Tony Perrottet: Exposing Napoleonís Penis
Travel Interviews: And other historical curiosities. David Farley interviews the man with the rare knowledge of "2,500 Years of History Unzipped."
07.10.08 | 10:40 AM ET
‘Whenever someone implies that history is boring, I bring up Napoleon’s penis,” writes Tony Perrottet in his new book, Napoleon’s Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped. Having followed the trail of ancient Roman travelers in Pagan Holiday and traced the history of the Olympic Games in The Naked Olympics, Perrottet has turned his attention to the history of Napoleon’s “baguette”—how it wound up in New Jersey, for example—as well as other lesser-known sexually-tainted oddities of history. Ever wanted to know about the nighttime habits of Renaissance-era lesbian nuns, the medieval Church’s curious sex laws or the theories behind Hitler’s one testicle? Tony Perrottet is your man. David Farley caught up with the Australian-born author/travel writer—and World Hum contributor—at the newly reopened International Bar in New York City for a few pints of beer and some talk about famous penis relics.
World Hum: Your previous books—“Pagan Holiday” and “The Naked Olympics”—were personal travel narratives interweaved with history. Your newest book is just the history. What were the challenges in writing this book?
Tony Perrottet: I’ve never been interested in just pure history—it’s always about how it relates to the present. What I did with this book was find stories that would not only get people’s attention, but stories that are embedded in how we think and what we think about today; the same type of things we sit around talking about in bars or at dinner parties: sex, celebrity, food, real estate, scandal. In a way, going back in to the past is the same as a travel writer going to a foreign country. In fact, my history writing is like traveling in the past. The novelist L.P. Hartley’s famous phrase—the past is a foreign country—is true. I want to know what 18th-century Paris looked like, sounded like and smelled like. Historians don’t always fill in all these gaps.
Maybe that’s why history can appear so dry to some of us—because it often lacks the juicy details that you include in your writing.
Yes. It’s true. People hate history. Even the History Chanel isn’t showing history anymore. But history is very interesting. Look at the history of Napoleon’s penis. Fascinating stuff. People don’t even realize they’re learning about the battle of Waterloo, his marriage to Josephine, why he was exiled to St. Helena.
Speaking of which, in your book, you recount the travels of Napoleon’s penis. Can you give us some of the highlights?
It was removed during the autopsy by his vengeful doctor in 1821 who gave it to a priest in Corsica. That priest died in a blood vendetta a few years later. His family kept it until 1916 when a British collector got a hold of it. It briefly went on display in New York City in 1927 where a Time magazine article noted there was a lot of weeping and giggling among the spectators. In 1969 it went on auction in London but didn’t sell. It went back on auction in Paris in 1977 and was bought by John Kingsley Lattimer, one of the world’s leading urologists, who took it home to New Jersey and stored it under his bed for 30 years.
How did you first hear about Napoleon’s penis and what happened when you first contacted John Kingsley Lattimer about it?
I’ve always been interested in morbid celebrity relics. I was actually doing a piece for Smithsonian on Little Big Horn and was trying to find out about the idea that the Dakota had chopped off the genitals of Custer’s men. So I Googled “severed genitals” and Napoleon’s penis came up. It has quite an online presence. Lattimer is a pretty famous character himself—his collection of curiosities is legendary. So I got in touch with him and went out to New Jersey to have a look at his stuff. He wouldn’t show me the penis, claiming he didn’t know where it was in his curiosity-packed house. I asked on more than one occasion if I could see it, and he’d go on and on about why he didn’t want to show it. But after he died last year, his daughter—who inherited the penis—unexpectedly showed me one day a few months ago.
Where might one find other famous historical penises?
Rasputin’s penis is on display in St. Petersburg. It’s supposed to be 11 inches long or something like that. Most likely, however, it’s not authentic. Tutankhamen’s penis is an interesting case, too. When they did X-rays of Tut’s body in the ‘60s, they discovered the penis was missing and they pointed the finger at the photographers who helped unwrap the mummy in 1922. And then a couple years ago, Zahi Hawass, the head of the antiquities department in Cairo, claimed to have found the penis. John Dillinger’s was supposed to be in the Smithsonian in Washington, but sadly that turned out to be an urban myth. And then, of course, there’s Jesus’ foreskin, but you’re keeping its location a closely guarded secret.
Indeed. At least for now. In a way, one could use “Napoleon’s Privates” as a guidebook to historical sex tourism. If you were going around, say, Europe, what would be the perfect two-week Tony Perrottet itinerary? Give us the highlight tour.
You’d have to start in Naples in the “Secret Cabinet” in the Museum of Archaeology. The cabinet was set up in 1819 when they found a bunch of erotic Roman stuff from Pompeii. The king of Naples was so horrified when he saw the phallic wind chimes, huge penis sculptures, and images of Europa getting raped, he ordered everything into a secret cabinet. Which of course then became a major stop for the 19th-century Grand Tourists. After Naples, you’d have to go to Florence where at the Museum of Science is Galileo’s finger. From there, head to Venice to gawk at old nunneries where travelers would rent rooms and rent one of the ladies for the night, too. Finally, In St. Andrew’s College, north of Edinburgh, you could have found a wig made of the pubic hairs of the mistresses of King Charles II. Sadly, the wig was stolen. Today, you can see the stand that held the wig, though.
Do you think the rest of us will ever get a chance to see Napoleon’s penis?
It depends who buys it. Maybe they’ll make postcards of it or put it on the internet or on display in a museum. It hard to tell what the future holds for the emperor’s manhood.