April 16, 1850 — Anna Maria "Marie" Tussaud, the woman behind one of London’s most famous tourist attractions, died on this day at the age of 89. She had spent a lifetime creating lifelike waxworks of the famous and the infamous from murderers to monarchs; from pop stars to politicians; from the beautiful to the beastly.
The seeds of her unlikely destiny were sewn two months before she was born at Strasbourg in 1761 when her father, a German soldier, was killed in battle. His death forced his young widow to find a job and she became housekeeper to a doctor named Philippe Curtius in Berne, Switzerland.
The doctor had a passion for wax modelling and owned a collection of heads and busts. It was a pastime that enthralled the young Marie and she became an enthusiastic pupil of the art.
When Curtius landed a fashionable position in Paris he took with him his housekeeper and his young apprentice, then six years old.
As she grew older Marie was able to move among the members of high society who had taken Curtius under their wing. She met King Louis XVI and in the 1780s was employed as an art teacher to his sister, Madame Elizabeth.
But her connection with the royal circle nearly cost her life. After the French Revolution broke out she was perceived as a royal sympathiser and held in prison for three months where her head was shaved while awaiting execution.
She was saved by Jean-Marie Collot d’Herbois, a leading revolutionary who was a friend of Curtius. Even so, to prove her allegiance to the Revolution she was forced to make death masks of guillotined nobles, including the King and Queen.
She was particularly distressed when forced to make a cast of the severed and bloodied head of Princess de Lamballe, a friend of Marie’s, who had been hacked to pieces by the mob. She also modelled the guillotined heads of both Marie Antoinette and Robespierre.
Curtis survived the Reign of Terror but died in 1794 when he left his huge collection of waxworks to Marie.
She took them to England in 1802 and earned a living by displaying them at various centres around the country. Eventually, she set up a permanent exhibition centre – Madame Tussaud’s – in London.
A fire in 1925 claimed many of the exhibits and much of the rest were destroyed by German bombs in 1940. But the casts survived, allowing many of the historical waxworks to be re-created.
The oldest is that of Madame du Barry, made by Curtius in 1765 and there is one of King George III. Some sculptures still exist that were done by Marie Tussaud herself.
As she moved into her eighties, Marie, who created a self-portrait that is on display at the entrance to the museum, liked to sit at a table collecting the entrance money from visitors. There is a painting from 1845 showing her doing just that.
Probably the most controversial waxwork is of Adolf Hitler. In 2008 an angry visitor fought off guards and beheaded a life-sized waxwork of the Nazi dictator only minutes after it went on display at a newly opened branch of Madame Tussauds in Berlin.
In London, the Hitler model became a regular target for hate attacks ranging from spitting, egg-throwing and physical damage. A spokeswoman for Madame Tussauds said no other waxwork had ever attracted the level of hatred and abuse that the Hitler model had endured. In 2016 it was finally removed after a campaign on social media.
Madame Tussauds – there is no longer an apostrophe – has branches around the world and is now owned by the Merlin Entertainments group, which also runs Legoland and other theme parks.
Published: March 6, 2017