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The First Iron Lady

Still lifting her lamp beside the golden door — if not nowadays quite so eager to receive your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, wretched refuse and tempest-tossed homeless — the Statue of Liberty is coming up to the 100th anniversary of her dedication. On her star-fort island site off the tip of Manhattan, the finishing touches were put to her in 1886. But in order to ensure that her kit of parts fitted together, she had already been fully assembled on a try-out basis in Paris two years previously, so really, as of now, she is 100 years old if she’s a day.

The first thing to say about her, however, is that she carries the years well. Her status as triumph of engineering was never in doubt, but it has become steadily clearer that she is a work of art as well. Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi was a formidable sculptor. It was just that he sculpted on such a grand scale it took about a century to assess the results without prejudice. By now, though, as you board the launch at the Battery pier and head out towards Liberty Island in a downstream curve that shows you the great lady from both sides, it is possible to cherish her unashamedly for what she is. She is not kitsch. She is class, in the American sense of being classless with poise. Her only drawback is that she is a trifle large. In our time the most sophisticated sculptor will have difficulty carving a woman three feet high without getting her wrong: too much thought cramps perception. In those days a fizzing enthusiast like Bartholdi could carve a woman with her head 300 feet off the ground and get her exactly right.

As the tugs keep pulling the garbage scows down and out to sea, your boat curves round to the far side of the island so that when you debark you see Liberty striding away from you, her back foot showing its heel as it trails a broken shackle. The pose, with the torch arm thrust straight up, is slightly reminiscent of John Travolta in a disco, but without the pimples. For the first thirteen years after she was assembled on Bedloe’s Island — its name was later officially changed, which was tough on Bedloe — she was the world’s tallest structure. Nowadays, if she were placed somewhere in Manhattan, she would be dwarfed by the merest department store. But on her own island she retains her monumentality unchallenged. The Trade Center and the Empire State Building are duly overawed by an edifice which was there a long time before they were. The Statue of Liberty was, after all, the first skyscraper.

If a skyscraper is defined as a building whose steel frame carries the load and whose curtain walls bear only their own weight, then Liberty fills the bill exactly. Hence the unique opportunity she affords — if the indelicacy can be excused — to get all the way up inside a woman. The elevator, which was designed in as an original feature even though it took several years more to finish inventing it, rises through a steel armature which is sunk into the concrete-cored pedestal and supports the entire structure. Iron branch supports for the individual sections of skin are cantilevered out from the armature. Bolted to these ribs, each section of the copper sheeting which forms her surface carries only its own weight. The copper sheeting is only 3/32 in. thick. The lady is practically transparent. Weight for weight and height for height, she has a skin like Meryl Streep.

In other words she is just floating there. Like a dolphin adapting its epidermis to the speed of the passing sea, she ripples and flexes in the wind, redistributing the air pressure so that it can never push her over. Only the Park Service personnel are allowed up her right arm into the torch, which they say, is the best place to experience how she can shimmy like your sister Kate. She is strong because she is not solid. If she had been solid, she would not only never have got across the Atlantic, she would have cracked under her own weight without even leaving Paris.

While the big statue was still a gleam in his eye, Bartholdi crossed the Atlantic to take a look at the New World. He had already tried to build a giant lady for the Suez Canal — a metallic Aida which was to have been called ‘Egypt Carrying Light into Asia’ and which would have doubled as the canal’s lighthouse. But when the deal fell through he switched his pretext to America, in roughly the same way that Verdi’s Requiem had to commemorate two different deaths before it got finished.

Bartholdi, however, was celebrating a birth, and the birth of America was an even bigger and better object for elation than the joining of Africa and Asia, two continents which were comparatively old hat. Under the Second Empire there was a lot of Republican feeling in France which found its outlet in the Union Franco-Américaine, a friendship society by which Frenchmen smarting under the royalist order could daydream openly of freedom. After the declaration of the Third Republic in 1871 the fondness for America sought practical expression through Bartholdi’s great project, which nobody concerned thought was mad, although clearly it would take a lot of money to get it off the ground.

In the beginning the statue, or bits of it, stayed on the ground, where the public could inspect the work in progress and be enthused to the donation of cash. The statue’s head was in the Paris Universal Exposition of 1878. Her right arm plus torch had already been at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, whence it had to go all the way back to Paris for the try-out. A campaign in the Pulitzer newspapers raised a lot of money in America. Fuelled by popular donations, the entire lady took shape in Paris. There the giant moulds were formed into which the copper sheeting was placed and beaten into shape from the inside out. The statue is the world’s biggest repoussé bauble, made the same way as an alloy bangle you might buy in the Paris flea-market, except that the copper is pure, no additives. The armature was designed by Gustave Eiffel, of tower fame. When all the bits had clicked together and been checked for fit, the.whole thing was taken apart, numbered, crated and shipped.

When you get out of the elevator at about the level of the lady’s clavicle, there are still 160 steps leading up to the diadem, but before you start the climb it is wise to allow the party of Japanese tourists with whom you have shared the ride upwards to get well ahead. The up and down staircases are a tight double helix, the ladies are in national dress and each of the gentlemen is carrying a Fujica ZXM500 minicam with a wind-gagged mike. Instead of getting trapped among the kimonos and the cables, look around you. Those strangely sweet metal curves are Liberty’s thin skin from the inside. Over there is the interior of her left breast, a flea’s-eye view of a modestly ample C-cup from within. That tunnel entrance up there to the right is a shaved armpit. All the angled struts and bolted fishplates are there only to hold a surface out into the atmosphere. Here and there the hole left by a popped rivet reveals a pinpoint of blue. It is the sky.

Spiralling upwards on the metal stairs, you can identify various components of the lady’s face. There is her mouth, ten feet across, and that tall tapering indentation is the inside of her classical nose. Once up in the diadem it is possible, by squeezing between Madam Butterfly and a man with a small Tokyo television station on his back, to squint leftwards through one of the little windows and see Manhattan. The torch would be a better vantage point but the public isn’t allowed up there, not because one of Hitchcock’s villains fell off it but because nothing except a small ladder leads through the arm and it would be impossible for people to crawl in two directions at once if one or more of them wanted to quit early. Some visitors don’t even make it up the spiral staircase but there are way-stations built in so that they can shyly cross from the up-spiral to the down-spiral and thus descend to meet the elevator, whereupon, after a quick ride downwards, pride can be recovered during a tour of the Immigration Museum.

The Immigration Museum is built against the base of the pedestal. It shows, mainly through photographs, the story of the huddled masses being made welcome. Many of the immigrants were Jewish refugees from Tsarist terror and their descendants have been generous with donations. They have also been generous in not mentioning that the open door swung closed during an even darker hour of Jewish history, so that many hundreds of thousands of innocent people died unspeakably at Hitler’s hands who might have sailed past the Statue of Liberty and into the previously hospitable America. But America, the last fertile place in the world to fill up, had decided it was full up.

Ellis Island, only a seagull’s cry from Liberty’s sweeping skirts, had once admitted 98 per cent of all immigrants, usually after asking them nothing more taxing than whether they had ever practised polygamy or espoused anarchy. The buildings on Ellis Island are now restored, after threatening to fall apart. The widespread impression that droves of helpless people were retained there for long periods is mainly incorrect. On the other hand, the impression that the Statue of Liberty represents a hymn to freedom, a New World Symphony in imperishable metal, is mainly correct. The French Revolution favoured gigantism in architecture. Most of the grand schemes did not flourish, partly because Égalité and Fraternité are abstract concepts which are hard to agree on. But Liberté is a real thing. Bartholdi felt it like love and produced an object of adoration.

As the launch chugged back to the Battery leaving Liberty behind, I looked up to her in the gathering dusk. Soon the floodlights would be switched on, along with the lamps in the Tiffany torch-flame, whose electrics and fenestration took decades to get right. (The man who finally made the torch into the lighthouse of Bartholdi’s dreams was the memorably named Gutzon Boglum, who went on to transform Mount Rushmore.) Her face is a Neo-Classical ideal of the classic, rather like Marlon Brando’s. The main inspiration was probably Delacroix’s painting ‘La Liberté guidant le peuple’, but you will recognise many of Michelangelo’s faces too, including several of the Sibyls in the Sistine ceiling. It is a stylised face. She is a simplified figure. But that was what Bartholdi was after. Liberty, after all, is a simple thing. Hard to achieve, easily lost, but recognisable instantly by all.

Hegel defined history as the story of liberty becoming conscious of itself. In America it became self-conscious and eventually proud. But there is a lot to be proud of and if the statue boasts, it does so with some style. Indeed, the lady grows more elegant with time. The original shine of the untarnished copper was gradually overcome by a pale verdigris which protects the metal and makes her look soft against the sky, maternal for all her power. Though firmly anchored she is flexible, though stronger than all the forces ranged against her she is light to the spirit — America as it would like to be, and at its best is. When night falls the big lights grouped around the eleven-pointed star-fort send up their coned beams to illuminate her as she strides seaward carrying her Declaration of Independence — the woman of liberation, éclairant le monde in a spiked hat. Tricky to deal with but not unattractive if you like them tall.

(Observer Magazine, 16 October, 1983)