A scholarly debut biography that looks at the French Revolution through the eyes of the queen’s hairdresser and confidant.
When Léonard Autié first arrived as a young man in Paris in 1769, he was so short on money that he walked the last 120 miles on foot. His possessions consisted of little more than a few coins, a tortoiseshell comb and “an ample supply of confidence.” Ten years later, after he created the famous “pouf” hairstyle, he was the hairdresser to the queen of France. A decade after that, during the revolution, Autié “took on the dangerous role of messenger and secret liaison between the royal family and their supporters.” Later, forced into exile and financially ruined, he spent a lengthy sojourn in Russia, where he worked as hairdresser to the nobility (and even arranged the hair of Czar Paul I’s corpse). He was eventually allowed to return to Paris in 1814, and he died there six years later. Bashor draws on contemporary accounts and letters and particularly Autié’s ghostwritten memoir, purportedly based on his journals and published 18 years after his death. The author notes that the latter source’s dialogue is unverifiable (although he cross-checks it with contemporary sources whenever possible) and that Autié was given to boasting and exaggeration. Fortunately, however, Bashor liberally quotes from the Souvenirs de Léonard, giving his own account a gossipy, entertaining directness, similar to a historical novel. (He also includes a bibliography, endnotes and an index.) Autié’s perspective highlights just how out of touch and frivolous the aristocrats were; for example, when he brings news to Versailles of the fall of the Bastille, he finds the court ladies “oblivious” and “clamoring for his services.” Bashor doesn’t clearly explain the specifics of hair powdering and wig making or how Autié arranged his fantastic poufs (although he does include illustrations), but his depiction of Autié’s fascinating fly-on-the-wall role as confidant to doomed royalty makes up for it. Overall, he delivers an informative examination of a little-known player on a great stage.
An entertaining, well-researched work that will particularly interest students of cultural history and the French Revolution.