The Lady is a tramp

October 23rd, 2012

Reviewing Edward Berenson’s new book, The Statue of Liberty: A Transatlantic Story, in The Weekly Standard, Emily Schultheis of National Affairs points out that the Statue of Liberty was not a gift from the French government to the American government, but was, “in fact and in spirit, […] an offering from the French people to the American citizenry.” This history, Schultheis notes, is important to understanding the statue and what it means today. She explains:

The idea first emerged in 1865 at a gathering of French intellectuals mourning the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, whom they adored for his opposition to slavery. Napoleon III had aided the Confederacy during the war, however, and these Frenchmen wanted to give the reunited American states a symbolic gift to solidify their relationship and celebrate the common ground—a love of liberty—shared by the two countries.

They concluded that only a colossus would do to convey an idea as vast and important as liberty. To support the statue from the inside, they recruited Gustave Eiffel (later of Tower fame) to build a skeleton—a flexible, 132-ton tower on which Lady Liberty’s wafer-thin exterior hangs. The exterior itself, though only 3/32 of an inch thick, weighs 88 tons.

[… F]unds for the statue and her base were raised almost entirely from private individuals on both sides of the Atlantic. ndeed, to raise funds, [Frederic Auguste] Bartholdi[, the statue’s architect,] had to be creative, and Berenson found that souvenirs of the Statue of Liberty—so ubiquitous in tourist shops around New York today—actually date from well before the statue was completed. Postcards, lithographs, and miniature figures of all sizes were sold to raise money to finish the project. […]

For their part, the American recipients took on the job of raising funds for the statue, as well as designing and building the base—a massive undertaking in itself, given the magnitude of Lady Liberty. Though repeatedly petitioned for funds, the robber barons and great families of New York City were not eager to contribute. However, Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World was a champion of the project and organized a brilliant campaign to raise funds through small donations from readers: Dimes, quarters, and dollars poured in from ordinary Americans, giving them all a stake in the statue. Ultimately, more than 121,000 people donated $102,000—one-third of the amount needed for the pedestal.

The Statue of Liberty, then, was a multi-national project to celebrate liberty and democracy, and because support for the project came from so many different corners, it is no wonder that interpretations of what the statue means have varied so widely. Lady Liberty’s “symbolic malleability,” as Berenson puts it, is in some ways part of the statue’s appeal: the statue can mean many different things to many different people. Schultheis recounts:

Berenson includes an entertaining chapter on the ways in which the Statue of Liberty has been used in advertisements, film, television, and popular culture. Her likeness has been used to sell everything from cigarettes to World War I Liberty Loans, the latter asking contributors to “Remember Your First Thrill of American Liberty.” Her versatility stems not only from her universal popularity, writes Berenson, but also her “status as a ‘hollow icon,’ open to almost any meaning, [allowing] her to stand just as easily for peace as for war.” She has been a popular cultural symbol for the better part of a century: Irving Berlin wrote an entire Broadway musical about her in 1949, and she has made appearances in a wide variety of Hollywood films, even coming alive to save New York in Ghostbusters II.

But whatever the statue may mean to individuals, Americans and the immigrants who have arrived at her feet are sure that she means something, as Schulteis concludes:

Berenson details the complicated 1986 restoration (including new rivets precovered with Liberty’s signature green patina to avoid a polka-dot look), completed in time for her centennial, for which New York hosted a four-day party. On the occasion, Paul Goldberger described her in the New York Timesas a “gesture of welcoming. .  .  . This great figure standing at the edge pulls New York together [and gives] the city an anchor. .  .  . The city that is too large and too busy to stop for anyone seems, through this statue, to stop for everyone.”

Related: Edward Kosner reviews The Statue of Liberty: A Transatlantic Story in the Wall Street Journal.

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