Popular historian Jonnes (Conquering Gotham: Building Penn Station and Its Tunnels, 2007, etc.) explores the 1889 Paris World’s Fair and its participants.
Her central focus is the remarkable story of the Eiffel Tower, designed by engineer Gustave Eiffel. Made of iron and looming nearly 1,000 feet above the Champ de Mars, the tower was the tallest man-made structure of its time. Eiffel faced many challenges during its construction, including harsh public criticism of the tower’s “soulless vulgarity,” a strike by embittered workers and intense disputes with the Otis Company over delays and cost overruns involving the American-made elevators. The author’s thorough yet pleasantly readable account contains a particularly thrilling description of one journalist’s exhilarating early ascent with the tower’s creator. Surrounding this story is a large cast of notable characters who were involved with the fair to varying degrees, including Buffalo Bill Cody, Paul Gauguin, William Bennett, Vincent Van Gogh, James Whistler, Annie Oakley and Thomas Edison. The interactions among them make for some of the most memorable passages, from Gauguin’s attendance at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West spectacle to the mutual admiration between Edison and Eiffel. The inclusions of Van Gogh and Whistler, while intriguing, are somewhat puzzling as their involvement in the fair was peripheral. Jonnes unearthed many firsthand accounts of these luminaries, and her portraits attach vivid human traits to figures often known mostly from textbooks. The author balances these interactions among individuals with consideration of the connections between the fair’s principal participants, France and the United States. The allied nations were embroiled in a tumultuous love affair, each enamored with the other’s culture but wishing to prove its dominance. The Americans, including Edison, boasted that they would build an even higher structure for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. It never happened, and the Eiffel Tower remained the world’s tallest edifice for the next 40 years.
Enjoyable history of one of the world’s greatest monuments and some significant surrounding figures.