It is Paris in the late 1880s. The Eiffel Tower is rising on the banks of the River Seine, which sweeps through the city. People are pulling a young woman from the water near the Louvre Museum. No one knows who she is or how she got there. Yet that beautiful face would go on to become perhaps the most kissed in history.
A series of bizarre twists of fate would lead to this face becoming internationally recognized. To this day, no one knows the true identity of the girl who became known as L’Inconnue de la Seine: the unknown woman of the Seine. Hers is a myth that has a surprising modern connection.
The French capital in the late 19th century was a place of great excitement. In 1889 the city would host the Exposition Universelle, or World Fair of Paris, to showcase advancements in both technology and science, with the newly completed Eiffel Tower as the exposition’s entrance. This provided the backdrop for the recovery of the body of L’Inconnue.
The authorities wished at first to find out who the young woman was. So, as was the custom of the time, they put the cadaver on display at the morgue in case someone could identify her. Given the youthfulness of the skin, an expert later guessed that the girl had not lived more than 16 years.
Alas, not a single person came forward to claim the body. After that, the morgue could simply have buried the body, and no one would have thought any more about her identity. However, something about her had mesmerized a pathologist. The story goes that her beauty – and the enigmatic smile on her lips – captured his heart so much that he decided that he should fashion a death mask of her face.
A death mask can be a means of remembering those who have passed or a model for a painting of them. The maker usually produces it by pressing wax or plaster directly onto the corpse. And this may be what the pathologist in Paris did to create a mask of the unknown woman’s face in plaster.
Mystery surrounds whether and why the pathologist did actually make the mask. In fact, the whole tale of L’Inconnue de la Seine features rumor and hearsay. Accounts differ over where the mask really did come from. One story claims that it captures the likeness of a mask maker’s daughter. Whatever the truth, the myths surrounding the mask only serve to make the tale even more interesting.
Serious doubts have been raised over whether the face even could belong to someone who had been pulled from the water. And if she had, the lack of any sign of foul play on the body raised the suspicion that she had committed suicide. In that case, though, the question arises where that enigmatic half-smile on her lips came from.
Speaking on that subject, Paris river police chief brigadier Pascal Jacquin shared his doubts with the BBC in 2013. He said, “It’s surprising to see such a peaceful face. Everyone we find in the water, the drowned and suicides, they never look so peaceful. They’re swollen; they don’t look nice.” He added that she looked “like she’s just asleep and waiting for Prince Charming to come.”
Indeed, Jacquin is not the only cynic. Master castmaker Michel Lorenzi told the BBC at his workshop in Arcueil, a suburb of Paris, “This doesn’t look to me like the face of a dead person. It’s very hard to maintain a smile while a cast is being taken so I think she was a professional, a very good model.”
The castmaker’s studio, L’Atelier Lorenzi, may well have been the birthplace of the original mask. It creates statues and busts of Victor Hugo, Napoleon and Robespierre, among many other historical and literary figures. But despite that illustrious company, L’Inconnue de la Seine tops the sales charts for the workshop.
No one can say for sure whether L’Atelier Lorenzi created L’Inconnue’s mask. However, it did open in 1871, so the timeframe fits, and its most prized possession is a mold from that era. Indeed, that plaster cast is of a woman’s face, and the workshop sits only a few miles from the mortuary where the pathologist supposedly fashioned the mask.
Current-boss of the studio Laurent Lorenzi Forestier, himself a descendant of the first owner, told The New York Times in 2017 about the mask. He said, “You ask me if my great-grandfather made the mold himself, and I don’t know. You ask me how the morgue organized the casting of the mold, and I don’t know. What I do know is that we have a mold from that period in time.”
However the mask came into being or who was its model, the legend of L’Inconnue de la Seine started to grow as the original cast began to appear in more and more workshops in late 1880s Paris. Soon it was a ubiquitous sight on the walls of the most fashionable Paris abodes and beyond. Moreover, the figure charmed plenty of influential observers, who propagated the myth through works of art and literature.
One of the earliest appearances of L’Inconnue in literature was in Richard le Gallienne’s novella The Worshipper of the Image. The plot sees the main protagonist, a young poet, become bewitched by the mask, which seems possessed by an evil spirit, leading the poet to his demise. Many other writers instead chose to write stories telling of a young country peasant whom a wealthy lover romances and then abandons. Ultimately, she throws herself into the waters of the Seine.
Consequently, German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who was at the time working as sculptor Auguste Rodin’s private secretary, noticed it outside a castmaker’s shop in 1905. In Rilke’s 1910 novel Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge), the main character states that L’Inconnue’s was “the face of the young woman, which was cast in the morgue, because it was beautiful, because it smiled, smiled so deceptively, as though it knew.”
French philosopher and writer Albert Camus, winner of the Nobel prize in Literature, was equally as taken with L’Inconnue. He dubbed the woman a “drowned Mona Lisa,” and the mask hung in his studio. Da Vinci’s famous muse is not the only oft-cited artistic counterpart of L’Inconnue: Ophelia, the tragic character from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is another. In the play, Ophelia, driven mad by love and grief, perishes after falling into a river, perhaps in an act of suicide.
Vladimir Nabokov, Russian author of the seminal Lolita, was another literary giant whose interest was piqued by the story of L’Inconnue. Nabokov penned a poem titled L’Inconnue de la Seine in 1934, although critics have pointed out that the story told within may find its influence in the rusalka myth in Russia as much as it does in the Parisian mask.
With these literary connections, the legend of L’Inconnue could not fail to grow. Hélène Pinet, who works in the Rodin Museum in Paris and has conducted much research into L’Inconnue, told The Guardian in 2007 that she was not surprised by the fascination. She said, “The facts were so scarce that every writer could project what they wanted on to that smooth face. Death in water was a very romantic concept. Death, water and woman was a tantalizing combination.”
And as references to the mask proliferated in ballet, film and music, the story spread beyond Europe to reach the shores of the United States. As a consequence, American literature too featured L’Inconnue. But none of these artistic connections would explain how the face came to be one of the most kissed in the course of history.
Somewhat ironically, drowning is where this part of L’Inconnue’s tale begins, or at least a close escape from drowning. From Paris, the story heads to northern Europe. Here, in Norway, toymaker Asmund S. Laerdal would play an integral role in bringing the long-lost woman from the Seine further fame.
In 1955 Laerdal dragged his son Tore, unresponsive and close to death, from a body of water. There had been no time to spare, but he’d proved able to save the two-year-old’s life by his prompt action to get air back into his lungs. Unsurprisingly, he’d never forgotten what had happened.
So when a client approached him with the idea of creating a doll to be used in practicing a new lifesaving technique, Laerdal was interested. The technique was cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR – designed to stimulate the heart through the delivery of chest compressions and oxygen delivered by the mouth. The latter would become known as “the kiss of life.”
Because Laerdal’s specialty in toymaking was the manufacture of dolls using modern, soft plastics, he was able to help. And it was his belief that the doll ought to look as human as possible. Furthermore, he didn’t want the doll to be scary for the people who were training in CPR.
As a consequence, Laerdal settled on the doll having a woman’s face. Casting his mind to the question of a model for that face, he thought of a decoration that he had seen on the wall of his grandparents’ home years back. Yes, he would use the face of L’Inconnue de la Seine as his doll’s own.
The training mannequin that Laerdal designed therefore took on the appearance of the Mona Lisa of the Seine. And as the mannequin’s popularity began to grow, more and more lifesaving trainees around the world pressed their lips against the doll’s. Each delivered the kiss of life to an imitation of the face of the mysterious young woman who had been pulled from Paris’ grand old river all those years before.
The doll was first known as Resusci Anne – but perhaps you know it as Rescue Anne or even CPR Annie. Yes, the internationally recognized training aid, still used today in CPR training, possesses the face of the unknown woman of the Seine, long after her death. And Laerdal’s company continue to manufacture the product to this day.
The Laerdal website itself pays tribute to the role L’Inconnue played in the development of the product. It reads, “Inspired by The Girl from the River Seine, Resusci Anne has become a symbol of life to the millions of people throughout the world who have learned the lifegiving technique of modern resuscitation, and to those whose lives she has helped save from unnecessary death.”
So the face of the unknown young woman who was dragged lifeless from the Seine has made a curious journey. First, it adorned the walls of studios and homes. But now it is the face that millions of would-be lifesavers have “kissed” – and ironically, a woman who may have drowned now helps many learn to save the lives of others pulled from the water.
However, the story of L’Inconnue de la Seine’s identity may not quite be settled yet. As the years pass, new stories spring up, one of them on the other side of the English Channel. Radio producer Jeremy Grange, in collaboration with author Louise Welsh, made a radio program on L’Inconnue de la Seine, broadcast on BBC Radio 4, back in 2009. Then a few weeks later he was out and about in Liverpool.
On this trip, Grange paid a visit to a photographer’s studio that had been kept just as it had been in the early part of the 20th century, when it had been the place to have your picture taken. Upon seeing L’Inconnue hanging in the studio, Grange asked his guide whom they thought it might portray. The guide’s immediate answer surprised Grange, who of course was well versed in the mask’s history.
The guide recounted a tale of identical twin sisters from Liverpool from around the same period as the original legend of L’Inconnue. One of the sisters had fallen in love with a rich man, whom she’d run off with to Paris. After that, the sister was never seen or heard of again.
A long time after her disappearance, the twin who’d been left behind in Liverpool happened to be holidaying in the French capital. While exploring the city, she caught sight of something that gave her quite a surprise. She had walked down a street of castmakers’ workshops, and there, hanging outside each shop was the now-iconic mask of L’Inconnue.
She knew the face that she saw straight away: it was that of her long-lost twin sister. Her fate had been unknown before now, but she had been immortalized in this must-have ornament. Grange shared his feelings about the story with the BBC in 2013. He said, “Once again, a tapestry of imagination had been woven around the enigma of the Inconnue, and in this case, it had been given a Liverpool twist.”
Grange has not been alone in being captivated, with many willing to speculate about the woman and her state of mind at her demise. Many were drawn in by her smile. French philosopher Maurice Blanchot, who hung L’Inconnue in his house, was even of the opinion that the young woman was “in a moment of extreme happiness” when she died.
Blanchot was not alone in his attraction to the mask’s charms, as a cult of L’Inconnue blossomed between the wars. For some, the girl seemed to portray an iconic beauty. Indeed, in his work on suicide, The Savage God, poet and critic Al Alvarez wrote, “I am told that a whole generation of German girls modeled their looks on her.”
Alvarez went on to say that the information regarding L’Inconnue was given to him by Hans Hesse of the University of Sussex. According to Alvarez, “[Hesse stated that] the Inconnue became the erotic ideal of the period, as Bardot was for the 1950s. He thinks that German actresses such as Elisabeth Bergner modeled themselves on her. She was finally displaced as a paradigm by Greta Garbo.”
But it wasn’t just L’Inconnue’s beauty that stoked the fascination with her. In her 2015 book The Drowned Muse, Anne-Gaëlle Saliot’s studied the influence of the unknown woman of the Seine on literature, art and culture. The writer concluded that it was “through her very anonymity that the Inconnue maintains her fame.”
Saliot explained, “The Inconnue is like one of those images that appear to defy attempts at interpretation: it is at once familiar and eerie, dated and ageless. It has an air of déjà vu, while remaining mysteriously opaque. It is characterized by a visual intensity, a simultaneous radiance and concealment.”
So it seems certain that it’s all about the mystery. That no one knows who L’Inconnue de la Seine was or what really happened to her creates the mask’s appeal. As Grange’s novelist collaborater Louise Welsh said, “The moment we have a name, a life story, that mystery is dead.”