Waxing Mythical: The life and legend of Madame Tussaud by Kate Berridge

Fame in the shadow of the guillotine
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The Independent Culture

A young woman cradles a bloody head in her apron. Either she must make a death head, or follow the deceased on to the scaffold. This is the popular, enduring image of Madame Tussaud. During the Terror, Marie Grosholtz, as she was known then, moulded her wax to record the likeness of decapitated VIPs. Now we get Kylie and David Beckham. But the waxing (and waning) of pop stars and footballers is not such a hop from the immortalisation of Marie Antoinette and Robespierre. As everyone knows, in the cult of celebrity there's nothing so fake as reality.

Punters inching their way up the queue in Baker Street this summer might make the minutes fly faster if they take with them Kate Berridge's Waxing Mythical. Sparky, entertaining, crammed with intriguing details, this cultural history reveals Madame Tussaud as canny, tough as old boots and with a knack for riding the storm. She withstood imprisonment, shipwreck and the flames of a riot while mounting waxwork displays during the traumatic events of the French Revolution, Napoleonic wars and the Peterloo Massacre. She finally gave out before that mother of all shows - the Great Exhibition.

Berridge argues that this poorly educated Frenchwoman, regarded as a footnote in history, has been neglected for too long. A savvy operator who understood the power of advertising and publicity, she kept abreast of the times and wielded an iron grip on her business until she died in her 90th year. From Danton's rhetoric to Dickens's comic commentary, Madame Tussaud experienced sweeping social changes. She saw the sacramental nature of kingship in the fated Louis XVI give way to the domestic primness of Queen Victoria; the mob transformed into the mass market. Moreover, her blend of entertainment and information was a precursor of a cultural phenomenon existing today.

Marie Tussaud always acknowledged the voyeuristic desire for proximity to the famous and an appetite for novelty, "glitz and gore". Her youth was spent in a Paris fizzing with change. Philippe Curtius, her mentor, had two permanent exhibition sites where in true democratic style criminals mixed with society beauties - and not just among the posing waxworks. Tableaux including the Caverne des Grands Voleurs (a forerunner to the Chamber of Horrors) and the Grand Couvert (the Royals at supper) drew every type of visitor.

Historical scenes and topical affairs bridged the gap between high culture (opera, theatre) and low (the fair), and wax offered the perfect medium for "an emerging culture of impermanence". When personalities were no longer in favour, Berridge writes, the dummies had their heads removed - spookily anticipating the guillotine. Who was in or out became a gruesome guessing game during the Terror and the quick turnover - here's Lafayette, oh no, there he goes - highlighted the mutability of fame.

Once in Great Britain, the shrewd businesswoman sniffed which way the wind was blowing. Curtius's exhibitions may have delighted the sans culottes, but Marie set her sights on the burgeoning middle class who wanted respectable family entertainment. She also instinctively understood the importance of establishing a brand. To do that, she had to create an image. Therefore she became the woman compelled to work under the guillotine's shadow but who in happier times had hobnobbed with those headlining the show. Hers was the hand that touched not only the hand but the face, too. This gave authenticity to her works (as opposed to those of her competitors) and a vicarious thrill to her audience.

But was any of it true? Ironically, while Madame Tussaud remains so well-known, as a person, she scarcely registers. The many stories about her - the tender friendship with Louis XV1's sister, her snappy exchanges with Marat - come largely from an unreliable memoir. A mistress of fashioning wax to look life-like, Madame Tussaud was also a mistress of fashioning fiction to look like fact.

Legal documents, a handful of handbills, newspaper adverts and a few barely literate letters are all Berridge has to go on in her quest. Yet what a convincing job she does. Berridge points out many inconsistencies, such as Madame Tussaud's claim to casting various portraits from the life. No accounts exist by the famous of sitting for her and those heads fresh off the pikestaffs were hardly in a condition to be copied. Berridge dispatches the myths about Marie's residency at Versailles and her encounters with great men but never debunks her. If she's teasing about Marie's name-dropping, she still admires her talent for self-mythologising and overcoming setbacks.

Marie, born in 1761 in Strasbourg, was probably illegitimate. Her mother worked for the Swiss doctor and modeller of waxworks Curtius, who virtually adopted the child and made her his heir. This opportunist and social climber taught his protégé not only about wax but also lessons in surviving a cut-throat society. After his death, Marie married the much younger Francois Tussaud, having two sons at 39 and 41. When they were small, she embarked with just the eldest and 33 waxworks to England.

Entangled in a business partnership with a German phantasmagorist who fleeced her, Marie spent 27 years on tour. She never returned to France or her husband. By the time she was settled in Victorian London, Madame Tussaud had become a household name - her establishment a must-see on every itinerary, herself a thinly disguised character in The Old Curiosity Shop.

Whether describing Jacobin savagery or the Regency travelling shows with their performing fleas and living skeletons, Berridge places Marie against a colourful, turbulent backdrop. Occasionally she overstates her case. Was Madame Tussaud, with her constant peddling of the sensational and newsworthy, really "the original tabloid journalist"? Suggesting that pre-Revolutionary Paris and Sixties London were alike - "a heady mix of sex and shopping, with an anti-Establishment undercurrent" - seems too neat.

More persuasively, Berridge suggests Marie Antoinette's obsession with fashion promoted hairdressers and couturiers as "the new social heroes" who rocked the old order. It gives a whole new twist to how the Queen lost her head.