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“Eiffel’s Tower”

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Reviewed by Richard West

   

Many are the reasons to visit France: the way they butcher meat, the seriousness of the pharmacies, the world’s best foie gras, the fastest trains, children’s exemplary behavior in restaurants, the unexpected road signs warning you about beetroots (betteraves) in red triangles. For me, however, it is the assurance that I will once again see the most beautiful (and best known) city symbol on earth, the Eiffel Tower.
    In Jill Jonnes’ sprightly written and informative Eiffel’s Tower: And the World’s Fair Where Buffalo Bill Beguiled Paris, The Artists Quarreled, and Thomas Edison Became a Count, we learn Paris World Fair Commissioners could have rejected Gustav Eiffel’s elegant tower, and chosen from the 107 entrants a 900-foot sprinkler system, or, sacre bleu!, a towering guillotine, perhaps because the fair opened in 1889, centenary of the French Revolution.  A guillotine? The very idea makes one goggle in disbelief.

    Wisely they chose M. Eiffel’s gracile figure whose remote inspiration was the human figure, “the Tower imagined as a benevolent colossus, planted with spread legs in the middle of Paris,” wrote Robert Hughes in The Shock of the New, his brilliant study of modern art. Eiffel, who was 57 and at the peak of his career, was an engineer, not an architect, who had made his fortune building iron viaducts and railroad bridges, one in southern France near Garabit the world’s highest. 

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     As would be his tower: 1,000 feet high, almost doubling the existing champion, the Washington Monument at 555 feet that took 40 years to finish. His had to be complete in 22 months by the fair’s opening day: each of the 18,000 wrought-iron sections designed separately, joined by 2.5 million rivets; also four restaurants, a press office, two platforms, and near the top, four glassed-in rooms, one of which was Eiffel’s personal apartment. Total weight: 7,300 tons. Cost: 5 million francs, about one million dollars.
    Work began on 28 January, 1887, and indeed finished in time, the first formal ascent made on April 1, 1889 by fair officials and on May 15th, the first of an average of 12,000 daily visitors to the tower. By fair’s end on November 6th, more than two million had paid a franc to visit the first platform, another for the second, and another to ascend to the observation deck.
    The Paris World Fair itself, spread over 228 acres, like previous world expositions, was to celebrate machine capitalism, but more so, the march of science and technology. Consider the inventions of the immediate era: Thomas Edison’s phonograph (1877) and light bulb two years later; the Parsons steam turbine (1884); the Tesla electric motor, Kodak box camera, and Dunlop pneumatic tire (1888); cordite (1889), the Ford car (1893).
    Jonnes’ book brings the fair to life, especially the stars, Thomas Edison and Buffalo Bill Cody. Edison company’s one-acre exhibit was the largest space given to one interest, his talking phonograph (available to the public for the first time) the unquestioned hit of the fair. On his first trip to the continent, Edison was endlessly feted, honored, dined, certainly the most famous American visitor since Ben Franklin, and along the way discovered something he’d never encountered: shrimp.
    Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show opened to wildly enthusiastic crowds as 15,000 packed sold-out shows twice daily in the Parc Neuilly to see the star Annie Oakley shoot holes through French coins tossed in the air, whooping cowboys perform rope tricks, Mexican vaqueros (Paul Gauguin bought a sombrero) and cowgirls riding by, French-Canadian trappers, and 100 Plains Indians, war painted and feather bonneted ambush the Deadwood Stage. “Buffalo Beel” vividly brought to Europe a whiff of the American experience of the West, what Walt Whitman called the “vast something.” A version of his show survives today at EuroDisney.

Eiffel’s Tower: And the World’s Fair Where Buffalo Bill Beguiled Paris, The Artists Quarreled, and Thomas Edison Became a Count, by Jill Jonnes (Viking, 354 pgs., $27.95).


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