The Statue of Liberty is arguably the most famous sculpture in the world—the definitive symbol of freedom and the American Dream. Yet despite being instantly-recognizable the world over—and a “must-see” New York City tourist attraction—few people can recall the backstory of the 151-foot-tall colossus, which stands on Liberty Island in the middle of New York Harbor. Even native New Yorkers are hard-pressed to name the sculptor who created Lady Liberty, or know where he got the inspiration, or have any inkling that Liberty might have been installed elsewhere in New York—or even in another American city. In fact, the one thing that most Americans do claim to know about the creation of Lady Liberty is a very persistent myth.
1. Lady Liberty, a gift from the French?
The second sentence of the Statue of Liberty’s Wikipedia page states that “The statue … was a gift to the United States from the people of France.” That’s what Lady Liberty’s creator wanted people to believe, despite knowing full-well that the lion’s share of the funds would need to come from America for there to be any hope of the project coming to fruition. In Statue of Liberty: The Untold Story, Elizabeth Mitchell, author of “Liberty’s Torch: The Great Adventure to Build the Statue of Liberty” (Atlantic Monthly Press), notes that the ‘gift-from-France myth’ “has become a convenient shorthand because the true story is so much more complex, and it doesn’t sound quite so patriotic to say that a lone artist from France came and pitched this warmed-over idea to us and got it made.”
2. The sculptor who created the Statue of Liberty, can you name him?
Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi (1834-1904) would no doubt be surprised and disappointed to learn that his name is no longer closely associated with the Statue of Liberty, especially since, “No one was calling it the Statue of Liberty early on…. When it was being pitched and when it was under construction it was referred to as the Bartholdi statue,” says Mitchell. Naturally, his other major works—including the Marquis de Lafayette Statue in Manhattan’s Union Square and the Bartholdi Fountain in Washington D.C.—are nowhere near as well-known.
3. The Statue of Liberty was inspired by the monuments of Ancient Egypt.
During a trip to Egypt the enduring nature of the pyramids and the Great Sphinx made a strong impression on Bartholdi, who dreamed of building a lighthouse at the mouth of the Suez Canal. He envisioned creating the tallest sculpture in the world—a woman wearing the loose fitting dress of a slave (fellah), and holding up a torch in her right hand. But when he pitched the idea to the khedive (viceroy of Egypt), the khedive’s response was—to use a twenty-first century term—meh. It was only after this initial rejection that Bartholdi decided to pitch his colossus to the United States, a country he had never visited.
4. Americans didn’t respond to the idea of a Liberty statue … until they did, thanks in part to the mostly self-serving efforts of Joseph Pulitzer.
Bartholdi came to America for the first time in June 1871, armed with letters of introduction from prominent intellectuals back in France. Even so, his proposal to build a statue commemorating liberty fell on deaf ears. Ultimately, much of the funding to create the statue came from schemes devised by Bartholdi. For instance, after workers erected the statute in Paris to test the design, he sold tickets for people to go up into the head. “Then in America, Bartholdi tried a similar thing when he had the hand and the torch in Philadelphia at the world exposition in 1876. He charged people to go up and look out over Fairmount Park,” notes Mitchell.
But much of the fundraising came via the support of newspaper owner Joseph Pulitzer, who had purchased the World, which he positioned as the little man versus the wealthy of New York. As the voice of the little man [the paper said], “We must raise the money! The World is the people’s paper…. Let us not wait for the millionaires to give this money.” Pulitzer enticed individuals to donate a penny by offering to print their name in the World, an offer that not only worked wonders for the fund-raising effort but built circulation.
5. The Statue of Liberty might have ended up in Central Park … or Boston or Philadelphia.
Just days after Bartholdi first arrived in New York he paid a visit to newly-developed Central Park, and also called upon its designers, landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who fretted about Bartholdi’s intentions. No surprise there. “If Bartholdi’s Liberty had been erected in Central Park, the effect would have been surreal,” explains Mitchell. “Liberty, on her pedestal, would have cast long shadows over the esplanades. The soon-to-be-built Dakota, which was to be the highest apartment building in the city, would not even reach her big toe.”
And though Bartholdi wanted Lady Liberty in New York, he didn’t hesitate to try to drum up support for the statue in both Boston and Philadelphia, expecting that New Yorkers would clamor for the statue if they believed a rival city wanted it too. The gambit worked. In 1882 the New York Times published an editorial that stated: “[Boston] proposes to take our neglected statue of Liberty and warm it over for her own use and glory. Boston has probably again overestimated her powers. This statue is dear to us, though we have never looked upon it, and no third rate town is going to step in and take it from us. Philadelphia tried to do that in 1876, and failed. Let Boston be warned … that she can’t have our Liberty….”
6. Bartholdi wasn’t overly impressed with America—or the American people.
Not long after landing in New York in June 1871, Bartholdi embarked on a cross-country trip that took him to Boston, Washington D.C., Chicago, Salt Lake City, Sacramento, Oakland, Los Angeles, Denver, St. Louis, and many points in between. “In his diary and letters, he [reveals] himself to be more an artist scouring the challenges and tastes of a potential client than a man enchanted by the nation and anxious to honor it,” writes Mitchell in “Liberty’s Torch.” For instance, he regarded the public statues he saw in D.C. as “pretty bad, generally,” and after meeting President Ulysses S. Grant, wrote that, “He is a cold man, like most Americans.” And though Bartholdi expressed a certain fondness for select people and places—Senator Charles Sumner (best-known for being caned by Preston Brooks with a gutta-percha walking stick) and Mount Vernon, New York, to name but one example of each—the sculptor’s feelings are perhaps best summed up by one of his own statements: “America is an adorable woman chewing tobacco.”
7. Gustave Eiffel, designer of the Eiffel Tower, created the support structure for Lady Liberty.
In order for the Statue of Liberty—isolated on a small island and unprotected by other structures—to survive extreme temperature changes, salty sea air, and frequently windy conditions, Bartholdi called on civil engineer and architect Gustave Eiffel to provide the expertise necessary to develop an adequate design. Eiffel’s iron and steel support structure proved (relatively) enduring. But “Eiffel’s design was risky because the two metals couldn’t actually touch each other,” notes Jonathan Waldman in “Rust: The Longest War” (Simon & Schuster). “Dissimilar metals, in contact, corrode,” he writes, referring to the process of galvanic corrosion. “Electrons travel from the weaker, more electronegative, metal, to the stronger one—and in the process the weaker one is destroyed, which is why batteries don’t last forever,” explains the author.
Eiffel hoped to mitigate the problem by keeping the iron and copper apart using shellac-impregnated asbestos. As it turns out, the asbestos insulator eventually disintegrated, and because the asbestos wicked water, it actually contributed to the corrosion of the statue. “Water between the copper and iron was as bad as having the two metals in contact with each other,” concludes Waldman. In effect, “the statue had become an enormous battery.”
8. In May 1980, protestors unwittingly called attention to the fact that Lady Liberty was rusting away.
On May 10, 1980, a pair of thirty-something protestors from San Francisco, Ed Drummond and Stephen Rutherford, climbed up onto Lady Liberty and unfurled a red-and-white banner that read: “Liberty Was Framed—Free Geronimo Pratt,” referring to a Black Panther who had been convicted of murdering a teacher, a crime for which he had been imprisoned.
Drummond had planned to venture all the way up onto Lady Liberty’s head with the aid of a pair of eight-inch suction cups, but found the climbing unexpectedly difficult, thanks to the corrosion of the statue. He noticed countless little holes (where rivets holding the copper skin to her iron frame had popped out) and found small gaps between the plates of copper. More troublesome still, the surface of Liberty’s skin was covered in millions of little bumps, “like acne,” elaborates Waldman in “Rust,” which rendered the suction cups nearly useless. As a result, Drummond came up far short of his goal and the duo surrendered to police after just 24 hours.
But the pair’s escapade ultimately inspired a close investigation of the condition of the statue, which revealed an alarming level of deterioration—inside and out. The exterior tears, scabs, stains, cracks and “rust boogers” (Waldman’s words) were the least of the problem. Inside, workers had to remove a layer of black coal tar (applied in 1911), a layer of aluminum paint (1932), and a layer of enamel paint (1947), as well as disintegrated asbestos and other paints, before setting to work on the iron and copper. A massive fund-raising campaign overseen by Lee Iacocca generated $277 million, which paid for a full-scale restoration project, completed in time for the centennial celebration on July 4, 1986.
9. Suffragettes protested the unveiling of Lady Liberty in 1886.
Countless women, including Nancy Reagan, attended the Statue of Liberty’s centennial celebration in July 1986. But when the statue was unveiled on October 28, 1886, only two women were on hand for the ceremony on what is now known as Liberty Island: Bartholdi’s wife and the daughter of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French engineer who developed the Suez Canal. “When the New York Women’s Suffrage Association protested the bitter irony of celebrating the idol of a female Liberty while women enjoyed no voting rights, they [were] disparaged,” notes Mitchell. “They chartered their own boat to get as close to the proceedings as possible.”
10. Bartholdi had little luck profiting from his creation.
Bartholdi fully expected to make a tidy profit from Lady Liberty. On January 2, 1879, he applied to the United States patent office to secure Liberty’s image. “The patent, which was granted at the outset for fourteen years, would allow him to receive monies for any use of his Liberty image, including photographs, as long as he was willing to pursue the collection of those payments,” explains Mitchell. “If an American or French company wished to use Liberty in an advertisement, it would have to pay Bartholdi.” As it turned out, people infringed on Bartholdi’s rights so frequently and for such a wide range of purposes that enforcing his rights proved impossible. Bartholdi passed away on October 4, 1904, after a battle with tuberculosis.
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