NY Times Review of 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 pages. $27.95 hardcover.
In 1940, when Hitler wanted to announce that his armies had crushed the French, his handlers posed him against the backdrop of the Eiffel Tower. The Nazis intuited that even in a nation crowded with landmarks, no other photo op would as effectively convey their duplicitous message. Yes, the Führer was now Europe’s unopposable conqueror, but he was also like everyone else, just another tourist enchanted by the sights of Paris.
Jill Jonnes’s popular history of this monument dwells on the hoopla surrounding its design and erection as centerpiece for the vast 1889 Exposition Universelle. During an era of imperial wealth and technological marvels, building an expensive four-legged iron sculpture on the banks of the Seine struck only a few as a waste. Grumbling from the spoilsports soon gave way to raptures about the “the visible logic” and the “abstract and algebraic beauty” of the useless structure. Well, not entirely useless. Images of the tower helped to sell souvenirs from handkerchiefs to snuff boxes to umbrellas to chocolate.
Ms. Jonnes does a fine job of walking us through the fair, where visitors were immersed in a typical late-19th-century stew of high-minded educational exhibits and cheap thrills. Arab orchestras and engine manufacturers vied for visitors’ attention with performances by singers and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, featuring Annie Oakley. You could tour the grounds by rickshaw or railroad.
Above it all, literally, was Gustave Eiffel, who entertained a cast of royals and business celebrities in his apartment at the top of the tower. One begrudging admirer was Thomas Edison, there to make sure his phonograph received constant notice.
The book tries to make the meeting of these personalities at the fair into a drama of “passions, ambitions, rivalries, gaiety and pleasures.” Even the van Gogh brothers are enlisted for this dubious purpose. Eiffel’s life was colorful enough — he was the greatest railroad bridge designer of the age and central to the botched French effort to build the Panama Canal — there seems little need to turn the events of 1889 into “Grand Hotel.”
The tallest artificial structure until it was dethroned about 40 years later by the Chrysler Building, Eiffel’s tower in retrospect appears to have been less a daring feat of structural engineering like the Brooklyn Bridge and more like a fabulously vulgar work of art. It is still one of a kind, aloof from surviving architecture of the time, which may be one reason it remains the defining symbol of Paris.