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Review: 'Liberty's Torch' shines light on an icon's creation

Every American schoolchild learns the story: In a grand gesture representing their shared reverence for freedom, France presented to a grateful United States the imposing 305-foot Statue of Liberty. Since the 1886 dedication, she has raised her torch above New York Harbor, symbol of a welcoming nation.

Except, like all history, the story is a little more complicated than that.

Elizabeth Mitchell takes us inside the statue's history in Liberty's Torch: The Great Adventure to Build the Statue of Liberty. Mitchell, a journalist who has written books about horse racing (Three Strides Before the Wire) and politics (W: Revenge of the Bush Dynasty), builds this book around the biography of the French sculptor who conceived and created the statue, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi.

Despite the statue's iconic status in American culture, Bartholdi's name probably does not spring into your mind as soon as you see its image. But Mitchell's book does a fine job of retrieving him from the mists of history — and of recounting how long and hard he labored, not just artistically but financially and politically, to make the statue a reality.

Bartholdi was born in 1834 in the town of Colmar, in Alsace, a French region along the German border. His father died when he was 2, and he and his brother, Charles, were raised by their ambitious and resourceful mother, Charlotte, to whom Bartholdi remained devoted throughout her very long life. She, in turn, believed from his boyhood that he was destined for greatness, and she moved her family to Paris when he was 9 to expand his opportunities. He grew up in a city that was remaking itself — the Arc de Triomphe and Gare Saint-Lazare had been built less than a decade before, and other landmarks such as the Tuileries and the Louvre were being renovated and improved. It was just one of his experiences as a youth that would spark his desire to create art that was monumental and historic.

Bartholdi studied with notable artists, including the celebrated architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, who oversaw the renovation of Notre Dame and would, decades later, be one of Bartholdi's collaborators on Liberty.

Viollet-le-Duc was just one of the famous figures Bartholdi encountered. At age 21, already gaining a name for his statues, Bartholdi embarked on a trip to Egypt to view its wonders. On board the Osiris, he met Ferdinand de Lesseps, on his way to oversee planning and construction of the Suez Canal. Years later, Bartholdi would propose to Ismail Pasha, viceroy of Egypt, a work that prefigured Liberty: a colossal statue at the mouth of the canal, a fellah (slave woman) raising a lantern, that would also serve as a lighthouse. Years after that, de Lesseps would speak in New York ceremonies at the inaugural of the Statue of Liberty.

The Suez lighthouse never came to be, but Bartholdi soon focused his hopes and plans on the United States. In 1870, Mitchell writes, "America blossomed with new construction." In New York City alone, Central Park, Prospect Park and the American Museum of Natural History were all under way. That bustle was what drew Bartholdi, who, Mitchell writes, "wanted to make the largest statue in the world more than he cared to espouse an ardent political view or lavish praise on America."

She details how Bartholdi worked for more than a decade, on both sides of the Atlantic, to persuade supporters to raise funds for the construction of his Liberty. His original estimate of $250,000 (about $4.8 million in current dollars) each from France and the United States would prove to be far too low.

Endorsements of the project were far easier to get than cold cash. Bartholdi won support from President Ulysses Grant and French author and national hero Victor Hugo, among many others. As work on the statue progressed and U.S. fundraising for its massive pedestal lagged, newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer made it one of his pet causes, haranguing Gilded Age robber barons for their stinginess. The World, his flagship paper, wrote, "The Statue of Liberty, gift of our sister republic, is ready for us. But the place to put it is lacking, owing to the poverty, to put it acidly, of the millionaires of the metropolis."

Mitchell also describes in detail the enormous amount of engineering and teamwork that went into Liberty's creation. In an atelier in the middle of Paris, more than 50 men worked for several years to build first scale models, then actual sections of the statue. "Each section would require three hundred primary measurement marks, as well as more than twelve hundred secondary marks. Each point marked on the model and its corresponding nail head in the structure had to be measured six times and verified as often. In total, some ninety thousand measurements were made over the carcass of the whole work."

Viollet-le-Duc was to engineer the iron structure that would support the statue's copper outer form, but he died suddenly in 1879. An engineer celebrated for his bridge designs stepped in: Gustave Eiffel, who would later create another world-famous landmark in Paris.

Mitchell also gathers fascinating facts about Bartholdi's design, which had to not only be beautiful but withstand extremes of temperature, gale-force winds and saltwater damage. Bartholdi may have sculpted Liberty's form from that of a model named Jeanne-Emilie de Puysieux, whom he married in 1876. Some news articles of the day said that Liberty's face was modeled on Charlotte Bartholdi's, but Mitchell writes that it more likely was that of his brother, Charles — who suffered from mental illness and spent most of his life in an asylum.

Some 15 years after Bartholdi began working on it, Liberty Enlightening the World was dedicated on Oct. 28, 1886. Mitchell recounts the enormous parade that marked the day despite a downpour, studded with political figures and celebrities and thronged with New York's rapidly changing populace: "By the end of the decade, 80 percent of the city's population would be either foreign-born or of foreign parentage."

The ceremonies reduced Bartholdi to tears of joy. But he would never again create so great or famed a work, although he continued to produce sculptures and paintings almost until his death from tuberculosis in 1904. His Liberty, however, lives, and this book gives us new understanding of how she came to be.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435.

Liberty's Torch: The Great Adventure to Build the Statue of Liberty

By Elizabeth Mitchell

Atlantic Monthly Press, 310 pages, $27

Review: 'Liberty's Torch' shines light on an icon's creation 06/25/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 8, 2014 2:35pm]
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