres….
I was immediately enthralled: the beginnings of the modern-day cult of the celebrity were mired in blood. That was four or five days ago. I haven’t been able to let go of the subject since.
I guess I’ve always been fascinated by the mystery of personal identity or self-consciousness in all its forms. The cult of celebrity, our infatuation with the celebrated other, has always engaged my imagination, although I’ve never given much thought to wax copies of the famous and infamous before now.
Celebrating the 250th birthday of its founder this year, Madame Tussaud’s waxworks is a billion dollar global business with branches in London, Amsterdam, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Las Vegas, Shanghai, Berlin, Washington D.C., New York City and Hollywood. Wax effigies have not only survived in a culture that celebrates the famous in photos, movies and television, as well as in print media and on the Internet, but grown in popularity. What is it about these wax dummies that makes them important to us?
Madame Marie Tussaud (born Marie Grosholtz) learned to make wax copies of people from Philippe Curtius, her mother’s employer and her adopted uncle. A doctor, he first did anatomical figures for his medical practice. They were so lifelike that his reputation grew and he gradually turned from the medical profession to entertainment. When his expertise in the art took him to late 18th century Paris, Marie and her mother went with him. She made her first wax figure—Jean Jacques Rousseau—at the age of 17, and followed that with Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin. Not long after, she was employed to teach the art of wax modeling to Louis XVI’s sister, Elizabeth. By the time of the French Revolution, she was so identified with royalty, she was arrested (along with Josephine de Beauharnais, who later became the mistress, and then wife of Napoleon Bonaparte). It is said that the two women’s heads were even shaved in preparation for beheading. But Curtius, who had important friends, was able to save his neice and protegé.
It’s not important whether she was employed to make death masks of the victims of the guillotine before or after that experience. There’s every reason to think that she had no choice as to whether she should do it or not. So, in her grandson’s memoirs of the famous lady, she describes the table manners of Robespierre at dinner, and not long after examines and measures his head for her waxworks. Some of her heads were displayed on spikes as revolutionary flags and paraded through the streets of Paris.
In 1794, Phillipe Curtius died and Madame Tussaud inherited the waxworks. The following year she married an engineer named Tussaud and, in the course of what was apparently a unhappy union, had two sons. Five years later, when it became possible to leave France, she crossed the channel to London, taking with her many of her waxworks. She toured with her show for many years, finally establishing a permanent museum in London’s Baker Street in 1835.
Madame Tussaud was quite a business woman. She recognized that the world was constantly producing more celebrities and that her show must keep up to date. She knew that the more important the people, the more dramatic their stories, the more exciting their personalities, the better the show. People would come to stand in awe of Napoleon in one of his original carriages (she had collected several significant artifacts from the Revolution, including a guillotine). The waxwork wasn’t like other paintings or figures representing someone well-known. The measurements were taken directly from real people. They had made actual impressions on the wax—or so it seemed. The likeness was more than just a likeness.
Madame Tussaud also knew that her guillotined figures made an even greater impression. Like the mobs who’d cheered the executioners on, the people who came to see Marie Antoinette’s head on a spike or Marat lying bleeding in his bathtub, relished the grimness and gore, and found a thrill in being late witnesses to violent death.
Because I’m obsessed with Marie Tussaud, her wax museum, and her Chamber of Horrors, my readers will have to bear with me. There will be more to come.