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Madame Tussaud

A Life in Wax

Madame Tussaud by Kate Berridge
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Millions have visited the museums that bear her name, yet few know much about Madame Tussaud. A celebrated artist, she had both a ringside seat at and a cameo role in the French Revolution. A victim and survivor of one of the most tumultuous times in history, this intelligent, pragmatic businesswoman has also had an indelible impact on contemporary culture, planting the seed of our obsession with celebrity.

In Madame Tussaud, Kate Berridge tells this fascinating woman's complete story for the first time, drawing upon a wealth of sources, including Tussaud's memoirs and historical archives. It is a grand-scale success story, revealing how with sheer graft and grit a woman born in 1761 to an eighteen-year-old cook overcame extraordinary reversals of fortune to build the first and most enduring worldwide brand identified simply by reference to its founder's name: Madame Tussaud's.

HarperCollins; May 2009
368 pages; ISBN 9780061945120
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: Madame Tussaud
Author: Kate Berridge

Chapter One

The Curious Cast of Marie's Early Life

In her memoirs, Madame Tussaud claims that she was born in Berne, Switzerland, in 1760, and yet a baptismal record dated 7 December 1761 from the register of Old St Peter's Catholic Church authenticates Strasbourg, in France, as her birthplace. The brevity of this single paragraph written in a clergyman's spidery scrawl belies its importance, for it testiWes to more than the baptism of the child, christened Anna Maria (but known as Marie to distinguish her from her mother, of the same name). It records the absence of the father, and it names as a godfather the sexton of the parish, Johannes Trapper. More intriguing is the absence of the child's mother at the christening, for it is the local midwife, cited as 'Obstretrix Müllerin', who is recorded as bringing the baby girl to church. It is generally safe to assume that the summaries of our lives that are the three pieces of paperwork recording birth, marriage and death are straightforward, and yet with Madame Tussaud there is more to them than meets the eye. In a life where so little can be veriWed, these documents are valuable factual fragments that point to discrepancies in her personal claims.

The absentee father, named as Joseph Grosholtz, remains a paternal phantom, for no other records exist that Xesh him out. The sole source of information about him is the extraordinary woman his named daughter became. In her memoirs she attributes the paternal absence to his death two months before she was born. She describes him as a soldier of some distinction—speciWcally an aide-de-camp to General Wurmser and veteran of the Seven Years War, in which 'he was so mutilated with wounds that his forehead was laid bare, and his lower jaw shot away and supplied by a silver plate.' There is a certain grim poetic resonance in this grizzly image of her facially disWgured father. It foreshadows one of the most famous exhibits in her Chamber of Horrors, namely Robespierre's death head with smashed features as a result of the self-inXicted wound when his suicide attempt backWred and he blew away most of his jaw.

Her deceased father, she assures us, was from a distinguished family, the Grosholtz name 'being as renowned in Germany as Percy in England, Montmorency in France or Vicomti in Italy'. Yet there is some evidence that, rather than being blue-blooded, the family tree had blood dripping from its branches. Members of the Grosholtz family were distinguished only as having been public executioners in Strasbourg and Baden-Baden in a line of oYce stretching back to the Wfteenth century. So perhaps Madame Tussaud's predilection for horror was hereditary. As for her absent mother, an earlier parish record at the same church veriWes that she was baptized there too, and sets her age at eighteen at the time of her husband's death and daughter's birth. And as for the young mother's antecedents, Madame Tussaud describes the clan Walter (the register of baptism writes the name as 'Walder') as being 'of a highly respectable class, and their husbands were members of the Diet or parliament of Switzerland'. These connections hint at a genealogical aggrandisement that was to manifest itself in diVerent ways throughout her life, for such grand relations seem strangely at odds with the humble church in the heart of a working-class district of Strasbourg with a local midwife as a proxy parent and the village sexton as godfather.

A further hint at Marie's lowly station was the fact that her mother was in domestic service, and Madame Tussaud's story properly starts with the young bachelor for whom her mother went to work as a housekeeper shortly after Marie was born: Philippe Guillaume Mathé Curtius, native of Switzerland and resident of Berne. When Marie was about two, in the city she claimed as her birthplace this young doctor received a visit from the Prince de Conti, a cousin of Louis XV, who was visiting Rousseau in exile in Neufchâtel and Berne. The royal visitor was seeking out Curtius not for advice on his health, but to admire his wax miniatures. This small private collection in Curtius's home drew Wrst a trickle of interest from locals, and then visitors from further aWeld as word spread of the doctor's artful representation of the human form and the quality of his anatomical waxes. In the absence of refrigeration, the preservation of bodies for medical teaching was greatly restricted, and wax models fulWlled a vital role as an educational resource. However, the line between education and eroticism was elastic, and Curtius's lithe lovelies with Xip-open navels—anatomical Venuses as they are sometimes called—were prototypes for more overtly titillating tableaux he made later.

Curtius's facility for replicating the texture and tint of living Xesh inspired him to redirect his talents to portraiture, but whether portraits or pornography were the main reason for his renown and de Conti's interest is unclear. But evidently de Conti was so impressed by what he saw that he made Curtius an immediate oVer of patronage if he would move to Paris and develop his talent on a much bigger stage. Instead of being an amusing diversion for the burghers of Berne, Curtius was to be plunged into the centre of a city with a voracious appetite for pleasure. The journalist and writer Louis-Sébastien Mercier (1740–1814) described pre-Revolutionary Paris as a city 'of limitless grandeur, of monstrous riches and scandalous luxury. She guzzles greedily both men and money.'

Curtius began his new life in a gracious apartment in the Rue Saint-Honoré, one of the most prestigious neighbourhoods in the city and especially popular with the growing number of aristocrats who preferred the pace and colour of Paris to the stultifying formality of the court at Versailles. De Conti was of this number—an urban sophisticate who, as well as being a patron of playwrights, painters and writers, was a roué of some renown . . . .

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