In the first place, Madame Tussaud was a real person, born in France in 1761. Her mother was unmarried and went to work as a housekeeper for a showman and wax sculptor named Philippe Curtius, who may, or may not, have been Marie’s father. At any rate, he treated her not only as a daughter, but as a protege, teaching her all he knew about both wax modeling and business, and eventually, they went to work together, opening a wax studio and museum in Paris. Eventually, Curtius died and left everything to Marie, Marie married a man named Tussaud, but after a few years and two children never appears to have seen him again, and, after the French revolution sort of settled down, she and one of her sons moved to England temporarily to take her show on the road. And she never returned to France.
That’s the quick outline. The details are interesting, but apparently quite hard to pin down. This is in part because Marie wrote her memoirs, retelling her extraordinary experiences in France prior to and during the French revolution. But they seem clearly to have been fictionalized. The question is whether they were completely fictionalized or simply exaggerated. Corroboration is difficult to find. In England, where for most of her career, her displays traveled from place to place, can be tracked as to where she was when, but there is little to fill in the personal blanks. At least, this is what I conclude from reading Kate Berridge’s book “Madame Tussaud, a Life in Wax”, published in 2006.
So what do I think of the book? I am mixed. It is very readable, it told me things about Tussaud that I certainly had not known before, but it left me unsatisfied as to her French years because of lack of reliability and her English years because of lack of color.
But there are things I did learn. Marie Tussaud was an expert artist in her field. She was a good and adventurous business woman at a time when there weren’t many of those. She worked extremely hard, first trying to keep up a public gallery in Paris and then, originally as an employee of a more experienced traveling showman and then on her own in England. I learned that she did not open her own museum in London until she was about 75 years old, and by then I think most of the operations were controlled by her sons, and maybe her grandchildren. I learned that family members remained in the business until surprisingly recently.
I learned a lot about life in Paris before the revolution – and not only Paris but Versailles, because in her memoir Marie claimed to have been in the employ of Elizabeth, the sister of the king and a member of the court. Was she? There is no other evidence that she was. And I learned that she and Curtius were able to transform themselves from favorites of the royal family to favorites of the Jacobins, of the people, of all the revolutionaries. This seems somewhat clear from the fact that not only were they able to continue to make images of people who could fall from favor in a nanosecond, and display them, but that they were given access to model the images. Now, Marie claims that some of the her imagines were modeled from guillotined heads (including King Louis XVI, and Marie Antoinette, and even Elizabeth, her old employer), as well as revolutionaries like Marat. Is this true? Berridge doesn’t know – so I don’t. Berridge’s description of life in Paris during the revolution is very extensive, and frightening to the max. The Islamic State has nothing on the representatives of the French people.
When it no longer was profitable to keep the gallery open (the original gallery was in the Palais Royale, whose transformation from a family home to what might have been a precursor of a shopping mall is a story in itself), she embarked with 30 wax statues to England, and for thirty years or so traveled the British Isles setting up and taking town her models (and the number grew and grew) and the supporting paraphernalia (which also became more elaborate and eventually included historic relics as well as props) until finally they settled on Baker Street in London. And, as they say, the rest is history.
Of course, there is a Madame Tussaud here in Washington. I have never been in, and never wanted to go in. But my appreciation of the art and the history has been expanded, and maybe one day, surprising myself, I will.
I did enjoy the book – and I can appreciate the difficulty of writing a biography of someone whose history is partially falsified and partially missing. I am not sure that Berridge could have done much better and her annotations of the society (societies) in which Tussaud prospered certainly added to the book.