When you think of Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, you probably think of movie stars, political figures, and other famous people. You can mingle among these wax effigies, and even have your photo taken while snuggling up to your favorite celeb. Amid all this glamour, you might not realize the amazing story of the real-life Madame Tussaud and how she survived the French Revolution.
But let’s start at the beginning…
Madame Tussaud was born Marie Grosholtz in Strasbourg, France in 1761. Her father died before she was born and her mother moved to Switzerland to be near family. Then, when Marie was six, she and her mother went to Paris to live with Dr. Curtius, her mother’s brother. Dr. Curtius had started modelling wax for medical studies in Switzerland and ended up in Paris making wax busts of important Parisians.
The Start of a Career
While her mother kept house for Curtius, Marie became his apprentice and possibly his adopted daughter. She was a fast learner, and at the age of 16, she started to make wax busts of Curtius’ influential dinner guests. She took a cast of Voltaire just two months before his death. Soon afterward, Benjamin Franklin, the American Ambassador to France, was placing his face in Marie’s hands, and Rousseau, Mirabeau, La Fayette and other movers and shakers followed suit. She even lived with the Royals at Versailles from age nineteen through twenty-eight, working as the art teacher to the King’s sister, Madame Elizabeth.
Curtius was a clever businessman whose livelihood depended on knowing the mood of the country, and in early 1789, he heard the rumblings of the Revolution. He went to Versailles to bring Marie back home.
The Revolution: Hard Times and Tragedies
Marie Takes Charge
During the Revolution, Curtius was sent off to war and Marie was left to take care of the business on her own. She would have been around thirty years old and trying to run an entertainment business in the middle of a Revolution. People were fleeing Paris, and the government had asked everyone to support the war effort by handing over all their “nonessential” wealth. No one wanted to be seen going to the waxworks and wasting money on entertainment. Besides, why pay to see wax effigies of people who had lost their heads, when they could go to the public square and see the real thing any day of the week? The waxworks profits were melting away, and Marie took out a loan in an effort to keep the family from losing everything.
Devastating Death Mask
Unfortunately, Marie’s troubles were only beginning. She would soon suffer a horrible shock. The Princesse de Lamballe, whom Marie regarded as one of the sweetest and kindest people she knew, was ripped from prison, horribly abused and murdered. The murderers then took her severed head to Marie and stood over her while she was forced to make a wax cast of it. Although this wasn’t the first severed head she had modelled, it was horrible to be holding her friend’s head in her lap.
Things only got worse as the Reign of Terror picked up speed. Marie, her mother, and her aunt were accused of being royalists and thrown into prison. (It was here that Marie met another prisoner, Josephine Beauharnais, who would later marry Napoleon Bonaparte.) They were in prison for three months. Then one day, without explanation, they were released. They skedaddled out of there and went to stay with one of Curtius’ lawyer friends.
Sculpting the Dead to Stay Alive
Madame Tussaud’s special waxworking skill meant that she would be called upon from time to time to make a wax figure of someone that the Revolutionary Government considered important and wanted to preserve in wax. On July 13, 1793, when the radical journalist, Marat, was murdered in his bathtub, policemen escorted Marie to the scene of the crime to take a mold of his still warm head.
Haunting the Cemetery
Four days later, Marie was in the cemetery making a cast of the face of his murderer, Charlotte Corday. During this time of terror, when heads were being chopped off in record numbers, the future Madame Tussaud, would go to the Madeleine Cemetery each evening and sort through the daily deposit of heads and bodies. She searched out ones that might have historical significance and that she hoped would bring the most interest (and money) into her floundering business.
Robespierre is Dead
On July 28, 1794, Robespierre was sent to the guillotine and France breathed a sigh of relief. The head of the man who had been responsible for so many deaths was dumped at the Madeleine cemetery, where Marie took a cast of it. This might have been one severed head that she was glad to have her hands around.
Getting Out of Town
Just as it seemed her troubles might end, Marie’s uncle died and she lost her mentor and protector. The following year, at age 34, she married François Tussaud with whom she had two sons.
Leaving France Behind
Marie had inherited Curtius’ tools and his wax figures, and tried to carry on the business. But times were hard in a France still recovering from so much bloodshed. In 1802, after the Revolution had ended and peace was established between France and England, Marie was invited to take her waxworks to Great Britain. The 41-year-old Madame Tussaud packed up her wax entourage and her oldest son, and left for England. Her younger son joined them later, but she never again saw France or her husband.
Settling in London
Madame Tussaud moved her traveling waxworks show around Great Britain for 33 years. Then in 1835, at age 74, she decided to settle down and set up a permanent exhibition in London, not far from the present Baker Street location. In the beginning, her exhibits had focused mainly on the French Revolution, featuring her collection of severed heads and prominent Revolutionary figures. But being a shrewd business woman, she was always updating her collection and adding British figures.
Even today, the French Revolution has an important place in the London Madame Tussauds Chamber of Horrors. Besides the wax figures, one of the relics you can see there is a blade from the guillotine used to sever so many French heads.
Marie Tussaud died in London in 1850 at age 88. Her sons carried on her work, and today, Madam Tussauds Wax Museum has locations all over the world.
What a remarkable life this woman had. She lived with royalty, was thrown into prison, and was forced to search through severed heads at the cemetery to keep her business afloat. Then she took the French Revolution to England and turned it from a small traveling show into a world empire. Talk about a woman ahead of her time!
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*There will be even more about Madame Tussaud in the new book I’m working on about the French Revolution.
*Photo of Madame Tussaud with severed head: Even though the plaque says it’s Marie Antoinette’s head, she probably didn’t take casts of the Royal heads after their deaths. The Revolutionaries were keen to make sure there were no souvenirs of them. Madame Tussaud probably did, however, take casts of the Royals before their deaths when she was living at Versailles.