What comes to mind when you hear the name – Madame Tussaud? The answer most likely will be wax museum. How did a tiny six-year-old orphan, born in the turbulent atmosphere of 18th century France, become so renowned that we know of her accomplishments today?
Truth be known, even the author found contemporaneous clues hard to find; but it wasn’t for the lack of trying to piece it together. He spent fifteen years searching, including actually working in France at Madame Tussaud’s museum, where he gazed at will upon her original wax works that included the wax heads of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette molded from their freshly guillotined heads. The one original wax work that inspired him the most was the self-portrait Madame Tussaud made of herself in wax.
Madame Tussaud was born Anna Maria “Marie” Grosholtz in 1761. She became Madame Tussaud when she married a scumbag named Francois Tussaud and bore him two sons. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Marie Grosholtz became a servant at the tender age of six-years-old. That meant she didn’t have a life of her own; she was subject to the whims and orders of her employer. She was, in some ways, better off than the starving peasants living outside the towns who suffered indescribable living conditions. She remained controlled by her Master until she was incarcerated and sentenced to death during the revolt. She received a reprieve at the last minute and lived to the ripe old age of 89 years-old.
Marie Grosholtz was abnormally small at birth and unfortunately inherited her mother’s out-sized proboscis and her father’s cup hook chin. By adulthood, she was four feet and smidge tall. This small woman looked like a child with a “Punch and Judy” face.
Marie’s father died from a war injury when she was very young. Her mother, a destitute widow with a tiny child, became a reluctant housekeeper for an eccentric and reclusive doctor whose specialty was crafting anatomically accurate wax models from body parts for medical students. Marie’s mother, grieving and morbidly depressed by circumstances, committed suicide leaving six-year-old Marie, nicknamed Little, in the care of the unorthodox Doctor Philippe Curtius. Curtius would never have won “parent of the year”, but in his own way, he set up Marie for success in the future by training her in the art plaster casting and wax modeling. Together they expanded his trade from body parts to wax face masks, and later, full-head “portraits”.
The pair moved to Paris where Doctor Curtius hoped to fill his collection with the powerful and famous. Curtius rented space in the home of a seamstress, the Widow Picot, a repugnant character interested only in her own well- being. She was so repelled by the sight of Marie that she forced her to live in a barely habitable part of the kitchen. Not once in the ensuing years did the cowardly Curtius take his tiny protege’s side. The weak-kneed simp, played for a fool by Picot, was kowtowed into giving her control over his collection of disembodied wax heads. Undaunted, the curious and inquisitive, Little, managed to keep an upbeat attitude and found ways to stay useful and involved in the wax business and to be near Curtius.
The crafty Picot, seizing the opportunity to use her ingenuity, brought the wax models to life with clothing and staging them in an appropriate setting. The public lined up in droves to view the death masks of murderers and the provocative faces of the famous. The income poured in enriching everyone… except Marie.
Marie’s life changed when Princess Elizabeth, sister of King Louis XVI, made an appearance in the museum. The spoiled princess, herself an ugly duckling, took a shine to Marie and invited her to Versailles. Widow Picot and Doctor Curtius were not in a position to refuse the Princess. Once at the palace, Marie was showered with endearments and soon found herself sharing secrets and private time with the Princess. When it is learned that Marie was skilled in the new technique of plaster casting and wax modeling, she had a steady line of the famous and rich interested in creating a likeness of themselves. Sadly, over the years, Marie made the mistake of interpreting attention for affection; she was still a servant, the change, just geography.
The years passed. As the atmosphere outside the palace became more heated, the Monarchy sensed their subjects were ready to revolt and feared for their lives. Marie was abruptly returned to Widow Picot’s home, where things there had changed as well. The Royals weren’t the only people fearful for their lives. The angry crowds were targeting anyone better off or successful.
The world in Paris turned bloody and brutal. Bodies lined the streets. Eager crowds gathered round the guillotine to watch the daily beheadings. The jails were filled with the guilty and innocent alike; Widow Picot and Marie among them. It was truly hell on earth. Imprisoned in a tower, Marie found the strength of character to look beyond her own needs to provide care and compassion for the sickly Widow; throwing aside any bad history between them. I found myself sad when the bewildered and failing Widow Picot’s name appeared on the list to be executed.
Marie was freed from jail through intersession of an old friend in exchange for the grisly task of making death wax models of the newly executed that included people that she knew intimately from Versailles.
During this turbulent time, a dying Doctor Curtius, found his way home to unexpectedly find Marie there. She cared for him to his death, re-establishing the bond they had long before moving to Paris.
My master’s lawyer was the person who told me that there was a will, and the details written therein. “Everything to one person”, he said, “to you.”
And with that news, Marie, once again, stoically, picked up the pieces and started over, becoming Madame Tussaud. This time she achieved her freedom and thrived. Raising that mighty chin, she was never to be under anyone’s control again.