Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

The Worst of Times (1761)

Apr 16, 2023 by Marlene Wagman-Geller


        Charles Dickens’ epic novel, A Tale of Two Cities, is a love story set against the fiery backdrop of France and England during the Reign of Terror.  A nonfictional heroine whose life was likewise enacted in Paris and London during the same epoch is equally riveting, though it has been regulated to an obscure chapter of this tumultuous time.

           There are many exclusive clubs which dot the glitterati capitals of the world which provide open sesame solely to the possessors of blood of blue or pants with deep pockets. And yet there is one such rarefied enclave where entry is even more exclusive: billions of dollars cannot buy entry. Membership is by invitation only; Mother Teresa is one of the few who have declined. British royalty and rock royalty, as well as American presidents have long entered. In our more liberal milieu admittance is less conventional. Orange is the New Black actress Laverne Cox became is first transgender inductee. In answer to where is this place the answer is its establishments are found throughout the world; in answer to who began this novel emporium is a woman whose life was as fantastical as her glittering guests.

          Anne Made Grosholz had to deal with the twin challenges of becoming a new mother and a widow when Joseph, her German husband, died from gruesome wounds incurred in the Seven Year War two months before his daughter Marie was born. To add to the dire situation, her spouse’s salary had been her sole source of income. To provide for herself and her infant she obtained a position as a house-keeper to Dr. Philippe Curtius in her hometown of Strasbourg. The physician became so fond of Anne-he claimed to be a big fan of her casseroles- he brought mother and daughter along when he left France to return to his native Switzerland. There developed a lifelong bond between Marie and Curtius, who she called Uncle and he served as surrogate father. 

      Like many medics of the time, Curtius made anatomical waxes, but his were exceptionally skillful, especially when it came to replicating the textures and hues of human skin. Hence, Marie was raised in a household where it was not unusual to see random body parts. Word of his talent spread and Louis XV’s cousin, the Prince de Conti, offered patronage. Finding the royal opportunity too great a position to pass up, Dr. Curtius, Anne, and six-year-old Marie left for Paris.

           From her earliest years Marie was enraptured with the art of wax works and became an eager protégée. The minion ultimately supplanted the master and at age 17 she was creating her own models. While other teenaged girls were courting eligible boys, Marie was busy immortalizing contemporary luminaries such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin. Her firsts complete sculpture was of Voltaire who joked that at his age every mask was likely to be a death-mask. She liked to remark the three men were frequent dinner guests at the Curtius table, and that Rousseau enjoyed her mother’s cooking.

        By the early 1780s, Curtius and Marie had so impressed the French populace he set up a ‘cabinet de circe’ ‘wax exhibition’ at the Parisian entertainment hotspot: the Palais Royal. It featured the crowned heads of Europe so visitors felt the thrill of mingling with the upper echelons. This proved such a resounding success he staged another at the Boulevard du Temple, the Caverne des Grands Voleurs. This one, an echo of the growing violence in the country, was more a chamber of horrors than a portrait gallery. On display were figures of murderers and thieves; ever the tabloid journalist, Curtius bathed them in a blue light and fake blood was liberally applied. The master wax-magicians intuitively understood the public’s voracious appetite for both glitz and gore.      

      News of the woman who wrought marvels in wax spread and Marie received a summons to serve as art teacher to King Louis XVI’s sister, Madame Elizabeth. Consequently, she spent nine years in the Royal Court in the bosom of the royals. During her stay she modelled the Bourbon family; the hair used in the display came from the horses of the royal stable. To complicate matters, while Marie was ensconced in the grandest estate in Europe, Phillippe was playing host to the Salon de Circe whose members were dedicated to the destruction of the family in whose estate Marie resided.

        Outside the palace a tidal wave was fast approaching and on a July afternoon an infuriated mob marched on Versailles; at the front of the procession were the wax heads-raided from Dr. Curtius’ exhibit- those who had proved hostile to the tri-color. The rabble arrested King Louis, Marie Antoinette and the rest of the blue-bloods- along with Marie Grosholz. She was incarcerated in La Force Prison where she shared a cell with Josephine de Beauharnais, future consort of Napoleon. 

      Although Marie tried to reason with her captors she had been merely an employee of the Bourbons and was the daughter of a housekeeper, her pleas fell on deaf ears. The architects of the Reign of Terror were not known for their powers of reason. She and Josephine had their heads shaved in preparation for their rendezvous with the guillotine. Dr. Curtius intervened on her behalf and the revolutionaries agreed; however, the price of her release was a Faustian bargain.

          While Madame Defarge sat in the shadow of the guillotine knitting the names of its victims in her garment, Made Grosholz had a more gruesome task. In exchange for her freedom Marie had to create death masks from the seemingly endless piles of guillotined heads. The grisly souvenirs were hailed as revolutionary victories and were paraded through the streets of Paris by the frenzied rabble. For a woman in her mid-twenties to sit with bloodied heads in her apron, many of which had belonged to those of whom she had lived for almost a decade made for an agonizing, artistic endeavor.

         Marie was one of the few who had befriended both the revolutionaries and the royals and lived to tell the tale, one which was to have many more twists. When the Reign of Terror ended she married a much younger man, Francois Tussaud, with whom she had sons Joseph and Francois. Her husband squandered the inheritance Curtius had left upon his death, leaving her without means. Rather than succumb to a woe is me outlook, Marie’s fiery spirit adhered to the still I rise spirit. At a time when the only independent businesswomen were those who sold their flesh, she decided to peddle another form of flesh, one made of wax.

      Madame Tussaud left France that had been the architect of her imprisonment, murder of her friends and disappointing marriage. In 1804, having just turned 40, she took advantage of a lull in the Napoleonic War and crossed the Channel.  She left with her prized wax heads, eldest son, (age four,) and a steely determination to succeed. This was to be a daunting task as she was setting sail to a country in which she had no friends and did not speak its language. She never saw her homeland or Francois again. Indeed, other than with her mother, Dr. Curtius and her sons, (her younger one joined her at age 21,) she formed no close personal attachments. After all she had witnessed, she felt more at ease with those of wax than those of flesh.

      Madame Tussaud toured Britain and Ireland for thirty-three years in a travelling show “Curtius’ Cabinet of Curiosities.” They consisted of the doomed royal family, Marat’s death-mask as he had appeared when Charlotte Corday had stabbed him in his bath, and Napoleon, amongst dozens of others. On one occasion her ship capsized in a storm and the decapitated, waxed heads floated on the waves. Marat had once again met a watery grave. It was this which served as an impetus for the itinerant show-woman to establish a museum that would permanently showcase her unique collection. In addition, a stationery venue would allow for the creation of elaborate backdrops. While Sir Arthur Conan Doyle chose Baker Street for his fictional detective, Marie chose the same road to house her wares. The public was thrilled with the opportunity to mingle with the mighty who had left an imprint on history. It proved so lucrative P. T. Barnum made an unsuccessful bid. The Duke of Wellington often toured to enjoy the effigies of himself and Bonaparte. Marie’s greatest artistry was when she made backdrops for her figures, and one of the most spectacular was of Queen Victoria’s 1837 coronation. In Britain as in France, the lowly-born woman walked amongst royalty.

          Like the life of its founder, Madame Tussauds suffered tragedy as well as triumphs. In 1925 a fire raged through the building and during the Blitz a bomb from the Luftwaffe destroyed 350 head molds. Safe from the devastation was the 1930 wax figure of Adolf Hitler; in 2008 it suffered decapitation when a German man-shades of Madame Guillotine-attacked it.

Madame Tussauds was to become the British equivalent of Hollywood’s Wall of Fame; however, while the latter is comprised of stars hers houses anatomical likeness of startling verisimilitude. Her one of –a-kind exhibit met with great acclaim, one that eighteenth century women rarely achieved in the business world. Along with displaying the newsmakers of the time she included death-heads from the guillotine, replete with an authentic blade. In a nod to her beloved uncle Phillippe she recreated his Parisian chamber of horrors. Although emotionally scarred by the ravages of the French Revolution, the astute businesswoman knew how to milk its horrors, thereby proving, unlike her figures, she was no dummy.

       At age 77 Marie wrote her memoirs; a fantastical life in which- while others were literally losing their heads she contrived to keep hers- makes her the greatest star amongst her gallery of guests. Yet, like all magicians, she kept her secrets close. A master at fashioning wax to look like life Madame Tussaud was also able to fashion fiction to look like fact. Most of her autobiography dealt with the famous people and events that had made her live in interesting times. When it came to her own story, Madame was more reticent. Except for her two sons, mother, and adopted uncle, she had not formed any other significant attachments. Regardless of what degree of artistic license she took in her autobiography, it was a story that could have come from the pen of Dickens. Indeed, the Victorian author wove her into a thinly disguised character of Mrs. Jarley in his novel The Old Curiosity Shop. The poorly educated French girl survived the Reign of Terror to become the iconic figurehead of one of the most visited entertainment establishments in the world, with branches found everywhere from Bangkok to Berlin. In 2007 the Tussauds Group was acquired for one billion pounds by Merlin Entertainments, and remains the crown jewel in British tourism. Of the multitudes who pass through its doors, many do not realize the iconic establishment encompasses a history of a bloody revolution, gruesome death masks and a 19th century indomitable woman.

      In the entrance of her London museum Marie had created a self-portrait of herself at age 81 in the act of taking tickets from customers. The exhibit is still on display- so real one is tempted to inquire the price of admission. She is dressed head to toe in black crepe, with round glasses partially obscuring her eyes. Her waxen features bear no trace of a smile; she had witnessed too much

      On vigil at her deathbed were her two sons. Her last words to Joseph and Francois proved that her wisdom was not confined to the world of wax: “I divide my property equally between you, and implore you, above all things, never to quarrel.” Taking their mother’s words to heart they continued to run her museum as equal partners. Their own sons continued the family business and they moved the museum from Baker Street to its current location on Marylebone Road.

       The contemporary emporium continues the tradition of enshrining the famous, but many of the exhibits are of the ilk the strait-laced businesswoman would not approve. Although she encouraged her guests to stand side by side with those of wax she would take exception of the exhibit of President Clinton whose impeccable suit always has its zipper down, compliments of overzealous fans. She would have been especially mortified of the seminude figure of Nicki Minaj on whose wax body men have simulated sex.

     The commonality between Marie Grosholz and her creations is they both achieved immortality; the difference is she was one never to melt under any flame. Madame Tussaud’s larger than life existence was, like the classic novel, a tale of two cities, and echoed its opening line, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”