Lady with a Past

The little-known tale of the Statue of Liberty and the egomaniacal French artist who stopped at nothing to turn her into our national icon.

  1. Chapter 1: The Eighth Wonder of the World Is Born

    [Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s] conceit was as colossal as his famous statue. Showing me once the small model of “Liberty,” he said quietly: “The Americans believe that it is Liberty that illumines the world, but, in reality, it is my genius.”

    —Marguerite Steinheil, My Memoirs, 1912

    ***

    October 28, 1886, New York City

    From the Statue of Liberty’s crown, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi could barely make out the ships crowding every wavelet in New York Harbor. The fog came with the rain that late-October day, dulling the view to a quarter-mile in the morning, then, by noon, to no more than four hundred feet. Out to the Narrows, vessels crowded hull to hull: man-o-wars, catboats, steamers, ferryboats, rowboats, tugs festooned with rainbow flags. But Bartholdi could know of the throngs only from the glimpses of riggings, steam stacks, and prows jamming the shore of Bedlow’s Island, and from the fog lifting for a moment to reveal a stupefying expanse of seacraft. He could only sense the excitement as boats randomly fired cannons while steamers let forth the shriek of their whistles. He stood in the highest perch one could dream, the highest point in all of New York, smelling the rain and watching it spackle his copper beauty.

    Beside him on the crown’s platform stood Richard Butler, the secretary of the American Committee, who had captained the raising of funds for the statue, and D.H. King, who had overseen its installation. Bartholdi held the cord to the statue’s veil, a massive Fre...

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