Taking Liberty The nation's most famous statue gets a new biography, and a St. Louis angle

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

Elizabeth Mitchell (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014) 384 pages with endnotes

“What have we done for liberty? Everything. We’ve given her a home…And now that we have poured out these Atlantics of benefits upon this aged outcast, lo! and behold you, we are asked to come forward and set up a monument to her!” With such words did the characteristically sardonic Mark Twain respond to the 1885 call for funding for Lady Liberty. In fact, he proved most generous; he sent several checks and proclaimed: “My heart is in this sublime work.” Mr. Clemens’ remarks are but one of a host of delightful discoveries provided by Elizabeth Mitchell in her detailed study of that majestic monument’s conception, funding, creation and, finally, erection. Mitchell’s saga about the statue and her creator well repay the visit.

That creator, young French lad Auguste Bartholdi, was lucky in the mother who bore him. Widowed young, she determined to move her two sons from their native Alsace to Paris, where she enrolled them in “the city’s most prestigious secondary school, the alma mater of such luminaries as Moliere, Voltaire and…Hugo.” Auguste thrived and, at age 19, received his first statuary commission—a war hero from his home town, Colmar.

Mitchell studs her narrative with a remarkable panoply of the man’s remarkable contemporaries in a remarkable era. One was Ferdinand de Lessops, engineer of the mammoth Suez Canal. Other major figures of the era, first encountered in Egypt and eventually part of his statuary team, included Viollet-Le-Duc, later commissioned to restore Notre Dame cathedral, and—his finest catch—Gustave Eiffel, the man of the Tower. That civil engineer’s revolutionary techniques of metal scaffolding would later bind Lady Liberty tightly enough that she could rise to her feet on the huge pedestal which Twain and the citizens of New York would provide.

It was at Suez that Bartholdi first conceived of a colossal statue. It was to be situated in the Egyptian Pasha’s newly-created city of Ismailia. The young statuaire proposed a massive stone image of a “fellah” (an Egyptian slave) as the Canal’s lighthouse. Though his proposal was rejected, the sketch clearly anticipates Lady Liberty if only as a gleam in his eye. It was a vision he put down in writing upon his return: “When I discover a subject grand enough, I will honor that subject by building the largest statue in the world.” Mitchell offers a further definition of Bartholdi’s lofty goals: “to revive a lost memory” and offer “a vision of how the world could be.”

Though we are half a continent away, the city of St. Louis had surprising roles to play in this wide-ranging drama, one direct, one incidental. The man who would ultimately prove Liberty’s most vital fund-raiser was Joseph Pulitzer, the Hungarian immigrant whose career began here. In 1878, he single-handedly transformed the sleepy German-language Westliche Post into a journalistic dynamo, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Its masthead still proclaims his activist philosophy—to “fight for progress and reform”—a mission that has been known to afflict the region’s comfortable from time to time. That Midwest success propelled him to New York, where he effected the same transformation with the World, whose journalistic and commercial initiative would prove indispensable in providing the Lady’s pedestal. (It was a display of her completed head at the 1878 Paris Exhibition that first ignited the honeymooning Pulitzer’s enthusiasm.)

St. Louis also received favorable mention from Bartholdi during a cross-country tour in 1872. What he admired in The Fourth City (as we were then) were signs of the nation’s emerging technology and in particular “the majesty of American bridges.” He may well have observed the birth-pangs of the structurally-astonishing Eads Bridge (completed in 1874). He also applauded, as a “great achievement,” “the attention given here to training and education.” It’s pleasant to think he was saluting our founder, Chancellor Eliot’s, first quarter-century. (As a French Catholic, of course, his praise might have been for the half-century-old St. Louis University.)

On his travels he added some impressive Americans to his list of the era’s major figures: President Grant (another St. Louisan), the devoted abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, the poet Longfellow, and the renowned architect Henry Richardson. Unfortunately, Bartholdi’s travels diminished his initial enthusiasm for the United States. In Washington, his diary expresses his dismay at the “stunted obelisk” of the half-built Washington Monument, and he complains of the “dust, many negroes (sic), bad pavements or none at all, plenty of sun and flies.”

Before Bartholdi could put his energies fully into his mammoth task, war intruded. As an Alsacian, he paid the price during the 1870 Franco-Prussian conflict. Assigned military duty guarding his home town, he ended up with a troop of Prussian soldiers garrisoned in his house. The French cause, however futile, drew another major historic figure of the era—Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Italian patriot, driven by the same republican fervor as Victor Hugo. That writer’s commitment to freedom was so fervent that he’d gone into a self-imposed 15-year exile when Louis Napoleon seized the French throne in 1851. Bartholdi considered him an inspiration. Garibaldi, alas, could do little more than witness the Prussian conquest. (Incidentally, a book this replete with historic names, events and dates deserves an index. It provides only chapter notes.)

That the statue in the end garnered enthusiastic support was due, appropriately enough, to the swarms of reporters (those ever-more-ubiquitous town-criers of that bustling age, as Pulitzer foresaw) whom Bartholdi had shrewdly invited to witness her formative stages in Paris. He created a diorama, adapting Louis Daguerre’s recently-invented technique of “manipulating colored lights on fastidiously rendered canvases.” One reporter, summoned to the sculptor’s vast shop, noted that “It bustled with … fifty workmen who pummeled, sanded and blow-torched the earthbound statue parts.” They were “hammering for their lives to complete her tresses.” When he “mounted the scaffold” and “stood in the awful level of her eye,” he was “ingulfed (sic) in her gaze.”

Within a decade of that seductive eye-to-eye, word spread, Pulitzer’s funding reached fever pitch, and the gigantic statue embarked, with all deliberate speed, across the Atlantic. In October 1886, Liberty took her stand above Bedloe’s Island, and soon American citizens were flocking thence to encounter and celebrate anew our historic French connection.