MIKE PESCA, host:
Social studies teachers have long struggled with the question of how to enliven history. Don't teach the dates, teach the themes, goes one school of thought. Familiarize the students with stories of individuals, goes another. Why don't they just take a cue from Tony Perrottet? Focus on sex. "Napoleon's Privates: 2500 Years of History Unzipped" is his new book. Thank you for coming in, Tony.
Mr. TONY PERROTTET (Author, "Napoleon's Privates: 2500 Years of History Unzipped"): Thanks for having me.
PESCA: Now, on NPR shows we often ask, would the author please read from the book? I would like you to read please the first sentence.
Mr. PERROTTET: (Reading) Whenever someone implies that history is boring, I bring out Napoleon's penis.
PESCA: Do you really?
Mr. PERROTTET: I do. I do. It really gets their attention.
PESCA: And what do you know about Napoleon's penis?
Mr. PERROTTET: I know more than...
PESCA: Apparently, a great deal, there are many chapters in the book.
Mr. PERROTTET: Yeah, well, more than is probably healthy. Yeah, no...
PESCA: Napoleon's penis is like a motif in the book. It keeps coming - you keep coming back to Napoleon's penis.
Mr. PERROTTET: It does keep coming back.
Mr. PERROTTET: It's sort of a symbol to me of everything that's interesting about history. It sort of combines love and death and sex and tragedy and farce, all in this one story. And when I found out that it was in New Jersey, a collector had bought it in 1977, I went out there, of course, to try and behold the fabled item.
PESCA: So, you went to visit the penis?
Mr. PERROTTET: I did go to pay my respects.
PESCA: How did you find who the collector was?
Mr. PERROTTET: He's actually a very famous character. He was probably the leading collector in the United States at that time.
PESCA: Of penises?
Mr. PERROTTET: No, of strange relics.
Mr. PERROTTET: He lived in New Jersey and he was - he's actually the world's leading urologist. His name was John Kingsley Lattimer, this one little figure, and he had bought everything from Abraham Lincoln's bloodstained collar to Hermann Goering's suicide vile, to chastity belts, this amazing range of memorabilia. Napoleon's penis was the most famous of his items, in a way, and he bought it to take it out of circulation, because he thought it was being - that fun was being poked at it, that it was an object of derision.
PESCA: Well, before we talk about this man who tried to take Napoleon's penis out of circulation, let's talk about the events that took the circulation out of Napoleon's penis. When did he die? and when was he sliced up?
Mr. PERROTTET: OK. He was - in 1821 he died on the island of St. Helena, where he was sent after the Battle of Waterloo, and died of stomach cancer out of - on this incredibly remote place, and he had been feuding with his doctor, a certain French Antommarchi, a sort of lowlife Corsican, and at the autopsy, the doctor - so the story goes, took his revenge.
The autopsy was conducted in very shabby, dismal, you know, badly lit circumstances, and apparently, even in very well-lit laboratory situations, doctors today say, you can take bits of corpses very easily. So, apparently, the doctor took the penis, gave it to the priest, another Corsican, who smuggled it off the island with a whole range of memorabilia, and in fact, took it back to Corsica, where he promptly died in a blood vendetta, but he passed all these items to his family.
And they kept it until 1916 when a British collector got a hold of it, and then it was put up for auction in London in 1969, and it failed to sell, because it was very expensive. By this stage, the penis had taken on quite a mythic status. It was in a little presentation box, a leather presentation box, and it had been dried out in the air. It hadn't been put in formaldehyde, so it was rather the worse for wear, a bit like beef jerky, just sort of carry it around and - it was a very nice presentation case, beautiful leather with a little N in gold, it had a crown. So it was...
PESCA: Classy, very understated for Napoleon's dried up beef jerky.
Mr. PERROTTET: Yeah. Very classy, exactly. It had been put on display once in New York in 1927 strangely, and it was quite a mob scene. People converged there, and Time Magazine wrote about it, and there was a mixture of weeping and giggling apparently, and it looked - it was described as being like a piece of leather or a shriveled eel.
Mr. PERROTTET: Yes. Yes.
PESCA: So, from the non-sale in 1969 to 1977, how did it travel to New Jersey?
Mr. PERROTTET: Well, what happened was when the owner couldn't sell it, there was a group of 40 items, he broke up the items and took them to Paris, and they were put on auction there, and the French government bought almost everything for Les Invalides. They didn't touch the penis. They wouldn't have anything to do with the penis. They wouldn't discuss it. They wouldn't admit that it was really - they wouldn't even admit that it existed. The urologist decided - he bid through an agent, and he decided to get it, and to take it out of circulation, bring it back to New Jersey, and he put it in a briefcase, and he put it under his bed for 30 years.
PESCA: Wait, wait, you have to say that again. It might have been your accent.
Mr. PERROTTET: All right.
PESCA: Put it under his?
Mr. PERROTTET: Under his bed. He put it under his bed and there it stayed.
PESCA: His bed?
Mr. PERROTTET: His bed, yes.
PESCA: Oh. I thought you were saying beard. Ah, I didn't understand, like a necklace.
Mr. PERROTTET: Oh, no. He didn't put it under his beard. No, no, just under his bed.
PESCA: That would have been maybe slightly less strange. I don't want to judge.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PERROTTET: Oh, that's what his wife would say about that.
PESCA: Did you get to see it? Did you travel to New Jersey and...
Mr. PERROTTET: It took me three years to get to see it, because I went out there, I went to meet him and he was a great old guy, he was just this - he was 92 when I met him
Mr. PERROTTET: And he was - he had been in - on the D-day landings in around the hospitals on Omaha Beach. He'd been at the Nuremberg war-crimes trials. He'd been the urologist to the Nazis, there, the Nazi prisoners. He'd been involved in the autopsy of JFK, which is why he had all this very peculiar JFK memorabilia, like the upholstery from his car in Dallas. You know, he had all this extraordinary stuff. So, I went to this house, and it was packed with thousands of items, literally, just crowded into this house, this beautiful mansion in Englewood, New Jersey. He wouldn't show me the penis.
Mr. PERROTTET: He would not show me the penis. In fact...
PESCA: Did you hint at it? Would you ask him explicitly? How would - I mean, how does one bring up Napoleon's penis?
Mr. PERROTTET: So to speak. It's very difficult to talk about this subject without double entendres, so we should apologize.
PESCA: We've committed the double entendres. It's the triple ones I'm worried about.
Mr. PERROTTET: Yeah. Yeah, that was just a blanket apology for this conversation.
Mr. PERROTTET: It's not unknown that he has it. You know, it has quite an Internet presence, for example.
Mr. PERROTTET: It's, like, it comes up, so, at the end of the first conversation, I would - you know, I brought it up, and he said that he didn't know where it was, and that was his thing, he just wanted to have it, and he wanted to have it - you know, no one could see it. It wouldn't - no one would poke fun at it. He passed away last year in May, and - very sadly, and I still kept in touch with the family, his two sons who live in Hawaii, both urologists, and his daughter, Evan, and I kept in touch with them both.
And either I wore them down, or they just decided, might as well show it to me, and so one day I went out there again, and I actually didn't know that Evan was going to show it to me, but there it was, the box was sitting on the carpet and she opened it up, it sort of creaked open, and it was kind of an amazing thing to behold. There it was, Napoleon's penis sitting on cotton wool, very beautifully laid out, and it was very small, very shriveled, about an inch a half long, and it was like a little baby's finger.
Mr. PERROTTET: It was very white - yeah, very touching. Yeah, it was like a little white and sort of a little - very, very shriveled, very sort of, you know, sad, like a little seahorse.
PESCA: Napoleon - at the time, perhaps Napoleon's penis was much obsessed over by the French, but historically, history and sex, the thing that people think about most is Catherine the Great and the horse. What did you find out about that?
Mr. PERROTTET: Yeah. Well, it's an amazing story. It really sticks in your head, but again, there's actual documentation that she did not in fact die while having sex with a horse, that she had a stroke while sitting on the privy in the palace. This is fairly well-documented.
PESCA: Is one seen as less shameful than the other?
Mr. PERROTTET: Either way, it boggles the imagination...
Mr. PERROTTET: But to me the interesting thing is why this story came - started being spread around immediately, and probably from France, it's been traced back to it is, because she was very sexually active. She was a woman ruler. It's - it was part of a great strain of misogynist legends that would spring up around figures from Cleopatra, to Queen Elizabeth, to the modern era. So it just happens to be possibly the most graphic.
So we also an excellent rider, and she wouldn't - she refused to ride sidesaddle. So early on there was this association between her and horses. so when she died, it was a simple leap of the imagination for the - for males propagandists in Paris, and there was stories about possibly going to war that said, well, it was, you know, the horse, and it's still passed on as fact basically.
PESCA: Right. It's also - it strikes me as a very psychological way for someone who was ruled by another person, someone without a democratic say in government, like Napoleon's subjects, like Catherine the Great's subjects, they could say fine, they have all the power in the world, but you know, we could still belittle them for their human frailties.
Mr. PERROTTET: I think that's a very good point, yeah. I think you're exactly right.
PESCA: As you go through the book, you know, a lot - there are a few chapters on, was this historic figure, was that historic figure, homosexual? And then the through line for me was that the con - the modern notion of homosexuality just doesn't really apply historically. Definitely didn't apply for Alexander the Great, and even the question of, was Lincoln gay, you know, they - I guess in the time, Lincoln - I mean, Doris Kearns Goodwin and other historians have written about his, you know - the kind of love he had with Joseph Speed, which was at the time men were more expressive with their emotions than they are now. So, again, the, you know - it seems like the stuff he wrote about Speed was effusive by today's standards...
Mr. PERROTTET: Mm.
Mr. PERROTTET: But back then it was probably quite normal.
Mr. PERROTTET: Oh yeah, no, it's a classic case of us imposing...
Mr. PERROTTET: Our way of life back on the past, and he actually had shared a bed with Joshua Speed for three years. Now, if someone did that today, you'd be, you know, pretty sure that that was, you know, what you would say, a smoking gun.
PESCA: It might come up in a 527 act.
Mr. PERROTTET: Yeah, but you know, back in the 19th century, that was considered very normal, very standard behavior, and you can even see it in the photographs. Men are very free with their bodies. They are lounging on one another's laps. Their arms are around one another, very affectionate in a way that people - men are a lot more cautious about today.
So, in a way, it's a classic example. If you look at the evidence, you know, you can very easily say - and these letters are just extraordinary, very emotional, very intense. And he went - and he did go into a black depression when Speed was married, for example. You know, all these things will point to a guy being gay today, but you know, back then, people didn't think twice about it.
PESCA: It must be hard for a historian to look back at past eras when he's studying sex, because officially the stuff wasn't written down. They had, you know, what the public persona was, was different from the private. So, you know, if you look at the 1600s possibly officially in France, they wouldn't be talking about these impotence trials that went on, but as you survey the past, we think of the Victorian Era as very buttoned down. Have we essentially been opening up more and more in terms of repression, or do we go in cycles, as a people?
Mr. PERROTTET: That's a good question. I mean, I - these days we love to pat ourselves on the back, you know, and say how - just how liberated we are.
Mr. PERROTTET: And how we're completely different to the Victorians. But as you study the Victorians, you realize that they maybe perhaps weren't as repressed as you think. You can't legislate against people having sex. You know, it will come out, you know, one way or another.
PESCA: There were, after all, little Victorians.
Mr. PERROTTET: Yes. That's right. Right. The human race did manage to survive somehow.
Mr. PERROTTET: They do studies now on the number of prostitutes in London were enormous, as well as the official history is one thing, but then you realize that people are basically - are often doing whatever they want anyway, you know. It's just like there's the official version and then there's the other version. It does make it very complicated studying this sort of thing. Today, if someone was studying our era, you know, and you got that - you know, and the only evidence they had was, say, "The Howard Stern Show," and Michael Musto's column in the Village Voice, and the Penthouse Letters...
PESCA: And this discussion.
Mr. PERROTTET: And this discussion, people would think this is, you know, this is - the 21st century is a wild and orgiastic place, and people are running around naked in the streets, but of course, you know, people like to read about that. You know, this is the, you know, this is the - one image of it. This is our sort of - partly our fantasy lives. So, when you go back to ancient Rome, for example, where a lot of it is the literary sources, you read that and, you know, who is this for? This is for a small sect of some bohemians. You know, some of it's just pornography to read, although the Venetian stuff are from the Renaissance, so you're trying to fit that into the context of how people actually behave, is very problematic.
PESCA: Tony Perrottet is the author of "Napoleon's Privates: 2500 Years of History Unzipped." Thank you, Tony.
Mr. PERROTTET: Thanks for having me.
(Soundbite of music)
PESCA: And I apologize. I just figure something in there offended someone, so I apologize. I didn't mean it, or I meant it to say it even harsher and more underlined than I said it. So, we're really sorry. I would like to also note that there was a record set. Not since David Kestenbaum's four part series on quarks and quantum theory has NPR mentioned the word "penis" so often in an interview. So, we're pretty proud of that.
Then, on the other side of the coin, compared to your typical morning show, you've never heard that many mentions of the word penis without the waah (ph) sound effect after it, the long - the long crescendo of the slide whistle. Very interesting book is "Napoleon's Privates: 2500 Years of History Unzipped." There is a chapter on something I never knew about, "Standing up in Court: The Dreaded French Impotence Trials." I recommend you to read the entire chapter to get more of the details, but that pretty much says it all during the 16th and 17th centuries, when husbands charged with erectile dysfunction, were obliged to prove their virility before witnesses.
A very graphic and interesting discussion ensues. Unfortunately, the book on tape does not have that slide-whistle sound effect. Well, that is it for this hour of the BPP, and possibly my career. We are always online at npr.org/bryantpark. I am Mike Pesca. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.
(Soundbite of slide whistle)
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