I came across this story recently, when researching the background of my fabulous new client.
To my surprise, I found that one of the main inspirations for the founder was the tale of an unknown girl whose body was pulled from the Seine over a hundred years ago. The story has some madly romantic and morbid details, and has inspired numerous books, poems and plays over the years.
Some time around 1900, the body of a drowned girl was taken from the Seine in Paris. When she was examined at the Paris Morgue (then located behind Notre-Dame), there were no marks on her body or signs of violence. They presumed it was a suicide.
Regarded at that time as a great attraction, the Paris Morgue would display its unidentified dead to the public, in the hope that the bodies would be claimed. However being good turn-of-the-centurians, this became a spectacle in Paris; everyone would roll out in their thousands to have a good gawk at some bloated corpses (I presume this human desire for gore can still be seen on the innumerable CSI-style shows on telly). But despite the thousands of people who must have seen the Inconnue (unknown woman), nobody came forward to claim the body.
As to whether it was standard practice or not is unknown, but a plaster cast was made of her face. Perhaps the workers at the Paris Morgue were taken by her beauty, or the peaceful, happy expression on her face, with a kind of half-smile.
Photographer Albert Rudomine shot this in 1927, using the same lighting and set-ups as his other portraits of actors.—->
Knowing a good tragedy when they saw one, the French ran with this idea. They started rolling out hundreds of death masks of the Inconnue, which were apparently a must in the living rooms of bohemian types and thesps of all kinds. Ghastly! Up these with those people who buy artwork from serial killers I reckon. And apparently as common as those ceramic flying ducks. In my travels online I’ve found a few different versions of the mask, in photographs and models. This is because the original cast had been photographed, and new, highly-detailed casts created from the film negatives.
<—- Presumably an imitation, from eBay.
After the masks were produced en masse, the story began to unfurl; not only did she throw herself into the river, but she did it because of an unrequited love. Or she was jilted, or murdered, or dead long before she found her end in the depths of the river. Writers everywhere, from Albert Camus to Anaïs Nin and Vladimir Nabokov drew upon the Inconnue for inspiration. She became a long-lost daughter, an orphan, a music-hall dancer, a muse. In reality, she was probably a peasant or beggar on the streets of Paris.
Whoever she was, her appearance of happiness in death makes a good yarn, and according to writer Al Alvarez, a whole generation of German girls modelled their looks on her. He suggests that the Inconnue became the erotic ideal of the period, as Bardot was for the 1950s.
Pooh-poohers like to say that the mask was taken from an entirely different woman, a living model known to the mouleur (plaster cast maker). According to some sources it would be impossible to even make a cast like this from a corpse.
Man Ray took this shot in the ‘60s, part of a collaboration with novelist Louis Aragon —->
The story of the Inconnue does in fact have a happy ending. In the ‘50s a toymaker and publisher of kids’ books designed a new doll to be used to practice resuscitation. He figured that the doll needed to be not only realistic, but human enough to inspire people to want to save lives. And that the big boofy blokes he was training wouldn’t pash anything other than a good-lookin’ sheila. Using the face of the Inconnue, he designed the first resuscitation doll called ‘Resusci-Anne’ and the rest is history. Creepier sources say that hers is ‘the most kissed face in history.’