Wednesday, 12 September 2012

A Nous la Liberte: A Lady’s Past

All the teasers about David Wolper’s Fourth of July hoopla over the Statue of Liberty Centennial whetted my appetite. Usually, big monuments like that don’t get done without heartbreak and hassle. So I started poking around in the library stacks to see how grief-free it had or hadn’t been.

It hadn’t. Perhaps the most astonishing detail I came up with was that sculptor Bartholdi conceived the statue first to garnish the latest French engineering feat—the Suez Canal. It was originally designed as a colossal lighthouse, to rival the ancient Colossus at Rhodes, one of the seven wonders of the antique world.

Twice—in 1867 and 1869—the thirtyish sculptor plied the ruler of Egypt, Ismail Pasha, with drawings. No sale. Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi, however, never wasted a good idea.

When our Civil War ended in 1865, the French liberals of republican bent groaned under the imperial rule of Napoleon III’s Second Empire. The most vocal critics of the emperor recovered the American model of government, and their leader, one Edouard Rene Lefebvre de Laboulaye, broached the subject of strengthening the old Marquis de Lafayette connection at a dinner party. He argued that there ought to be a monument built in America to symbolize Franco-American commitment to the ideals of independence. He further argued that they ought to build it together.

Because the U.S. had given tacit support to the Prussians and Napoleon had angered the Lincoln administration by supporting the Confederacy, the time was ripe for a monument to heal the split between America and France—after Napoleon III was pushed out of power by the Commune. Leboulaye advised Bartholdi in the spring of 1871: “Go to see that country. You will study it, you will bring back to us your impressions. Propose to our friends over there to make with us a monument.

Bartholdi spent three and a half months criss-crossing the country in search of his dream. He was astonished at Bigness everywhere. Hotels were “immense bazaars” where “even the petits pois” were humungous. He cast a covetous eye on Bedloe’s Island in New York Harbor, the site of Fort Wood, as an ideal site for the monument of his dreams. Unfortunately, he was finding it hard to come up with a few people “who have a little enthusiasm for something other than themselves and the Almighty Dollar.”

When he got back to France, his enthusiasm was soon smothered by Laboulaye’s desperate efforts to get democratic governance in France back on track. He dealt with his frustration by devising monuments to French heroism in the recently concluded war and searching for emblems to embody the old Franco-American liberal connection. One such was his bronze “Lafayette Arriving in America” for Union Square, New York City, a French gift to the city.

In 1875, the French-American Union unleashed a nationwide newspaper appeal with the theme, “Let us each bring his mite,” with the descendants of Lafayette, Rochambeau and Tocqueville adding the clout of their celebrity to the appeal. The scheme was to give the statue in honor of the American Centennial the next year, with the American public coughing up the pedestal money.

Paris social life glittered with “Liberty” events. There was a 14-course meal for 200 guests at the fancy Hotel de Louvre, with goodies such as filet de boeuf Lafayette and croustades a la Washington. Money started to roll in, from all classes and all areas of the country. The momentum was such that the American press began to take notice, but American donations lagged.

Bartholdi was not a man to give in easily. He decided to bring Miss Liberty’s arm and torch to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The New York Times, then in its pre-gray lady, newspaper-of-record phase, made a risqué mock: Why start with the arm? Rather one should begin “at its foundation, modeling first the boot, then the stocking, then the full leg in the stocking.”

It wasn’t until early in 1877 that an American committee on the Statue of Liberty was formed in New York. But it was to be “a” Hungarian immigrant, Civil War vet and innovative newspaper publisher—Joseph Pulitzer of prize fame—who got the American public involved in raising money for the pedestal.

He challenged his readers to put up the money the wealthy had denied the project. He vowed to accept any amount toward the final $100,000 and to print the name of each and every donor “no matter how small the sum given.”

It was inspired populist rhetoric—and not incidentally damned good publicity for his newly acquired paper. The New York World. He pulled out all the stops of bathos: “I am a little girl,” one donor wrote, “only six years old and have 25 cents in my savings bank, which I send to help build the Pedestal.”

The last block in the pedestal was set in place on April 22, 1886, by the chief engineer of the project, Charles P. Stone. His workmen mixed coins in the last mortar to symbolize the more than 120,000 donations, most under a dollar, that gave the most important symbol in American history the broadest democratic foundation. Pulitzer had appealed successfully to his working class readers to do for the base what ordinary French citizens had done for the statue itself. This was to be a gift from the plain Jeannes and Jacques of one country to the Joes and Jills of another.

Alas, Liberty was not built in a day. A boatload of suffragettes added to the jam around Bedloe’s Island, but no women, not even Emma Lazarus, were allowed to attend the ceremony! Member of a prominent Jewish family in New York, she had written “The New Colossus” in 1883 for a pedestal fundraiser. She had been motivated both by anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia and by the spectacle of people of promise reduced to Lower East Side lives of “menial drudgery.”

Already, the statue was gaining a resonance that transcends the Franco-American liberal connection. Her Miss Liberty was the “Mother of Exiles.” But it wasn’t until 1903 that an admiring philanthropist got her poem inscribed in a plaque on a wall inside the pedestal.

Eternal improvement is the subscription price of Liberty. That should not be lost track of during this July 4th’s superhoopla and hype. The torch is only as meaningful as our own extended arms.

From Welcomat: After Dark, June 1986

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