Liberty's Torch: The Great Adventure to Build the Statue of Liberty

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The Statue of Liberty has become one of the most recognizable monuments in the world: a symbol of freedom and the American Dream. But the story of the creation of the statue has been obscured by myth. In reality, she was the inspiration of one quixotic French sculptor hungry for fame and adoration.

Inspired by descriptions of the Colossus of Rhodes, the young Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi first envisioned building a monumental statue of a slave woman holding a lamp that would ...

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Liberty's Torch: The Great Adventure to Build the Statue of Liberty

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The Statue of Liberty has become one of the most recognizable monuments in the world: a symbol of freedom and the American Dream. But the story of the creation of the statue has been obscured by myth. In reality, she was the inspiration of one quixotic French sculptor hungry for fame and adoration.

Inspired by descriptions of the Colossus of Rhodes, the young Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi first envisioned building a monumental statue of a slave woman holding a lamp that would serve as a lighthouse for Ferdinand de Lesseps’s proposed Suez Canal. But after he failed to win this commission, and in the chaotic wake of the Franco-Prussian War, Bartholdi set off for America, where he saw the perfect site for his statue: Bedloe’s Island in New York Harbor. Before long, he was organizing the construction of a massive copper woman in a Paris workshop. Through spectacular displays of the statue’s arm and torch in Philadelphia at the 1876 World’s Fair, and the statue’s head at the 1878 Paris Exhibition, along with other creative fundraising efforts, Bartholdi himself collected almost all of the money required to build the statue. Meanwhile, he brought luminaries including Gustave Eiffel, Victor Hugo, Ulysses S. Grant, Joseph Pulitzer, and Emma Lazarus into his scheme. Moving from the black waters of the Nile to the revolution-torn boulevards of Paris, to the muddy streets of New York, Liberty's Torch tells the story of an artist, entrepreneur and inventor who fought against all odds to create this wonder of the modern world.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Fréric Auguste Bartholdi was the archetypal man on a mission. With his country recovering from the disastrous Franco-Prussian War, this impassioned French sculptor decided that America would be his next scene of triumph. He realized that if his vision of a colossal statue of a welcoming woman would become a reality, he would have to rely on himself. With the energy of a modern-day entrepreneur, he gathered influential backers and worked hard to drum up support for his ambitious project. Many books have been written about the Statue of Liberty; none of them before this capture the heroic struggle to fund and construct this beacon of freedom.

From the Publisher
An Amazon Best Book of the Year
An O Magazine 15 Titles to Pick Up Now Selection, Summer 2014

“Journalist Elizabeth Mitchell recounts the captivating story behind the familiar monument that readers may have assumed they knew everything about.”—New York Times

Liberty’s Torch reveals a statue with a storied past . . . Mitchell uses Liberty to reveal a pantheon of historic figures, including novelist Victor Hugo, engineer Gustave Eiffel and newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer. The drama—or “great adventure,” to borrow from the subtitle—runs from the Pyramids of Egypt to the backrooms of Congress. . . . By explaining Liberty’s tortured history and resurrecting Bartholdi’s indomitable spirit, Mitchell has done a great service. This is narrative history, well told. It is history that connects us to our past and—hopefully—to our future.”—Los Angeles Times

“Streamlined and well constructed. . . . Proceeding chronologically, the author divides her story into three parts (“The Idea,” “The Gamble,” “The Triumph”) and opens with just the right amount of initial biographical detail on the designer, bolstering her portrait with further historical background as the narrative warrants. . . . deft strokes and always apt, telling details. . . . Mitchell successfully conveys the enormity of the undertaking and the infuriating amount of bureaucracy and old-fashioned glad-handing required to finish the job. . . . In Bartholdi, Mitchell has found a fascinating character through which to view late-19th-century America, and she does readers a service by sifting fact from fiction in the creation of one our most beloved monuments.”—Boston Globe

“A myth-busting story starring the French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi. Mitchell’s adjectives for him include crazy, driven, peevish and obnoxious. He rarely missed an opportunity to advance his own career, but Mitchell says he had “an incredible ability to soldier on” through a 15-year struggle. . . . Were it for not for Bartholdi, the statue probably would not have been built. In today’s world, Mitchell can't imagine any single person driving such a massive undertaking.”—USA Today

“Turns out that what you thought you knew about Lady Liberty is dead wrong. Learn the truth in this fascinating account of how a French sculptor armed with only an idea and a serious inability to take no for an answer built one of the most iconic monuments in history.”—O, the Oprah Magazine

“Every American schoolchild learns the story: In a grand gesture representing their shared reverence for freedom, France presented to a grateful United States the imposing 305-foot Statue of Liberty. . . . Except, like all history, the story is a little more complicated than that. Elizabeth Mitchell takes us inside the statue’s history . . . Despite the statue’s iconic status in American culture, Bartholdi’s name probably does not spring into your mind as soon as you see its image. But Mitchell’s book does a fine job of retrieving him from the mists of history—and of recounting how long and hard he labored, not just artistically but financially and politically, to make the statue a reality. . . . Fascinating.”—Tampa Bay Times

“Mitchell casts doubt on several myths about the genesis of and inspiration for Lady Liberty . . . Quite certain that the sculptor did not use his mother as the model for the statue's face, Mitchell speculates that he may have had his deceased brother Charles in mind. And she suggests that there may be something to rumors, circulated at the time, that the body of Lady Liberty resembled Bartholdi's paramour, later his wife.”—San Francisco Chronicle

“The Statue of Liberty, which has stood at the entrance to New York’s harbor for more than a century and a quarter, is chiefly the work of a French sculptor named Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi . . . Mitchell tells the story of its construction . . . a good story.”—Washington Post

“Through her portrait of the statue’s creator, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, and her careful examination of his journey to build the colossus now known as the Statue of Liberty, Mitchell brings to life a gripping adventure story . . . Mitchell feels obliged to be as accurate as possible, yet manages to give her readers access to troves of detail. Her depictions of scenes can be sensual. . . . In a story comprising tragedy and humor, Mitchell revives a slice of history. She teaches the importance of faithfulness to accuracy in reporting, and demonstrates that adherence to the facts will likely yield a story that is at once true and entertaining.”—Brooklyn Daily Eagle

“An absolutely brilliant and entertaining book—a delightful romp through a seemingly impossible history. It’s a bit amazing how much I didn't know about the best-known statue in America, or its maker, Frédéric Bartholdi—a character so brazen and outrageous and charming that his life reads like a picaresque nineteenth-century novel. I delighted in every page.”—Elizabeth Gilbert, author of The Signature of All Things and Eat, Pray, Love

“Is there any more globally recognizable American icon than the Statue of Liberty? Or any about which Americans know less? In Elizabeth Mitchell’s capable hands, the fascinating story of its quixotic creation—the mix of idealism and hustle, selflessness and selfishness, a crazy dream realized with breathtaking ingenuity—is a perfect parable for the moment mongrel America arose to become the world’s spectacular, improbable colossus.”—Kurt Andersen, author of True Believers

“Filled with outlandish characters, fascinating tidbits and old world adventure, Liberty’s Torch is a rollicking read about one of America’s most beloved and, until now, misunderstood, icons.”—Maria Semple, author of Where’d You Go, Bernadette

“What we take for granted as a fait accompli was anything but, as we learn in this engrossing, witty, well-researched and surprising account of the Statue of Liberty’s bumpy path to glory. Mitchell does a beautiful job of breathing new life into a too-mythic tale, taking us behind the scenes to witness the hustling, chicanery, rivalries, back-stabbings, lies and disappointments that foreshadowed this eventually triumphant merger of patriotism, opportunism and the art world.”—Phillip Lopate, author of To Show and To Tell and Two Marriages

“Elizabeth Mitchell is an inspired writer and Liberty’s Torch is a great book. While the French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi is Mitchell’s colorful hero, a gallery of historical figures like Victor Hugo and Joseph Pulitzer make grand appearances. My takeaway from Liberty’s Torch is to be reminded that the Statue of Liberty is the most noble monument ever erected on American soil.”—Douglas Brinkley, Professor of History at Rice University and author of The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America

“Lady Liberty has her secrets . . . In Liberty’s Torch, Elizabeth Mitchell chronicles the efforts of French artist Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi to erect his colossal statue, from a failed concept on the Suez Canal to the icon’s dedication in New York harbor.”—Metro

Kirkus Reviews
Mitchell (Three Strides Before the Wire: The Dark and Beautiful World of Horse Racing, 2002, etc.) maintains a light touch in this examination of the life of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi (1834-1904), the designer of the Statue of Liberty.A proud Alsatian whose widowed mother moved him and his older brother to Paris to further their artistic careers, Bartholdi studied under painter Ary Scheffer and was influenced by the work of architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in his restoration of Notre-Dame. Having visited and drawn the monuments of the Nile Valley, Bartholdi fancied stone as his "mania" and initially proposed to the khedive of Egypt a colossal statue of a female slave holding a torch to stand at the mouth of the Suez Canal, a construction-in-progress marvel by engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps. Bartholdi maintained that his idea for a lighthouse in the form of "the angel Liberty" was in fact inspired by a poem by Victor Hugo. Spurred by the pro-American views of writer Édouard René de Laboulaye, whose bust Bartholdi was commissioned to make, and faced with revolution in Paris in 1871, he set sail for New York to try to sell his idea, especially as newly fashioned Central and Prospect parks needed statues—although nothing quite this large. Bedloe's Island in the harbor, containing 14 acres and a crumbling fort, seemed a perfect site, but it would take until October 1886 for the enormous funds to be gathered and the statue actually dedicated. Bit by bit, Bartholdi drummed up support from Franco-American friends and the American wealthy, from President Ulysses S. Grant to architect Richard Morris Hunt, while relying on the engineering know-how of Viollet-le-Duc and ironworker Honoré Monduit, as well as invaluable advice from bridge builder Gustave Eiffel.A low-key, mannered treatment of the realization of a great vision.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802122575
  • Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  • Publication date: 7/2/2014
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 74,226
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Mitchell

Elizabeth Mitchell is an editor, journalist, and author. She is the author of two nonfiction books: Three Strides Before the Wire: The Dark and Beautiful World of Horse Racing, and W: Revenge of the Bush Dynasty.
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Read an Excerpt


At three in the morning on Wednesday, June 21, 1871, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi made his way up to the deck of the Pereire, hoping to catch his first glimpse of America. The weather had favored the sculptor’s voyage from France, and this night proved no exception. A gentle mist covered the ocean as he tried in vain to spot the beam of a lighthouse glowing from the new world.

After eleven days at sea, Bartholdi had grown weary of what he called in a letter to his mother his “long sojourn in the world of fish.” The Pereire had been eerily empty, with only forty passengers on a ship meant to carry three hundred. He passed his days playing chess and watching the heaving log that measured the ship’s speed. “I practice my English on several Americans who are on board. I learn phrases and walk the deck alone mumbling them, as a parish priest recites his breviary.”

These onboard incantations were meant to prepare Bartholdi for the greatest challenge of his career. The thirty-six-year-old artist intended to convince a nation he had never visited before to build a colossus. This was his singular vision, conceived in his own imagination, and designed by his own hand. The largest statue ever built. The sky turned pink, the Pereire cut farther west through the waves, and before long Bartholdi and his fellow passengers caught the first sight of land and a vast harbor. He described the moment in his letter: “A multitude of little sails seemed to skim the water, our fellow travelers pointed out a cloud of smoke at the farther end of a bay—and it was New York!”

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  • Posted June 25, 2014

    Phenomenal. One of those books you enjoy so much, you hardly rea

    Phenomenal. One of those books you enjoy so much, you hardly realize all the information you are absorbing.  A must read for sure.  Interesting and enthralling.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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