Sunday, April 8, 2018

madame tussaud on/in jeopardy: entrepreneurship & legacy, horror, verisimilitude

The category is “Entrepreneurs” and the answer is:
After keeping the family business going through a bloody revolution, she emigrated to England at age 41 with her 4-year-old son leaving behind an infant son, her husband, her mother, and the business. She began the family business anew with a traveling exhibition that had her and a growing entourage on the road for more than 30 years before settling into an exhibition hall on Baker Street in London where she continued to run the business until her death in 1850 at age 90, at which time her sons took over. Now, in the 21st century, her namesake international company is worth near a half-billion dollars.
But that’s much too long. Let’s try again.
She kept a Paris-based family business going through the French Revolution and its aftermath, then emigrated to England in 1802 to expand a business that today has been valued at more than $400 million.
Yes, that’s better. But still too long. One more time.
Her success waxed and waned, but around the world iconic horror movies and museums pay homage to her work and name.

Who was Madame Tussaud? And what exactly did she do? First off, she was an artist and a businessperson. Specifically, she was a sculptor, a wax artist, a historian, a costumer, a set designer, a bookkeeper, a cashier, a greeter, a publicist, a survivor of war, a survivor of a shipwreck, an immigrant, a story-teller, a show master, a wife, a mother, a grandmother, the matriarch of a family business. Although she lived in a time and place where the owning of property by women was deemed unlawful, she practiced her art, she ran a business, and she left a legacy that has endured centuries.

Madame Tussaud, nee Marie Grosholtz, lived a hard, fascinating life from which she created—seemed determined to create—this legacy of waxworks and all that goes with it. All of which I am still sorting through. Beyond the museums which bear her name are all the other houses of wax, all the other chambers of horrors, all the other waxen presidents and kings and the artists who create them and outfit them and maintain them. All the people who go to see them. That some of these places are woefully freakish, well, I believe Madame Tussaud would have been appalled by that. She wished to entertain, to educate, to present current events and history as accurately as possible; she also aspired to be among the upper crust in society, to be accepted and respected among the loftier while affording entertainment for all.

I cannot remember the last time I was in a wax museum or if I ever was, but, like most things, I am sure they vary in quality. By all accounts, they did in Madame Tussaud’s day. Her exhibits were thought to be of the highest quality and, as we say today, family-friendly. (Some waxworks displayed anatomical figures, ostensibly for educational purposes, often in separate rooms designated for men only. Today, the House of Wax in the Bronx in New York, a fairly new establishment mixing “mixology with the macabre,” exhibits some of these same figures and, by virtue of being a bar, keeps it adults only.) At Madame Tussaud’s, the wax figures and their clothing were cleaned, mended, even their hair washed, on a regular schedule. The museum offered music, oil paintings, relics, a cafe, and an extensive descriptive catalog. Patrons were allowed to stroll freely among the figures and exhibits. The Chamber of Horrors, presenting notorious murderers, was contained in a separate room. In the 1876 catalog, the individual descriptions of the Chambers’ members is preceded in part by this disclaimer:
“HE IS A SHALLOW CRITIC,” pithily remarks the “Daily Telegraph” in its leading article (March 20, 1868), on the Todmorden murder, “WHO WONDERS AT THE PUBLIC INTEREST IN GREAT CRIMES, AND FINDS FAULT WITH IT.”
At the time the most recent addition to the Chamber was Mary Anna Cotton. Her description reads:
The series of cold-blooded murders for which this wretch was hanged on the morning of Monday, March 24th, 1873, are crimes against which no punishment in history can atone for. The child she rocked on her knee to-day was poisoned to-morrow. Most of her murders were committed for petty gains; and she killed off husbands and children with the unconcern of a farm-girl killing poultry. The story of her crimes is still fresh in the public mind.
Today public interest regarding Cotton and her crimes can be satisfied—or peaked—by watching PBS’ “Dark Angel” starring Joanne Froggatt of “Downton Abbey” fame.

Every horror flick, mystery novel and detective story set within a waxworks owes a debt of gratitude to Madame Tussaud, even though she never took the “horror” of it quite so far, perhaps because she lived the actual horrors of the French Revolution. She was, in many ways, aspiring to be more of a PBS Masterpiece than a Hollywood B-movie. Nevertheless, she perpetuated the persisting perplexity of who we are as people and played on our propensity to perceive illusion as reality and vice versa. This week, as a cold and gloomy wind spiked with snow raged outside, I stayed in and watched whatever movies and shows I could find that were set in a waxworks. Every one of them was a murder mystery or horror show that played on this shift of illusion and reality. As a wax artist and proprietress of a wax museum in an episode of Canada’s “The Great Detective” put it:
Verisimilitude. That is everything in wax … I use wax to imitate life. He uses life to imitate wax.
One day I was surprised while watching a video by a young man who shares on YouTube his experiences visiting wax museums. Watching his bits can be entertaining, but I don’t think I’ll watch anymore. While visiting a museum in St. Louis, he pans his camera across displays occasionally gasping in disbelief, muttering, and identifying what we are seeing, such as a tableau of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He calls the display “horrifying” sounding, as he often does, like a child peeking out from under the bedcovers looking for monsters. He tells us much too often how he is about to poop in his pants—it is all so scary. Soon after Snow White his camera sweeps across a woman in black, seated, a head in her lap, and the head has no body. It seems as if the woman is about to caress the head even as she stares straight ahead, unblinking, unmoving, frozen in time. Our tour guide says “oh my god” and as the camera sweeps past we see more heads on a shelf. In a heartbeat, though, we move on to Michael Jordan and past him, our moment with Madame Tussaud in the wax museum gone in a blink of the eye.

Did this self-proclaimed wax house aficionado not recognize Madame Tussaud and the historic event being signified? Even worse, did he recognize her but think her inconsequential? Not worthy of a mention? Or, on the other extreme, did he think we would all know this person with the head in her lap? Just another Madame Tussaud making death masks during the Terror … He swept by Michael Jordan, too, without comment. Maybe he did not recognize Michael Jordan? Thought his likeness inconsequential? Or—reality—is this guy just in it for the visceral thrill of it all? The kicks? The horror? The YouTube comments and the poop in the pants?

I can’t help but wonder. If Madame Tussaud were an answer on Jeopardy, who would know the question?

According to, Madame Tussaud appeared on Jeopardy in the form of this answer worth $500 on show #3552 in the category “Time to ‘D’ecide.” And the answer is:
Madame Tussaud’s could tell you it’s a wax or plaster cast of a mold taken from a nonliving face