I’m ashamed to admit that not once during the time I visited Marie Antoinette’s childhood summer palace Schonbrunn in Vienna, her royal residence Versailles, or her prison cell chamber in the Conciergerie did I think about the person responsible for creating her famous hairstyles. It wasn’t until Marie Antoinette’s Head, that someone finally gave her famous L’Enfant style the attention it deserved! For the better part of the Queen Marie Antoinette’s reign over France, one man was entrusted with the sole responsibility of ensuring that her coiffure was at its most ostentatious best. Marie Antoinette’s Head tells the story of Leonard Autié, Marie Antoinette’s hairdresser and confidant, the man responsible for the style that made her the envy of France, and partly for the uproar that dragged her to the guillotine.
Of all the author interviews I had the pleasure of doing, so far Will’s has the unique distinction of being the only one that transported me through one of my favorite countries, France! His humorous and heartfelt responses reminded me of my own experiences wandering around Versailles and the Carnavalet Museum. I hope you enjoy our interview as much as I did.
Have you always been a Francophile?
Yes, ever since my first trip to Paris in 1970 while backpacking around Europe on Frommer’s “Europe on $5 a Day,” and yes, I still have the book with my hotel on the Left Bank highlighted at $2.90 per night. I still remember the smells of the metro, the men with Gauloise cigarettes hanging out of the corner of their mouths, the little wobbly Citroëns honking and honking, and even the strange corner bathrooms (pissoirs) for men on every corner. But when I visited the museums, especially Versailles, the Louvre and the Carnavalet, I was definitely hooked and I couldn’t wait to study French and French history—my passion to this day.
What was your experience the first time you visited Versailles? Did it inspire you to learn more about the royals who lived there?
It was an incredible experience: The Hall of Mirrors, the symmetry of the gardens, and the sheer decadence was mind-boggling for a college freshman who had not traveled much. To this day I’m still amazed by the extravagant splendor of the Bourbons, and visiting Versailles is at the top of my itinerary whenever I return to Paris.
What made you decide to write a book that focused on Marie Antoinette’s hairstylist?
One afternoon at the Carnavalet Museum, a collection strong on the French Revolution and housed in a Renaissance-era mansion, I came across a lock of Marie Antoinette’s hair. I remembered that she almost fainted at the sight of the red-hooded executioner in her prison cell that cold morning in October 1793, and she recoiled with horror when he asked her to turn around so he could cut her hair, necessary to ensure that the guillotine’s blade would work properly. Her hair. It was the talk of all Europe when she held her elaborate court at Versailles . But it would be the last thing to go, and here was a lock of it. I was spellbound.
Was it hard to research for Marie Antoinette’s Head?
That’s a good question, Dana, because, although it was difficult to find information on the little-known hairdresser, I enjoyed digging through the archives for anything and everything about him. I am still finding tidbits here and there; for example, I recently discovered that Marie Antoinette sent Léonard to her sister Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples, in Italy every year–just to dress her hair.
Of all the amazing events in the book, which did you find the most fascinating?
For me the most fascinating aspect of researching Léonard’s story was the discovery of the role the little-known hairdresser played in the life of his most famous client, and the chaotic and history-making world in which the young lad from the provinces rose to prominence. Perhaps the most amazing event in the book, for me, is Léonard’s role in the royal family’s escape and arrest in Varennes. The fact that Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI would trust a mere hairdresser for such an important, and dangerous, mission gives us an indication of Léonard’s loyalty.
Are you working on any future projects? Can you give us a hint as to what it is?
Yes, I’m busy finishing up the screenplay for Marie Antoinette’s Head, and in June I’m off to Paris to kick start my new project. I’ll be happy to give you a little hint about the setting… “We stop before a large iron doorway and ring a heavy bell. When the small wooden door opens, a jailer appears, motioning us to enter. We duck our heads as we enter through the low-hanging doorway to find ourselves in a dark courtyard, a very grim place in history and human tragedy.”
Will Bashor has a doctorate in International Relations from the American Graduate School in Paris, and he teaches at Franklin University, Columbus, Ohio. His interests have ranged over many fields, among them the study of international law and business, linguistics, cultural anthropology, and European history. As a member of the Society for French Historical Studies, he attended its annual meeting sponsored by Harvard University in Cambridge in 2013. Read more about Will Bashor at http://willbashor.com/home-2/