- Marie Antoinette’s Head: The Royal Hairdresser, the Queen, and the Revolution by Will Bashor
With Marie Antoinette’s Head: The Royal Hairdresser, the Queen, and the Revolution, Will Bashor presents the tumultuous period leading up to and following the French Revolution through the eyes of the author of the last queen of France’s extravagant hair styles. It is a rags to riches to rags story of a Gascon born in Pamiers in the very south Midi-Pyrenees region of France. Thanks to extensive historical research, correspondence and the memoirs of the royal hairdresser himself, Léonard Alexis Autié (1746-1820) comes to life in Bashor’s biography and historical re-telling of the final days of the French monarchy.
Autié’s creative genius is the focus of the first part of Bashor’s account of the pre-revolutionary period. This is perhaps the most revealing aspect of the research, opening a window on the very private and intimate relationship between the hairdresser and Marie Antoinette. Autié comes to Paris from Bordeaux to make his fortune and amazingly networks his way and hairdresses his way via the theater into the employ of several noble women such as the Marquise de Langeac and Madame du Barry, the king’s new mistress. Because of his innovative and attention-catching hairstyles he relatively quickly reaches the inner circle of domestics that care on a daily basis for the young dauphine.
True to the stereotype of the hairdresser/confidant, Léonard Autié develops a close bond with Marie Antoinette that he chronicles in his memoirs according to Bashor: “Léonard’s wittiness and his own irreverence brought him favor with the queen” (86). Bashor focuses most of his attention on this [End Page 202] relationship via the translation of dialog recorded by Léonard in his memoirs. Perhaps fortunately for Léonard Autié, his close rapport with the queen and the royal family in general, including the king, makes him a good choice to serve as messenger between the royals and the princes living in exile. He becomes, says Bashor, “an inept secret agent” in the service of the royal family during their seclusion in the Tuilleries and in the preparation of the horribly failed escape plan.
Bashor acknowledges that Autié’s memoirs are more-than-likely exaggerated, self-aggrandizing and typically “Gascon.” One of the most valuable contributions that Bashor’s work makes is perhaps the observations of daily life, not of the queen, but of the hairdresser himself. From this account, we are to learn that a hairdresser developed fierce loyalty to his queen and was willing to sacrifice his own financial stability in the interests of the royalty in exile. Furthermore, some of the stories of survival, not of the royals but of working people, give insight into the complexity of life at the time. Ironically, the relationship that made Autié’s fortune also brings him to financial ruin in the end. Whether or not Bashor’s reliance upon Autié’s memoirs gives a true account of the role Autié played in the historical events of the period, it does provide a refreshing look at the man behind the hairstyles that have become so symbolic of the decadence and extravagance of the last queen of France.