Paris: Hobnobbing with Lady Liberty
By Theadora Brack
In celebration of Bastille Day 2016 in France, let’s once again doff our “bachi” to my favorite Franco-American collaboration, the gigantesque statue of Lady Liberty on Bedloe’s Island in the New York Harbor.
I’ve got new retro-rocking images, along with one tale of spunky heroism. So without further ballyhoo, let’s play forward with some homage to friendship, shall we? Grab a seat and a Perfect Manhattan in a coupe cocktail glass. Here’s the squeal.
The year is 1913.
Setting the scene: Witness if you will, two young women hustling up the spiral staircase to the Statue of Liberty’s crown. Nothing is going to break their stride. Not even their hip hugging hobble skirts! In fact, Margaret Donovan and Gladys Revere not only beat their fellow steamer passengers to the crown, but also commandeer the best vitrine in the room. Balancing on tipsy toes, they gaze out at the Big Apple, transfixed! The view from the grande dame’s starburst tiara is like nothing they’ve ever seen.
Suddenly, Margaret gets a wild hair, and attempts to wiggle through the teensy window and clamber down to the itsy-bitsy ledge just above Lady Liberty’s hairline. Then the unthinkable happened.
Sea legs, don’t fail me now
According to one newspaper account: “With a piercing scream for help, Miss Donovan fell forward and was slipping over the ledge, head forward, when Miss Revere reached the ledge. She reached out with both hands and grasped the falling girl just below the hips. The skirt ripped a little but Miss Revere sunk her fingers in the flesh and cried frantically for help. Several other persons had reached the platform by this time, and they quickly went to Miss Revere’s aid. Slowly the girl was pulled back on to the ledge and then back through the window to safety.”
Talk about a close call, I’d say. At least our daredevil’s hands were smartphone and selfie-stick-free! After Margaret regained consciousness—thanks to a few rounds of smelling salts—her unflappable BFF, Gladys Revere, received a rousing ovation from the admiring crowd. And rightly so! Lessons learned: Whilst out scaling the planet’s monuments, nix the trespassing, hold on to the ledge, and always, always keep your superhero friend not only on your side but also by your side. Word to the streetwise yesterday, today, and tomorrow: #Safetyfirst.
Now, let’s hobnob it with our friend, Lady Liberty!
After all these years
Our own 151-foot tall beauty is still looking fierce in her spiky nimbus (that’s right, mythically speaking, it’s not a crown!) and matching floor length chiton in all its copper green tonalities. An exquisite nod to the style of classical Greece, I must say. All the rage in Empire France, too.
As the late, great designer, Christian Dior once put it, “Darling, your toile with the cinched waist is perfect!”
Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi was the artist, while Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc and Alexandre Gustave Eiffel were the structural engineers of the Union Franco-Americaine Statue of Liberty project. (Viollet-le-Duc also helped restore Notre Dame. Contributing his own interpretive gothic revival twist, he upgraded it with a fantastical spire and a bevy of new gargoyles to keep the evil spirits at bay, and then gave it a good cleaning.) Yes, it is a small world.
Step right up
Monumental statuary has long been financed by public subscriptions (much like today’s Kickstarter funding schemes). The Statue of Liberty was no exception. Fully embracing crowdsourcing, Bartholdi pumped up the publicity volume with some P.T. Barnum-worthy teasers: In 1876 Lady Liberty’s arm and torch shined at the Centennial in Philadelphia, while her head and halo made a photogenic cameo at Paris’s Exposition Universelle of 1878.
With the help of the Paris opera’s theatrical director, Jean-Baptiste Lavastre, Bartholdi also fashioned a portable canvas banner and cranked out miniature replica souvenirs—all boasting Lady Liberty’s image, well before the statue was built. You can never go wrong with swag, I’ve always said. Apparently Bartholdi felt the same way, because in 1876 he applied for and won a design patent for the Statue of Liberty, which further helped him promote, fund, and move the project forward.
A star is born
From the get-go, Bartholdi was involved in every aspect and phase of the project. Cutting a dashing figure with his short beard and pencil-thin mustache, Bartholdi not only ignited but also maintained a global buzz. And how! There was even a “Bartholdi Fan Club.” But he also had timing on his side. During 1800s, colossal monuments were in vogue as a popular way of sharing collective ideas and values (similar to social media walls).
The French paid for the construction of the statue, while the U.S. footed the bill for her pedestal (with a big push from Joseph Pulitzer—all donors got their name listed in his World newspaper, no matter how small their gifts).
Pulitzer also pumped up the volume when he wrote: “We must raise the money! The World is the people’s paper, and now it appeals to the people to come forward and raise the money. Let us not wait for the millionaires to give us this money. It is not a gift from the millionaires of France to the millionaires of America, but a gift of the whole people of France to the whole people of America!”
Keeping it simple
Here’s how Bartholdi described his vision: “I have a horror of all frippery in detail in sculpture. The forms and effects of that art should be broad, massive and simple!”
I think Christian Dior would have added his stamp of approval to the Statue of Liberty’s classical attire. After all, he once said, “Elegance must be the right combination of distinction, naturalness, care and simplicity.”
Imagine if Dior had designed a stunning little “New Look” number for our Top Model Liberty friend. Perhaps a dress with a plastron curving down below the waist, side drapery, and a faux waterproof stole? The mind squeals.
Weighing in at an impressive 450,000 pounds, her height (from heel to head) is 111 feet, one inch, her waist is 35 feet, the length of her right arm is 42 feet, the length of her hand is 16 and a half feet, her fingernails are 13 inches (no nail biter here!), her head from chin to cranium is just over 17 feet, while her nose is more than four feet long and her mouth is three feet wide. It’s a good thing big girls don’t cry.
Exciting and New
Indeed, Lady Liberty is no lightweight. During the summer of 1885, after taking a special 70-car train from Paris to Rouen, the 300 copper pieces that form her surface were packed in 214 wooden crates. It then took more than a month aboard the French frigate Isère to carry her from France to the New York Harbor.
“You look marvelous,” Mayor William Russell Grace shouted, live from New York! During her 1886 inaugural parade along Broadway from the Battery to City Hall, the financiers in Wall Street were so moved that they started throwing tape out the window, igniting the Big Apple’s eternal love affair with tickertape parades. There wasn’t a dry eye along the “Canyon of Heroes.” I’m sure of it.
Trekking to Paris?
Don’t leave Paris without checking out the prototypes of Bartholdi’s La Statue de la Liberté scattered around the city. Grab a pencil! You can find them in a range of sizes near the Pont de Grenelle on the Île des Cygnes (Métro: Bir-Hakeim), in the Jardin du Luxembourg (Métro: Odéon), and at the Musée des Arts et Métiers (Métro: Arts et Métiers).
You can also find a full-size version of her famous torch at the entrance to the Pont de l’Alma tunnel. Nowadays, the “Flamme de la Liberté” memorial serves double duty as the unofficial Princess Di shrine, since she was killed in the traffic tunnel just below. Pilgrims still leave poems, flowers, and love letters there.
To love is to act
Prior to the Statue of Liberty’s voyage in 1885, Victor Hugo paid a visit to Bartholdi’s Gaget, Gauthier and Co. workshop. He was moved to remark, “C’est Superbe! Yes, this beautiful work tends to what I have always loved, called: peace. Between America and France—France, which is Europe—this guarantee of peace will remain permanent. It was good that it was done!”
Keep on traveling and definitely keep on snapping (with one hand on the ledge)!
And Bon Anniversaire, Monsieur Tin Man!