Jill Jonnes, Eiffel's Tower (and the World's Fair Where Buffalo Bill Beguiled Paris, the Artists Quarreled, and Thomas Edison Became a Count). Viking, 354 p., $27.95
Late in the first act of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George,” about the painting of Georges Seurat’s masterpiece Sunday Afternoon the Island of La Grande Jatte, as they sit in the park on the eponymous island, Seurat’s mother says to her son: “What’s that? Off in the distance?” A tower, he tells her; they’re building it for the Exposition. It is the lead-in to a song. She sings, warily: “Changing/it keeps changing/I see towers/where there were trees…”
Going, all the stillness,
the solitude, Georgie!
Sundays disappearing, all the time . . .
When things were beautiful.
They are, of course, talking about the building of the Eiffel Tower. Never mind that Seurat’s painting had been finished by the time construction started on the tower in 1888; it is a soft moment at dusk between a mother and a son that shimmers with Sondheim’s watery half-step-whole-step motif, somewhat darkened by the minor key in which Seurat’s mother sings. The tower threatens, replacing the natural with the man-made, rendering the beautiful obsolete.
Jill Jonnes’s recently published history of the building of Eiffel’s Tower takes a different approach to the transformation of the Parisian skyline for the 1889 Exposition Universelle; it is the story of how Gustave Eiffel turned public favor from being dead-set against the building of the Tower to almost universally declaring it an enormous success. There are no minor notes here, only champagne and electric lights, not to mention Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley, as Jonnes widens her lens beyond the tower itself to write a mini-history of Americans at the fair.
“While the year marked the centennial of the fall of the Bastille, the government preferred to highlight more noble sentiments: ‘We will show our sons what their fathers have accomplished in the space of a century through progress in knowledge, love of work and respect for liberty,’ proclaimed Georges Berger, the fair’s general manager (…) Eiffel’s tower was to be the world’s tallest structure, the thrusting symbol of republican France, visible from every direction, the perfect monument to preside over the rococo World’s Fair rapidly rising around its four latticed legs.” Jonnes draws together some of the more notable attendees at the fair– including Paul Gauguin, who went bananas for the Javanese dancers, Thomas Edison, who was showing off his new phonograph invention, which fairgoers lined up in droves to listen to in three-minute increments, and Annie Oakley, who blew the socks off the French with her sharp-shooting– as well as the notable non-attendees; given that the fair commemorated the hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution, most of Europe’s monarchies chose to boycott the Exposition. (Indeed, during the competition to select a monument to build for the fair, one of the proposed designs that lost to Eiffel’s tower was an enormous guillotine.)
Jonnes lingers perhaps a bit too long on William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and his band of cowboys and Indians; one has the impression she’d have liked to write a whole book about them but conceded to include them in this one. And more could have been made of the contemporary threat posed by General Boulanger to the Third Republic; this would have allowed Jonnes to underline a bit more the nationalist, unifying role the Tower and the Exposition played for France, given that the Franco-Prussian War, the Siege of Paris, and the Commune of Paris were still fresh in recent memory.
Jonnes is at her best when she is acting as a sort of omniscient tour guide, taking us not only through the fairgrounds but behind the scenes (though her methodology remains unimpeachable; she does not surmise, nor does she invent, but stays close to the historical record). The most gripping part of the book, however, has to be the first half, which describes the coming into being of the tower, the idiosyncratic reasons invented by Parisians not to build it (as I quoted yesterday, one of the objections to the tower was that it would act like an enormous magnet, exerting its force to draw all the nails out of the neighboring Parisian buildings), the problems Eiffel ran into–for example, the trickiest part was not engineering the tower itself, but figuring out how to get elevators to run up and down that curvy iron body– and the Eiffel Tower-mania that took hold of le tout Paris once it was built. I for one was surprised to learn that all the Eiffel Tower kitsch being peddled to tourists in our era were all the rage with 1889's Parisians: “There were imaged executed in ‘pen, pencil, and brush, in photo and lithography… on handkerchiefs and caps; it was eaten in chocolate and marchpane; formed onto cigar cases and hand bells, inkstands, and candlesticks; it dangled from the gentleman’s watch chains and was fastened in the ladies ears.” Eiffel Tower earrings in the Belle Epoque? Nom de dieu!
Thoroughly researched (although the pop historian methodology of dropping in citations in quotation marks with only a shadow attribution in the form of a note in the appendix is occasionally disturbing), full of diverting anecdotes, and written in an accessible, appealing prose, Eiffel’s Tower is a highly readable story of a dazzling moment in French history. But that is not all it is; Jonnes also implicitly raises the question of the relationship between urban planning, the event, and national identity. It’s a particularly important question to consider, now, as the future of Paris hangs on whomever is chosen to design and execute Sarkozy’s dream of a “Grand Paris.” Those of us who love the city as is are of course resistant to anything that could transform our compact, low-buildinged Arcadia into something as monstrous and unmanageable as Tokyo (from where I write this review). But then, Seurat via Sondheim tells us not to be so afraid of change; he answers his mother:
All things are beautiful, Mother.
All trees, all towers, beautiful–
That tower beautiful, Mother.
See? A perfect tree.
Pretty isn't beautiful, Mother.
Pretty is what changes . . .
what the eye arranges
is what is beautiful!
Indeed, as Jonnes recounts, those who at first saw the tower as a monstrosity in time grudgingly conceded that it had its own very modern beauty. Jonnes quotes a contemporary eyewitness, the Vicomte de Vogüé:
There was in this iron mountain the elements of a new beauty, elements difficult to define, because no grammar of art had as yet supplied the formula, but evident to the most biased art critics. People admired its combination of lightness with power, the daring centering of the great arches, and the erect curves of the principal rafters, which…leap towards the clouds in a single bound. What [people] admired above all was the visible logic of this structure…logic translated into something visible…an abstract and algebraic beauty…LAstly, the spectators were won over by what inevitably conquers everyone a tenacious will, embodied in the success of a difficult undertaking.
Let’s hope we can say that much of whichever design for Le Grand Paris is chosen in November.