Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Despair and the Kiss of Life

Despair and hope are two words that can be considered as perfectly opposite as any other pair of terms in the English language. When the despair of one individual becomes hope for countless others, it becomes a good story. I like a good story.

Paris at the tail end of the 19th century was a very popular place to be. The city was a metropolis teeming with music, art and science. Some of the most talented individual in many fields of endeavor seemed to naturally gravitate to Paris. With all of this exciting, wonderful stuff happening here our story starts with a singular young woman. A woman filled with despair. An anonymous girl who would take a most unlikely posthumous journey through the next century.

We know that our young woman was in despair for one reason. She was found floating in the Seine River, very much dead. Fishing bodies out of the Seine at this point in history was a disturbingly common occurrence. The Seine was a dumping ground for murder victims, and drowning oneself in the river was a popular form of suicide among Parisian women. The authorities found no signs of foul play on our young lady, so she was classified as a suicide and sent to the morgue near Notre Dame.

Something extraordinary took place at the morgue that evening. A pathologist on duty that night was apparently quite taken by the young girl’s beauty and innocence and decided to take a plaster cast of her face to create a death mask. The masks were popular items to collect at this time, although they were almost exclusively of famous men. The Lorenzi family of Paris were the modelers who ended up with the cast of the girl’s face, which they decided to produce and sell. The obvious female face stood out from the death masks of the men that lined the shop and sold like crazy. She became well known as “L’Inconnue de le Seine”, French for unknown woman of the Seine.

Our young lady became all the rage in Europe’s bohemian communities. Her face inspired poetry, performance art and literature. She became a superlative for a generation of young European girls to strive for, and the ideal for young European boys to find and fall in love with. The girl with no name or history became a European icon. I imagine more than one adolescent boy at this time pulled the mask off of the wall, closed his eyes, and touched his lips to hers.

Or perhaps, dear reader, it was you doing the lip pressing. You see, in 1958 Dr. Peter Safar approached toymaker Asmund Laerdal with plans for a project which Laerdal would accept. Dr. Safar was a pioneer of CPR, and what he proposed to Laerdal was the development of a training dummy to teach his life saving technique to the masses. They both knew that to get men to go lip to lip with a “doll” it had best be female.When pressed for a face for his “Rescue Annie” mannequin he chose, of course, “L’Inconnue de le Seine”.

Annie has become quite possibly the most kissed face in history. If you think back, you will likely remember Annie helping you learn CPR. But maybe you did not know of the unknown woman of the Seine.

Despair becomes hope.

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