Eiffel's Tower by Jill Jonnes

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

Published by Viking

368 pages, 2009





The Point of Paris

Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce


One French architecture critic described it as “an inartistic ... scaffolding of crossbars and angled iron” with a “hideously unfinished” appearance. Others denounced it as an “odious column of bolted metal” and proclaimed it the “dishonor of Paris.” Hard as it may be to believe, the 1,000-foot Eiffel Tower -- built as the entrance to and the centerpiece of Paris’ 1889 Exposition Universelle -- was considerably less appreciated at the time of its raising than it is nowadays. In fact, Gustave Eiffel, the millionaire engineer and distinguished bridge builder whose proposed tapering erection won the city’s approval over such quirky competition as a monstrous guillotine (a reminder that the ’89 world’s fair was being held during the 100th anniversary of the public storming of Paris’ Bastille prison, a symbol of the French Revolution), raised his landmark fully expecting it to be demolished 20 years later. That the Eiffel Tower survived to see its 120th anniversary in May of this year is testament not only to evolving tastes, but to Monsieur Eiffel’s personal charisma as well as World War I, during which this graceful attraction became both lookout and communications post.

In her entertaining new history, Eiffel’s Tower: And the World’s Fair Where Buffalo Bill Beguiled Paris, the Artists Quarreled, and Thomas Edison Became a Count, Baltimore author Jill Jonnes (Conquering Gotham, Empires of Light) recounts the myriad indignities leveled against Eiffel and his Tour en Fer. That criticism obviously didn’t doom the engineer’s campaign to make a bold and, at the time, very modern statement on Paris’ skyline. However, it did create obstacles that delayed work and made it difficult to complete the project in time for the fair’s opening. While Parisians enjoyed watching the tower’s height climb step by step -- a faster process than they’d imagined -- Eiffel was practically tearing his hair out with worry about finishing all four stages of a complicated elevator system to the top of the structure before people started pouring through the fair gates. As it turned out, those lifts (one of them installed by America’s Otis Elevator Company) were three weeks late in being fully operational, forcing the tower’s adventuresome first guests to hike up hundreds of steel steps -- a hazard for long-skirted women of that era and a frustration for wealthy but out-of-shape gentlemen who wanted to scale what was then the tallest manmade creation in the world. (The Eiffel Tower would retain that honor until 1930, when New York’s Chrysler Building was completed.)

Eiffel’s Tower, though, isn’t just about an engineer and what many believed was his pipe (and rivet, and beam, and steel struts) dream. In the same way as the Exposition Universelle presented itself as a kinetic confection of art and artifice, earnest educational exhibits and carnivalesque lures (a contingent of female Javanese dancers was a particular hit), Jonnes’ book is a three-ring circus of eccentric characters, each one more curious than the last. Prominent among them is Buffalo Bill Cody, who brought his Wild West Show -- complete with stampeding Indians and sharpshooter Annie Oakley -- to the world’s fair at the start of what would be a highly profitable European tour. Also running (and occasionally ranting) through these pages is bad-boy newspaper publisher James Gordon Bennett Jr., notorious for once having taken an immodest leak into a roaring fireplace at a swank Manhattan party. From his home and headquarters in the French capital, Bennett lorded over what had been his father’s New York Herald, while also establishing a Paris edition of that broadsheet, which shamelessly promoted the 1889 exposition -- and eventually became one half of today’s respected International Herald Tribune. Further animating this volume’s narrative are artists (among them the tortured Vincent van Gogh and the mercurial James McNeill Whistler), and inventor extraordinaire Thomas Edison, who delighted Parisian dignitaries by capturing their voices on his new talking phonographs.

Beyond citing the antics of these historical figures, author Jonnes makes clear how important Paris’ 1889 world’s fair (that city’s fourth such extravaganza in 34 years) was to educating the French about their colonial empire’s extensive and exotic foreign acquisitions. Quoting from one newspaper account, she writes that

Fairgoers were lured by the “smell of Oriental spices and north African couscous, the sound of Senegalese tom-toms, Polynesian flutes and Annamite [Vietnamese] gongs, the sight of Moslem minarets and Cambodian temples. In the bazaars of the large Algerian and Tunisian pavilions craftsmen fashioned jewelry, finely tooled leather and brightly colored tapestries.”

I only wish more was made in Eiffel’s Tower about how the flamboyant design of that 1889 fair influenced both architecture in general and the look of expos to come. Jonnes does at least note how the success of Gustave Eiffel’s tower provoked developers of the succeeding world’s fair -- at Chicago in 1893 -- to come up with an awe-inspiring centerpiece of their own: George Washington Ferris’ first, 264-foot-tall Ferris wheel.

But as happened to Ferris, Eiffel’s creation eventually outshined its creator. “I ought to be jealous,” Jonnes quotes the French engineer as saying of his tower. “It is much more famous than I am. People seem to think it is my only work, whereas I have done other things after all.” Perhaps he protests too much.  | July 2009

J. Kingston Pierce is the senior editor/crime fiction editor of January Magazine and editor of the Anthony Award-nominated blog, The Rap Sheet. He’s the author of several books, including Eccentric Seattle (WSU Press) and two new pictorial histories: San Francisco: Yesterday & Today and Seattle: Yesterday & Today, both from West Side Publishing.