The woman behind the legacy of a massive modern empire of wax museums is a character clouded in mysteriousness and intrigue. Not many people know the fortitude that surrounded the life and times of that Marie Grosholtz or Grosholz (we better known as Marie Tussaud). Born in Strasbourg, France in 1761, Marie was raised exposed into a unique life surrounded by great art and artisans. The daughter of housemaid Anne-Marie Walder, Marie never knew her father, Joseph Grosholz, he died in the Seven Years War.
Her mother would make the first step to exposing Marie to the life of waxwork when she took on the position of housemaid for Dr. Phillipe Curtius, a skilled and valued physician in Berne, France. What is known is that Curtius took Marie in much like a daughter and as an apprentice, showing her the workshop in which he moulded remarkable wax models of humans that were then used for anatomical advancement. He quickly recognized her eagerness and natural talent in the craft.
There was certainly a curiosity among the educated classes for further understanding the human body and its functions, while there still seemed to also be a heavy regulation of one’s actual body based on a strongly implemented caste system that divided people into different Estates of value. This would only crumble after the French Revolution that began with the storming of the Bastille in 1789. In fact this bloody moment in history would also seal a fate for the demand of Marie's talent under the watchful eye of the revolutionaries.
Curtius, in 1765 decided to move to Paris and begin work on his own wax exhibition. Paris was the city of all cities at this point in European history, the arts were booming as quickly as the pockets of the rich. Curtius' work had grown in popularity through a reputation that preceded him and managed to reach the courts of France's noble families and even the notice of King Louis XVI.
Curtius' work continued to grow in reputation and in 1767 Marie joined him in Paris with great astonishment to his wide success. In fact Curtius had recently commemorated Madame du Barry, the mistress of the King of France. Curtius transition of mass appeal would again lay path for young Marie's later success, for when he opened his exhibit in 1770, and later moved it to the hub for artists on the Palais Royale in 1776, he was so well received and respected by his local performers, the everyday working-class people of France, and the highest elite. This was indeed a very transgressive expressed attitude.
Curtuis continued to sweep the nation by waxwork and his success flourished among the pushers and shakers of the time. This in turn allowed Marie access to meet some of the finest and established thinkers leading up to the French Revolution and that were prominent in bringing about this social upheaval.
The result of Cutius’ continuous appeal was a second exhibition on Boluvard du Temple in 1782. Around this time was also when Marie produced her first work, the great French writer and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau who she personally befriended. Marie continued to dazzle her own reputation as a skilled craftswoman and also created wax figures of Voltaire and many other great figures of this time. She was even invited as an extended guest to Versailles in 1780, where for close to a decade she tutored Louis XVI’s sister, Madame Elizabeth. However, Marie’s involvement with the heightening political atmosphere was about to get complicated with the lurking overthrow of the French monarchy within vision.
In 1789 the climate was curious in France and Marie returned to Paris after a long stay at Versailles. Nobody was safe when the French Revolution erupted, Paris was flowing with blood and the guillotine was a regular monument to remind people of the consequences of going against the Revolution. The streets of Paris were filled with bodies and even Marie was to suffer an ill fate. In 1793 during The Reign of Terror Marie was without cause imprisoned alongside her mother in the notorious and rough Laforce Prison. Here she also encountered prisoner Joséphine de Beauharnais, who would become the first wife of Napoleon. A friendship and bond quickly grew among these women. Perhaps throwing Marie in prison was a strategic move on behalf of the budding powers that be, for upon her release Marie became the official death mask maker of those who were beheaded as nobles and former employees of the King and Queen – those who had once hosted her at Versailles. In effect, the idea that would become the Chamber of Horrors was born.
Marie was kept busy for the years of the French Revolution; she created death masks of some of the greatest figures of the time, including Robspierre, Marat, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. One can say she was captive to her talent and the circumstances that surrounded France. Finally in 1794 the French Revolution ended and Marie inherited Curtius’ entire wax exhibition. Curtius died most likely by poisoning during the year past, but it is not known for sure.
The following year Marie would marry Francois Tussaud, a non-ambitious middle-class man who somehow charmed Marie. He would cause her much agony in the years to come. Francois had little desire to make money on his own and support his family of two sons. This lead Marie to make an difficult decision, she left her youngest son behind and decided to travel with a show across the British Isles. At this point the collection had grown grand from Marie’s own hand. Marie was tireless and she traveled non-stop pushing her show around Europe to audiences of all corners. She was a sleek and intelligent business woman, she was involved in every step of her shows reveal.
Everyone of this time in England wanted to see the figures that had been part of this French Revolution that people could not stop speaking about, and Marie was much like a modern gossip reporter having been a firsthand witness and acquaintance of many of these figures. By this point Napoleon was all the buzz and Marie capitalized by creating a exhibit of him and his wife, Marie's former cellmate, Joséphine de Beauharnais. She even incorporated genuine relics that Napoleon had used into the exhibit. The public could not get enough and her show was a tremendous success.
It would be many years before Marie was re-united her with youngest son because of the circumstance that her husband rarely returned her letters, and she was not able to provide the young boy a stable home. He did however eventually join his mother and in 1835 when Madame Tussaud opened its first permanent showing on Baker St in London. Marie’s Chamber of Horrors was a continual favourite of locals and foreigners and those of all classes and pockets of society. Marie can be thought of being the proprietor of modern day popular culture in some sense-she brought everyone closer to the stars of her age.
In 1850 Madame Tussaud at the age of 88 died in London with her sons by her side. Today her exhibit is on Maryleborne Rd. but carries just the same intrigue as the woman who sculpted these masterpieces. Madame Tussaud has grown to be an international attraction and continues dazzle those who come into contact with these life-like figures of those who tell history’s tale.