Jill Jonnes

Mocked at its birth the Eiffel Tower has been the landmark most symbolic of France throughout the world for over 127 years.



Mocked at its birth the Eiffel Tower has been the landmark most symbolic of France throughout the world for            over 127 years.

It has provided a romantic setting in numerous Hollywood films including Lubitsch’s sparkling NINOTCHKA with Melvyn Douglas and Greta Garbo as two lovers who “meet cute” and race to the top where love awaits; in thrillers like Charles Laughton and Franchot Tone in the Simenon story THE MAN ON THE EIFFEL TOWER and hysterically as gold melted down and recast as miniature towers that Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway smuggle into France THE LAVENDER HILL MOB.

hIn the tradition of David McCullough historian Jill Jonnes, Eiffel’s Tower captures Eiffel’s engineering genius that made the tower possible while surrounding him with a cast of characters that includes Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley and Thomas Alva Edison.

TG: The Eiffel Tower became the centerpiece of the 1889 Exposition Universelle commemorating the 100th anniversary of the French revolution–100 years of liberty. Describe the political and social climate of the time.

JJ: The Third Republic was quite wobbly. General George Boulanger, the charismatic hero of the Tunisian campaign, was a real threat, with many backers urging him to stage a coup. The Panama Canal project had just collapsed, leaving millions of ordinary French families financially beset. France was rapidly industrializing and had just started building its colonial empire, bringing both great wealth and tumult. All this change was exhilarating but unsettling. An artist like Gauguin, struggling to make a mark, was a perfect example of the new modern citizen trying to figure all this out. The government of President Sadi Carnot badly needed a huge and diverting triumph, and the role of 1889 Exposition Universelle was to show the world that the French Republic, despite its woes, was a great modern power.

TG: What were some of the greatest scientific and political issues that Eiffel faced?

JJ: Eiffel was France’s greatest railway bridge builder and so he possessed all the technical expertise he needed to build his 1000-foot wrought-iron tower, which would dwarf what was then the world’s tallest building–the 555-foot Washington Monument. His greatest challenge in erecting the tower was ensuring that the first platform was absolutely level. The adjustable jacks in each foot of each of the four gargantuan legs gave him the ability to make those critical calibrations.

However, before Eiffel could even begin building, he had to actually obtain the written contract from the government, no small matter when many influential intellectuals hated his tower. Then he had to raise 3.5 million of the 5 million francs. And when the neighbors near the Champs de Mars filed lawsuits, he had to accept all the legal risks.

TG: Did the French know much about the American West before the arrival of William F. Cody?

JJ: Truth be told, most French in the late 19th century knew almost nothing about the U.S.–much to the chagrin of such ex-pats as Henry James. Some had read certain novels like Last of the Mohicans, but to the extent that they gave the U.S. any thought, they generally regarded Americans as uncivilized savages. When Eiffel’s critics lambasted the tower, they always drove home their point by saying “even commercial America would not have it.” I loved that!



So when Buffalo Bill Cody showed up in Paris with his Wild West show, with its 100 cowboys, 100 Sioux Indians (many straight off the reservation), and sharpshooter Annie Oakley, the French were enthralled by this sanitized version of the Taming of the American Frontier. In an era when horses were transport and many people hunted, the equestrian and sharp-shooting abilities of the cowboys and Indians were absolutely astounding to the French. President Sadi Carnot said to Annie Oakley, “When you fell like changing nationalities and professions, there is a commission awaiting you in the French Army.”

TG: Another American, the publisher of the Paris Herald, James Gordon Bennett had a significant impact on the social and cultural life of both American expats and the French bourgeois class. Talk about him and his success in delivering English-language news.

JJ: JGB Jr. was the very rich and very powerful publisher of The New York Herald, which he ran from Paris via cable. In 1887, he started a European edition, in anticipation of the 1889 World’s Fair.  Bennett’s paper was a wonderful combination of serious foreign reporting, lurid crime and political scandal, and light features. Through the Paris Herald, the European elite came to better understand the U.S., while its many ex-pat American readers in turn were given an education in local affairs. European and British newspapers were all influenced by the reporting style, as well as the look of Bennett’s paper. Bennett was one of the great bon vivants and eccentrics, careening down the Champs in his horse and carriage, while very drunk and buck-naked. He also had an obsession with owls as good luck symbols and all his mansions, offices, his yacht, were filled with owls (not live) in every size and material. As a boss, he was a terror.

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