October 1802. “For what reason do you wish to leave France?”
Fouché looked at her with the hooded eyes she remembered painfully well.
“My business partner, M. Philipsthal, wishes for me to join his Phantasmagoria show in London.” Marie kept her voice steady and tried not to break her gaze from his, fearing he would see it as a sign of weakness and deny her a passport.
“When do you plan to return?”
“When my purse is full.” She inwardly chastised herself for her sharp tongue, but calmly kept her hands clasped loosely before her as the Minister of Police continued his review of her application across his desk.
“And at what point will you be overflowing with riches? Have you set a date for this, or shall I simply indicate your return date as ‘when Madame Tussaud achieves victory’?
“No, monsieur, I believe I will be gone about a year. With your kind permission, of course.”
“Of course. What does it mean here that you intend on taking ‘thirty character figures’ out of France? Are you moving your entire Salon? You said you were just joining Philipsthal’s show temporarily.”
Marie drew in her breath as she tried to think how to best answer. Her future depended on her next words to this man she both feared and detested, but it was not the first time she had encountered him.
How had a forty-one year old wife and mother of two young boys ended up in the company of the frightening and pitiless Fouché, again?
She resisted the urge to rub her eyes.
Born Anne Marie Grosholtz, Marie had grown up in the household of Philippe Curtius, a Swiss physician for whom her mother was a housekeeper. He was skilled in wax modeling, which he used to illustrate anatomy. His work was admired by the Prince de Conti, who became his patron and encouraged him to move to Paris and set up a wax figure cabinet. His first exhibition was held in 1770 and Marie quickly became a studious and talented apprentice.
In addition to learning wax modeling, she also trained in political savvy. She watched as Curtius hosted elegant salons for French aristocrats such as the prince. These stylish members of society were invited to the exhibition’s location in the fashionable Palais Royal. Over wine and fine music, they could stroll about looking at his life-sized wax figures of their friends and other notable famous people. It soon became a fashion to hire Dr. Curtius to have a personal replica of one’s self made.
But when the political winds began shifting and revolution became the watchword, Curtius speedily altered his exhibition. The watchman at the front door was no longer a prim man dressed in white livery, and was instead replaced by a lout dressed sans-culotte style. Gone were the elegant, fussy, be-wigged aristocrats talking about fashion and love affairs. Curtius invited the more disreputable figures of society to his salon – now more politically termed a wax cabinet – such as Robespierre, Marat, Danton, and the loathsome man before her now, Joseph Fouché.
Curtius ensured that wine flowed liberally and that he only displayed wax figures that would not be offensive to the revolutionaries. Anyone remotely aristocratic was rolled up in protective sheets and stored out of sight. Marie took note that although Curtius was heartily welcoming of his new clients, he made sure that he never expressed any opinion whatsoever about their activities. For this reason he managed to avoid any irrational indictments on their part, while remaining completely informed on the ever-changing political climate in Paris. His show flourished.
Despite her adoption of Curtius’ methods, Marie was not so fortunate in avoiding calamity during the 1794-5 year of terror. While Curtius was away on a trip to the Rhineland in July 1794, Marie was denounced by a dancer at a nearby theatre who was supplementing his income by serving as the local executioner’s assistant.
Despite his knowledge of her innocence, Fouché did nothing to help her and she remained in prison for about a week awaiting execution until a friend of Curtius’ heard about her plight and intervened on her behalf.
After that, she retreated back to the shadows of the exhibition which she inherited upon Curtius’ death in late 1794, and had worked tirelessly on it ever since. Even a late marriage at age thirty-four to a civil engineer named François Tussaud and subsequent children had not slowed down her pace nor her ambition for success with the exhibition, still called “Curtius’ Cabinet of Curiosities.”
But the show was not without its financial difficulties after years of national strife and the death of its original owner. When Paul de Philipsthal, an old family friend and fellow showman, returned from a booking of his Phantasmagoria show in London, he raved about the English audiences, who were fresh and eager for entertainments. Taking Marie aside, he suggested that she slip over with a collection of Curtius’ wax figures to add a new dimension to his own show. They would form a partnership, and with his experience of the London theatre and her talent for wax sculpting, their show could not fail to draw enthusiastic spectators.
So here she was now, seeking a passport from Joseph Fouché, who had somehow managed to separate himself from the devastation of the Terror and become Napoleon’s Minister of Police. She focused back to answering his question.
“Exporting my wax portraits will give the English an opportunity to see the cultural and artistic pre-eminence of the French. They will either come to admire us, or fear our natural superiority.”
Fouché hesitated. “But we want to keep talent in France, and you have talent.”
“Most of the figures I will take were made by M. Curtius. He had talent, as well you know.”
“Mmm, yes, he was a good fellow. Served an excellent burgundy. I remember you skulking about in the corners while we talked of world events.” Still he vacillated. What effect would the effigies of revolutionaries who had died on the guillotine have abroad? Would it intensify hatred between the two countries? Would he be blamed for the escalation of bad feelings while Napoleon worked towards subjugation of the English?
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Fouché had managed to assert himself into the highest levels of both the Revolutionary government and then that of Napoleon Bonaparte. This he did with an acutely developed sense of pragmatism and a considerable streak of cruelty that he employed without hesitation in order to maintain his political power. His years of switching allegiances and staying ahead of his opponents had given him the capacity for simply being able to smell when something in the air was not quite right, much as a dog uses this sense to avoid poisoned meat.
The supplicant before him must have understood his indecision, for she suggested to him with just a hint of artificial helpfulness, “As you know, I have modeled both the First Consul and his wife, and they will be part of the exhibition in London.”
And that was what was so irritating, wasn’t it? This petite but energetic woman before him was in favor with Napoleon and Josephine, having modeled them both to their utter delight. Did he dare do anything that might offend them now, despite what repercussions it might have upon him later?
The moments ticked away as he struggled with a verdict. He could not quite assess what Madame Tussaud’s real motivations might be, but neither could he feel that she would do any harm.
With a resigned sigh, he picked up a pen, dipped it into his silver inkwell, and signed his name to her documents, giving her permission to travel to England for an indefinite period. He hoped he would not regret it.
Even as she witnessed the crates filled with wax figures being loaded onto the ship, Marie could hardly believe her good fortune. She looked one more time at Fouche’s signature on her papers before folding them up and tucking them into the pouch she had sewn into her dress for traveling. Her four-year old son Joseph danced excitedly by her side, ecstatic over the thought of his first sailing.
She had had little thought for the sea voyage until now, so busy was she with preparations. It has not been easy to pack up the fragile wax figures to be transported by caravan over bumpy roads and then carefully – she hoped – stored in the ship’s hold. Marie deliberately avoided tearful farewells with her husband and her mother, instead spending her last hours leaving them with hundreds of little instructions for care of the Salon de Cire in her absence.
Her real emotions were focused on two-year old Francois, who was too young to make such a journey with his mother. She clutched him tightly, and whispered in his ear that when she returned to France it would be with a full purse and dozens of playthings for him. Unaware of the import of the moment, her son chirped and giggled and gave her a sloppy kiss on the cheek.
With eyes full of tears threatening to spill forth, she was glad enough to turn away and board the carriage that would take her and Joseph to their ship.
The Channel was choppy and unkind, and most of the passengers were simply relieved to finally see the white cliffs of England. Marie, though, was ecstatic. She had done it. She had survived the Revolution, slipped past Fouché, avoided her husband’s reproaches for leaving him, and was now determined to remake her wax salon into a breathtaking attraction like no other.
What matter that she now had to face a customs official who was sure to faint dead away after opening one of her vast packing cases to find a glass eye peering up inquisitively at him?
Unedited contracted excerpt, Copyright 2009 Christine Trent.