Chapter One: Showdown in Paris
On a January afternoon in 1888, Annie Oakley was toasting muffins and making tea in her apartment in New York City when a reporter visited. He found the place littered with guns and trophies. The famous female sharpshooter had just returned from overseas loaded with prizes, as well as valuable gifts from the continent’s rich and noble folk. “I suppose a crack shot in petticoats was a novelty and curiosity to them,” she told the reporter between sips of tea.
As a child in Ohio, Annie Oakley had learned to shoot by hunting game to help feed her family. Now, at the age of twenty-seven, she was famous for her performances as a star act in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, a frontier-themed open-air show. While performing in England with the show, she had received not just presents such as antique sugar bowls and solid-silver teapots but also, as the newspaper reported, “four offers of marriage, one from a French count.” One hopeful suitor had sent her his photo along with his proposal. Oakley, who was happily married, said, “I shot a bullet through the head of the photograph, and mailed it back with ‘respectfully declined’ on it.”
The reporter asked Oakley about her plans for the future. She said, “I will practice horseback shooting.” She also hinted that she might visit Europe again, in 1889.
And she would. Soon Annie Oakley would be part of a lively crowd of French and American go-getters, artists, thinkers, politicians, and rogues drawn to the glittering European city of Paris. There the government of France was organizing the most ambitious world’s fair yet. It would be called the Universal Exposition, and it would take place in 1889, one hundred years after the people of Paris launched the French Revolution by storming the prison known as the Bastille. “We will show our sons what their fathers have accomplished in the space of a century,” the fair’s general manager, Georges Berger, declared.
The French had held international fairs in Paris every eleven years or so since 1855. The Universal Exposition of 1889 would be more gigantic and wondrous than any before it. It was also meant to be an advertisement for the French Republic. Already the French and the Americans, citizens of two republics that were allies but also rivals, were looking to make their mark at this world’s fair. Each nation was determined to uphold its honor.Meanwhile, in France
While Annie Oakley was sipping tea and answering a reporter’s questions, the people of Paris were watching the skyline of their city change. Between the familiar domes and towers, a new structure had poked up: a tower made of metal, still under construction. Its creator, a French engineer named Gustave Eiffel, was relentlessly pushing to finish the tower by May 1889 so that it would be a suitable centerpiece for the world’s fair.
The remarkable structure had become a symbol of industry and modernity. It was also controversial. Some people mocked the tower, some hated it, and some admired it.
Eiffel’s tower was to be the tallest structure in the world, a symbol of republican France that would be visible from all directions. It would also be a blow to American pride. Just four years earlier, the Americans had finally completed their fifty-year effort to build the Washington Monument, a 555-foot (169-meter) stone pillar in the nation’s capital. That pillar was the world’s tallest human-made structure—but Eiffel’s tower was going to be nearly twice as tall when it was completed.
Gustave Eiffel, at fifty-five, was one of France’s richest self-made men. He was a successful builder of railroads and bridges. Among other engineering victories, he had solved the problem of how to design the “skeleton” inside the Statue of Liberty, and then he had built it. His company had offices in far-flung locations such as Peru, China, and Vietnam.
In the spring of 1888, Eiffel could be found on most days—sun, snow, rain, or sleet—at the Champ de Mars, a large park in Paris where the world’s fairs of 1867 and 1878 had been held. Dapper in a high white collar and a top hat, he perched on a construction platform, directing his men as they put together the pieces of his colossal wrought-iron tower. His sharp blue eyes, above a dark pointed beard, missed nothing.
For nine months, Parisians had watched in fascination as the slanting legs of the structure rose. Those who hated even the idea of Eiffel’s tower felt that they had been right all along. The half-built tower looked like an ugly, hulking creature.
The idea for the tower was born in 1884, when the government of France announced a contest to design and build a spectacular centerpiece for the 1889 world’s fair. It was only natural that Eiffel’s company would enter. Two of his young engineers and his architect created a design for a 1,000-foot (304-meter) iron tower. The idea pleased Eiffel, who made improvements to it and began promoting it as the perfect monument for the fair.
Many French were swelling with pride at the mere idea of dwarfing the gigantic American monument. An engineer friend of Eiffel’s wrote in a French journal, “For a long time it seemed as if the Americans were to remain the leaders in these daring experiments that characterize the investigations of a special type of genius that enjoys pushing . . . the strength of materials to their extreme limits.” But now, he proclaimed, France could claim the boldest engineers: Eiffel and his firm.
But although the public did not know it, Eiffel’s moment of engineering truth was drawing near. Soon he would learn if he could properly line up the four huge legs that would support the first-floor platform of his tower. Only a precisely aligned platform, perfectly flat, could safely support the rest of the immense structure.The Wild Americans
During the summer of 1888, William F. Cody (better known as Buffalo Bill) ran his Wild West spectacle Taming the West twice a day on Staten Island, in New York City. The show had been a triumph across the Atlantic. In England, Queen Victoria had ordered a special command performance. Now, back on American soil, the show continued to astonish crowds with cowboys and Indians, buffalo stampedes, bronco busting, and Western whoop-’em-up. It also featured sharpshooting, but it no longer featured Annie Oakley. She was touring with a rival outfit called Pawnee Bill’s Wild West.
At forty-two, Buffalo Bill Cody was famous, but as always he was also on the verge of being broke. In a letter to his sister Julia, he said, “I am tired out.” But after an October rest with his family in Nebraska, he wrote to her, “Oh I am a pretty lively dead man yet—and I ain’t downed by a good deal—Keep your eye on Your Big Brother.” Cody was planning a new show, one that would be too fabulous for his rivals to copy. It would be an extravaganza worthy of the Paris world’s fair.
Another ambitious American was already living in Paris. He was James Gordon Bennett Jr., the well-known forty-seven-year-old publisher of an immensely powerful newspaper called the New York Herald. It had been Bennett’s idea to send the fearless Welsh journalist Henry Morton Stanley into what is now the African country of Tanzania in 1871 to search for the missionary explorer Dr. David Livingstone. Stanley found Livingstone and became the most famous journalist of his day. Bennett also introduced the idea of an interview as a news story, and early in his career he had hired talented young writers such as Mark Twain for regular columns.
Success did not protect Bennett from scandal. He had fled New York after a shocking event on New Year’s Day 1877, when he drunkenly urinated into a fireplace at a party in his fiancée’s home. Shunned by New York society, Bennett moved to Paris, where he lived in high style, running his newspaper by telegraph. He could have returned to New York a few years after the scandal, but he preferred to stay in Paris, where several thousand Americans were living.
Bennett had startled the French (and strengthened their view of Americans as uncouth savages) by sometimes striding into his favorite restaurants drunk and pulling tablecloths, china plates, crystal glasses, and silverware off the tables as he passed. Naked rides down one of Paris’s biggest boulevards in his splendid horse-drawn coach also contributed to his reputation as a barbarian—but a wealthy one, who was welcomed by many restaurant owners for his free-spending ways.
By the summer of 1887, just as the Eiffel Tower began to take shape, Bennett had begun thinking about opening a newspaper in Paris. Late at night on the balcony of his apartment, he was mulling over the matter when he heard an owl hoot. Because he was utterly devoted to owls, Bennett took the hoot as a signal that he should go ahead with the idea. Bennett viewed owls as symbols of luck. All his estates, offices, and yachts had collections of owls made of various materials. The birds also appeared on his writing paper, coaches, and newspapers.
Within weeks of the persuasive hoot, Bennett had bought a small English-language paper that operated in Paris. He turned it into a European edition of the Herald and brought an experienced newspaperman named Samuel Chamberlain from New York to edit it. Bennett and Chamberlain launched themselves full force into organizing the new European Herald.
The timing was no accident. Bennett expected waves of Americans to descend upon Paris for the world’s fair. This would guarantee the paper’s success. The European Herald would do two things. First, it would meet the needs of Americans in Paris. Second, it would make its publisher a man of importance on two continents. Like the original New York Herald, the new Paris Herald combined high-minded political reporting with attention-getting stories about crime and high society. It also featured oddities, such as a piece about a Russian ball at which a woman died, killed by her too-tight corset.
Copyright © 2019 by Jill Jonnes. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.