By Chantel TattoliAugust 3, 2015
A LABORER CAME ACROSS the beheaded mermaid one cold Saturday morning in Copenhagen. That was April 25, 1964. Heinz Carlsen had been passing through the garden park on the port, where the concrete boardwalk at Langelinie Pier turns to cobblestone then slides to the waterline. Gulls rode the foggy air, as he stood in front of the world-famous bronze statue with “an ugly gap between her shoulders” and then, horrified, ran for the police.
A detective in wellies scaled the cairn-like stack of boulders that form the pedestal. He leaned over the yawning neck. Under the light of a nearly full moon, someone had exhausted a hacksaw against the Little Mermaid’s throat; her head was gone. And though her shoulders presented a rash of fingerprints when dusted, how many tourists touched this cynosure, every day? He reached into the hollow belly to check for more clues.
The press arrived. Scuba divers searched the seabed for hours, in vain; German shepherds inspected the cordoned-off bank. Police questioned international crews of ships docked at the wharf, and thousands of Danes who’d heard about it on the state radio streamed into the harbor to see the victimized icon. Some few smirked. Others spilled angry tears and clenched their fists. “There was a hushed, mournful atmosphere over the place,” a tour guide recalls. “Nobody said anything. People just watched.”
The city council ordered for a tarp to cover the figure, until a rescue team could drive her — “at funeral speed,” The New York Times reported — to the royal foundry. There, the bronze master examined the mermaid and remarked that her neck had been expertly cut, “as if the culprit had been intent on obtaining a portrait head ready for mounting.”
When Hans Christian Andersen started penning fairy tales, at the age of 29, in 1835, he’d rated them lesser work than the novel, drama, and poetry. But in those tales the spindly bard with a high forehead and huge schnoz, poor and vain but deeply talented, found his power of speech. Giving rise to modern Danish in the process, he soon rebooted the old medium into a new literary genre. “He wrought from the fairy tale his own art, pouring into it his compulsion to understand and mythologize his own life, transforming the pain and emptiness he felt into artistic order,” Jackie Wullschlager, Chief Art Critic of the Financial Times and an authority on Andersen, writes in an introduction to the storyteller. His stories “remain bywords for aspects of the human condition.”
Newborns in Denmark are equipped at their christenings with a tome of H.C.A. to be read throughout life, parables with casts of tin soldiers, emperors, ducklings, ice queens, girls the height of thumbs. Also, mermaids. If the water-based Scandinavians were nice people, as regional lore held, Hans’s mermaid was the nicest yet.
Her childhood home, Andersen wrote, was a coral castle. It had arched amber windows harvested from the Baltic seabed, a roof of live shells that winked open and closed with the current, pearls under every one. She was the baby of the family: “pensive,” even “strange.” She nagged her grandmother and older sisters for news about the Lands Above and the people walking up there, as the dowager summed it, on “two clumsy pillars.” Her garden she planted with scarlet anemones to remind of sunset (she also planted a marble statue of a boy). “It is much better than Thumbelina,” Andersen wrote to a colleague in the winter of 1837, shortly before the “The Little Mermaid” was published. Working on it stirred him, he confided, “the only one” of his fictions that had.
The fairy tale is the account of a sea princess who fatally trades her angelic voice for legs because she loves an earthling prince. But mostly she does it because she’s a very admirable kind of wannabe: she wants a soul. This unnamed heroine is now Ariel, from Disney’s 1989 blockbuster, but the germ of the original twitches here in a slightly oversized Little Mermaid, visited as much as Michelangelo’s David and the Great Buddha of Kamakura. It is, by some claims, the most photographed statue in the world.
“On a good day, the patinated statue looks like a jade goddess,” says Jens Peter Munk, a bespectacled, bewhiskered art historian whose taste runs to jeans and polos, employed by Copenhagen as its Keeper of Monuments. “But she’s within a very big group of sculptures” he explains, “from before the turn of the century and after the turn of the century called ‘salon art.’” A bourgeois relic from the start — certainly not meant to be the national monument she has mutated into. In a conference room of the municipality’s Technical and Environmental Department, the keeper uncrosses his legs beneath a table, intakes black coffee, swallows. “She wasn’t supposed to be big.”
The statue was based on the Danish prima ballerina Ellen Price de Plane. Critics said she gave the Little Mermaid her feet when she danced the title role. She had impressed the heir to the Carlsberg brewery, the show’s buzzing financier, who decided to raise a bronze in tribute. Carl Jacobsen looked like Santa Claus, and was a more openhanded patron of the arts than any recent king or industrialist; his advisor called it “like an actual disease.” He’d acquired so much ancient statuary, commissioned and donated so much new, that he risked the business, but the Mermaid’s Sponsor did not collect to own. “Art,” his biographer writes, “was to be brought to the places in which people moved, […] under the open skies, in public gardens and squares.”
In an interview in 1910 he said “The work of art must be so positioned that one never thinks of asking: ‘Why is the statue standing there? No, one should have an instinctive feeling that if the statue were not standing exactly there, it would lose something.” He envisioned this “mutual harmony” for his mermaid near the busy waterfront, in a man-made pond, but when the sculptor, a disciple of Rodin, boldly suggested the shallows by the Sounds’ trafficked promenade, Jacobsen agreed.
Edvard Eriksen was a handsome freelancer, aged 34. He’d done four years at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts but failed his qualifying exams and sometimes earned a living as a stucco mason and plasterer, other times working in ornamental reliefs for cast-iron stoves and fireplaces, or gravestones. (Broke more often than not, his success was the woeful sea-maiden. In his will in 1953, Eriksen effected that no full-scale reproduction of the statue should ever be made. The copyright to the Little Mermaid passed to his family, whose members, in a country with staunchly pro-artist droit d’auteur law, are litigious and harvest untold royalties. They declined to be interviewed for this article.)
But in 1910, the tail was disputed. Eriksen’s sketches showed womanly legs. For him, a tail spoiled the composition. “Jacobsen was all for a tail,” the sculptor’s son Egon writes, “without that it just wasn’t a mermaid.” They compromised and, a meld of the ballerina, Eriksen’s wife, a statue of Joan of Arc (which Jacobsen had already ordered twice, in bronze and in marble), and Botticelli’s Venus (which Andersen and Eriksen had seen in their travels), the young creature is in the act of changing, about two-thirds human. She’s almost there except for unformed feet and calves serrated by fins, as if she still can reverse the transformation and just zipper back together, swim away.
Den lille havfrue was wheeled out to the shore in a handcart, on a sunny late afternoon in August, 1913. Like a magician’s hat, shown at the beginning of an illusion to be empty, she was upside down so the people could peer into the hollow. Workers took her in their arms and tenoned her to the rock without pomp. “And there she sat, as if home,” Berlingske Tidende recorded. “Where she calls home, incidentally, is not so easy to determine; her sorrowful face says one thing, her fish tail attests to another.”
Jacobsen wobbled over the rocks with a cane to greet her. The potbellied old man wore a cream suit and had a red rose between his teeth. It was his peculiar habit to walk through town with a red rose in mouth (his gardener Wagenblast supplied one daily for that purpose), but this was also a bow to the fairy tale in which red blooms were the mermaid’s favorite. A reporter noted the waves sparkled as the sponsor took the flower, and how “the rose jumped right out of his hand.”
On May 4, 1964, the country’s principal tabloid received a note in block capitals, demanding 10,000 kroner ($1,450) in exchange for the head’s whereabouts. The newspaper replied in its pages; BT was unsure the offer was genuine, but “if you do not want to talk to the police, you may call us by telephone.”
No more was heard from the ransomer. The reward went uncollected. The now elderly ballerina went to the foundry, stood in the courtyard with the headless mermaid, gave her a pat. On the 14th, in the middle of the night, a young sculptor and three friends in waders erected a 6-foot-tall, 900-pound steel sculpture of a Viking in her place. “I felt sorry for all the tourists who come down to the harbor looking for a ghost who isn’t there,” he reasoned. “In many respects the Little Mermaid was a symbol of Denmark, but so were the Vikings.” The Norseman was immediately removed.
By mid-May at Copenhagen Police Station the dossier named “LITTLE MERMAID, MISSING HEAD OF” was swollen with letters of indignation and 200 leads from Copenhageners who’d noticed suspicious-looking persons. Cases of vandalism against public monuments fell to the homicide unit: so city murder detectives dealt with the Little Mermaid’s death. That “was part of the comedy,” Paul Hartvigson, a historian and local cicerone, tells people. “For who was the victim here? A statue? A fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen? The national image? Or the audience’s sensitivity?” The cops worked “as if she were made of flesh and blood — not bronze.”
Life had a six-page spread: “THE WORLD JOINS DENMARK IN A FURY OVER THE VANDALISM.”
“She was The Little Mermaid,” Time eulogized. “[S]he was the first and only daughter of her finny race to serve as Neptune’s permanent, peaceful ambassador to the footed world.” Front pages ran the hack job in Tokyo and Moscow, and as the ’60s amped up, a Lisbon editorial pointed to the sereia decapitado as “a symbol of a world that has lost its head.” Danish papers pronounced it “the work of a madman,” possibly an inebriate. BT printed a cartoon depicting a googly-eyed fellow crawling out of the statue’s cavity, waving a hacksaw and grinning uncontrollably. (“LAND OF SMILES,” the caption read, a tourism slogan.)
The vandal had sawn from one side and then from the other, inspectors determined. Then two 14-year-old boys said they’d seen a cut and metal filings on Friday, the day before she was found, and an American brought forth a colored photograph taken in the daytime — 16 hours before the head went missing — that also showed sawing. It meant the Little Mermaid had been decapitated in stages, over the course of two nights, and whoever did so had filed through six millimeters of metal with unswerving resolve.
In the years between world wars, Danish tourism campaigns flogged the country as a laid-back blond oasis of social welfare and great furniture design — at a remove from the Continent’s turbulence. A national tourism board auditioned ways to draw foreigners to “the Paris of the North,” and committee work in 1935 revealed their guests favored den havfrue to the National Museum. That surprised board members. Though tourism was already an industry, intent on education and increasingly on profit, they were reluctant to highlight the Little Mermaid. About her, the travel guides they stocked trains with didn’t say a word. The domestic intelligentsia rejected her. Poul Henningsen, for one — designer of evergreen Scandinavian pendant lamps, culture godhead — took aim that same year when he lumped the Little Mermaid in with “the Sunday pleasures.” She was “bad,” and he kvetched: “But can’t we pass her by for once? Just to be free of her this one time.”
In the late 30s, wed to a diplomat, Monica Redlich, the English journalist who’d produced The Nice Girl’s Guide to Good Behaviour — a playbook for the flip side — moved to Copenhagen and wrote about Danes and Denmark. She did have nice things to observe, but when Redlich didn’t she found recourse in ballistics — “a really left-handed compliment,” she thought, was best. Life in Denmark “seems too good to be true and much too good to be exciting.” The Little Mermaid had “a very sweet face” but “no waist.”
The Little Mermaid, sitting here in Copenhagen Harbor, has come to be a symbol to an astonishingly varied lot of people. English and American visitors remember her more than almost anything else they see in Denmark; in some strange way she is Denmark, though why romantic sadness and a thoroughly foolish love affair should typify this seldom romantic, this un-melancholy, this practical and common-sense nation, it is hard to understand.
Peacetime after the second war reopened the gate to romance and adventure. The world got smaller. Hollywood made Hans Christian Andersen (1952), a much-liked musical film with Danny Kaye, a Ukrainian Jew from Brooklyn, in the lead. Where the real man was gaunt and hard to love (“a bony bore,” Charles Dickens’s daughter sketched her family’s onetime houseguest), Kaye’s Andersen is strapping and exuberant and sings of “wonderful, wonderful Copen-hoggan” (it’s -haygen). Danish literati are rumored to have begun convening on April 2, Andersen’s birthday — now celebrated as International Children’s Book Day — to toast him American-style: “Fuck Danny Kaye.” But tourism in Denmark was awake to its potential. It began to push Hans. “What is always mentioned when it comes to Danish tourism is Danny Kaye lying in H.C. Andersen’s bed in Odense,” Andersen’s hometown, says historian of cultural tourism Mikael Frausing. And the sculpture forged after his fairy-tale mermaid began to look to many like the mascot of storybook land; her destiny as “Denmark’s Statue of Liberty” was sealed.
In 1964, telegrams and letters of sympathy flooded into Copenhagen town hall from around the globe. A lot included donations toward the statue’s restoration, in British and Australian pounds, in lire, marks, crowns, francs, rupees, guilder, dollars.
“It was a disgraceful thing for someone to remove the head,” Carl Straley of Youngstown, Ohio, wrote Deputy Mayor Alfred Wassard-Jørgensen. “Probably the work of some crackpot. Sure takes all kinds of people to make this world.” A fifth-grade class from Bakersfield, California, wrote to the mermaid. Enhanced by poems and crayoned marginalia of brown hacksaws, orange decapitated heads, and silver newspapers, Room 21 expressed itself in adult-like terms of condolence. “Whoever sawed off your head, Dear Little Mermaid, I wish that he was dead,” said Debbie Kao. “All of the people in America wish you all of the luck in the world. And so do I,” Pat McClury offered. “PS. I hope you find a merman someday!”
A new head was minted. And the man who did it was “a real expert,” a former royal foundry apprentice attests. Poul Rasmussen identified the copper alloy the statue was made of; then he recast the head from Eriksen’s original plaster mold and enjoined it to the body with a metal collar his apprentice built onto the inside of the neck. At 16, Rasmussen had watched the 1913 installation (his father cast her). The Little Mermaid was the standard-issue golden brown, but it wasn’t Danish policy to wax out-of-doors bronze statues. They are allowed to oxidize with exposure to the elements, darkening, eventually crusting to the same verdigris effect that touches Copenhagen’s historic roofline. “The mermaid in a way is lucky,” says her keeper Munk, “because she is so pawed over, fondled, and caressed that the natural oxidation will hardly ever have a chance to come to a full effect.” That patina worried the bronze master — he’d need to match the redux head to her old blue-green bod. He treated it with chemicals, a delicate process, to artificially reproduce the living finish that’s accomplished, Munk rattles off, by “wear and weather and bird excrements.”
Five weeks after The Great Inconvenience, the Little Mermaid was publicly resurrected on June 1. The mayor brought red roses to the ceremony (and nearly fell into the water trying to give them to her): “Just like in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale where the princess for a while had to give her voice to the witch, you have lost your head for a while. But the [foundry] has done a magnificent job,” he declared. “There is no difference.”
An AP reporter looked her up and down, and disagreed. He wired “the cheeks were smooth like those of a teen-age girl,” and they were yellow. “But everyone tried to ignore the difference.”
Rewind to 1956, in Central Park. A bronze Andersen arrived at a granite bench by the lake, and the bronze baby swan at Andersen’s feet, The New Yorker observed, had quickly become “a seat for the very young.”
The Monuments Division of the Parks Department, which has charge of the six hundred and thirty-odd statues in the city, is firmly opposed, in principal, to statues’ serving as jungle-gyms, but it makes exception of Hans Christian Andersen and the Ugly Duckling.
The figures were made to be “crawled over, perched on, and embraced,” and they were. When the ugly duckling disappeared after a year, the sculpture was found in a nearby thicket, a casualty of innocent roughhousing: “The kids got scared and lugged him off into the bushes,” a park spokesman guessed, “— to hide the corpus delicti, you might say.” The duckling was taken in for repair and returned to the terrace with stronger riveting.
Nine years later, the defacing of the Little Mermaid was different. “It is one thing to hear about the Mermaid having her head cut off, but another thing entirely to see it in real life,” an engineering student at the time recollects. “Because,” Munk explains, “it was quite new. In 1964, you didn’t have graffiti; you didn’t have this violent kind of vandalism. To attack the national symbol was really something somebody must have thought of in a deeper way than just by chance.”
In the days after, the progressive broadsheet Informatíon tapped a reputable art historian named Troels Andersen. “The beheading could hardly have been a lead shot with greater precision,” he professed. “This wasn’t an irreplaceable work of art that was beheaded, but a naive figure who is not to blame for its own fame.” Not only had the national idol been violated, decapitation was, like crucifixion, such an archaic act. “The effect here is what the surrealist painter Salvador Dalí calls ‘logic shock.’”
“Perhaps,” he suggested, “the man who did this is not so crazy after all.”
In the 1960s in Denmark, the manufacture of goods outstripped agriculture. The society sped toward urbanization, but metropolitans were shocked. The poet Carsten René Nielsen explains: “If the Jelling stones” — runestones from the 10th century — “are the birth certificate of Denmark, the beheading of the Little Mermaid in 1964 was our baptism into modernity.” Here in the capital was their Marie Antoinette sent to the guillotine. Here, an Anastasia shot, finished with bayonets. “It was a breaking point,” according to a witness.
“That’s lifting it up a level,” says the television producer Maiken Wexø, head of Discovery Communications’ Scandinavian branch (as an MTV VJ in the ’80s, Wexø extended a microphone to the mermaid, nonvocal):
You can look at the beheading retrospectively and you can see it like that, but, at the time, I think a lot of people just saw it as childish provocation from a person who was quite desperate to get some attention. I think people were disgusted. They saw it as vandalism, not as something political, not as something artistic even.
Hartvigson agrees: “When the attack caused a stir, it was because it hit the innocent public, not those who daily went out and pondered the nature of art.”
A windy afternoon in Århus, before a performance of the actress’s one-woman musical “Havfruemorderens Datter” (“Mermaid Murderer’s Daughter”), Cecilia Zwick Nash says, simply, “The Little Mermaid had to die.”
Cecilia’s father, the late poet and situationist painter Jørgen Nash, confessed, in a 1997 memoir, to being the havfruemorder. By then the blue-eyed blond was known for his disruptive behavior in the 1970s — releasing white mice at the Danish Academy’s annual party, tossing firecrackers into a performance of Madame Butterfly at the Royal Danish Theatre. He showed up to court for that last one, Cecilia says, in jailhouse stripes and shackles, and every time the judge asked him a question, he “just rattled the chains.” There was an incident with whistles at parliament.
Jørgen Nash wasn’t totally silent about the Mermaid in those years. In 1964, he told police a Norwegian sea captain had killed the mermaid, but refused to give the acquaintance up. “He told a lot of versions of the story, of course. Some crazier than others,” a scholar stresses. The policemen could not prove he’d done it, but Cecilia, who was born in 1968, remembers the stigma afterward of being the daughter of the guy whom many believed to have offed their nation’s sweetest pet. Nash allegedly received a number of death threats.
“Typically the people who loved the Little Mermaid were the same people who loved the royal family,” Wexø says. “They had photographs of the royals and figurines of the Little Mermaid in their living rooms. Even if the vandalism had value as a statement, they’re not the kind of people who would have recognized it.” For those people, Cecilia says, “It was too wild.”
“It was wrong,” Jørgen Nash reflected, “but done is done.” A cop approached him a couple of years later, while he was promoting his book. “He told me that on that day eight people had tried to enter the exhibition, claiming they beheaded the mermaid and wanting to punish me for taking the credit,” the memoirist told the London Independent. “Unbelievable.” He said he was planning to throw a party for the self-identified assassins: “I plan to gather them all, find 200 divers to search for the head in the marsh” — where he’d claimed in the book to have dumped it — “and have a grand celebration.”
It did not come to pass. Jørgen Nash was tricky. A good many Danes doubt his responsibility for the beheading, and though Cecilia thinks he did it, she allows that her father’s fondness for conflicting versions of the same event makes the truth impossible to detect. Fascinated with the spectacle of mass media, he’d do or say something just to watch its effect dance around. “Where does it go?” She echoes now.
A Swedish exhibit the next decade called Jørgen Nash’s dealings with the statue “a lying historical poem,” one the press, in all its “eagerness,” had unwittingly helped to tell. He’s quoted two years after the beheading, raving,
They can’t get it into their heads, that this is the story of the century. That I’m busy writing the greatest adventure in the world. H.C. Andersen wrote his adventure about the Little Mermaid with a quill pen. I write about the New Mermaid with a teleprinter, grapevine, television, radio, newspaper, and so on.
Cecilia says it was the world’s first great “mediehappening.”
Come 1997, the revelation in Jørgen Nash’s memoir was like the final act of a twisting revue. This time, Nash maintained his two feuding girlfriends drove him to it; in the book “he lashed out,” remarks Hartvigson, “at the establishment, artistic enemies, arrogant professors and one ex-wife. But the mermaid … he always talks about with great respect.” (“He didn’t hate the Little Mermaid,” Cecilia says. “Not at all. It was not an act of hatred.”) He was nearly 80. Punitive options had expired long ago, but just in case, divers were sent into the wetland. They emerged without the head.
Hundreds of characters confessed to the crime through the years. (“I welcome them all,” Nash once said.) Another painter, named Charles Mac Streton, told his story to the tabloid Ekstra Bladet back in 1991. “It was a hell of a job,” the tab heard from the Copenhagener, who claimed to have had accomplices for lookouts while he sawed. “Today, I am not a racist, but back then it was a matter of all the foreign workers. They took the work we needed to have.” He thought he could make a point by imperiling something deeply dansk, “and what,” Streton figured, “is more Danish than the measly bronze-girl at Langelinie? We had not dreamt of the tremendous power it all was.” He couldn’t believe the result.
“It took so little to burst the national balloon.”
Measured against goliath compeers like the Statue of Liberty and Christ the Redeemer, mountainous landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben, the Danish statue is defined by her size, which is 4 ft. and 1 in. tall. (She weighs 385 lbs.)
“You get there, and it’s just this small, small thing,” says a PR rep for the city. The reaction is captured by an unmistakable New Yorker in front of Den lille havfrue — “This is it? This is what we came to see? You’ve godda be shitting me.” The Keeper of Monuments doesn’t flinch. “Well, she isn’t very big, is she,” he says. “But what kind of impression are we trying to make?”
Authorities can be heard promoting the statue as a case of the Scandinavian ideal “less is more.” Defenders experience the Little Mermaid as “reserved, but deep” (like the rest of her tribe); she is “humble” and “graceful,” unfenced and under-labeled, and the American travel writer Bill Bryson commends the lightness of tone: “Other cities put up statues of generals and potentates. In Copenhagen they give you a little mermaid. I think that’s swell.”
Anyone can see the figurine suits a seafaring kingdom geopolitics chipped away at until it was reduced to a toy nation, the size of Maine. “Her fate of being beat up closely resembles our country’s fate,” says a professor of architecture at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. “I like the Little Mermaid,” he adds. “But I wouldn’t let her in my house.” Scholars will tell you this ambivalence betrays the maddening fact that the statue’s celebrity was generated unnaturally, by foreigners. Knowing H.C. Andersen’s story about a good siren — later if only osmotically, via Disney — they came to Denmark with a jungly avidity for espying that indigenous fauna, plus the need to orientate, as people have, to their guidebook’s recognizable fixtures; and they made the statue famous.
“And as far as tourists are concerned, quite apart from any other considerations, she is of inestimable value to the country. Her photograph on picture postcards must sell by the hundred thousand,” Redlich mused in the late 1930s. “She is on ash trays, on matchboxes, on china, on lamps — on every kind of objet d’art which the tourist can wish to buy and bring home to his family.”
The Little Mermaid goes round the world with each annual throng of tourists, and whatever may be the Danes’ private feelings about her, they accept her gracefully enough and in a thoroughly practical manner as the unofficial, unsought national trade-mark.
In 1964, the tourism chief bemoaned the optics, but was relieved that the Little Mermaid would be back onstage for high season; and besides, it was already apparent, the emotional press was having the most marvelous effect of boosting the figure far and wide, anchoring her in people’s hearts. “Tourism to Denmark grew — so ironic,” Cecilia Zwick Nash says. “The Danes are superb salesmen of themselves,” a Swede sniffed about the time of Den lille havfrue’s return. “They play their little-mermaid, Hans Christian Andersen image to the hilt.”
Since 1998, the statue’s silhouette has been the shared logo of Wonderful Copenhagen (named after the song in the Danny Kaye film) and VisitCopenhagen, the capital arms of the country’s official tourism organization. Denmark’s 2014-released plan under its Ministry of Business, which emphasized a need to show Chinese and Russian big spenders a good time, recommended the Danish government and the cities of Copenhagen and Odense cooperate on a visitor’s center dedicated to the statue’s history. If built, the proposed center will be an offshoot of Odense’s Hans Christian Andersen Museum, and will be designed to hook tourists with deeper pockets for longer stays, feeding them from the capital to other parts of the country.
Mikael Frausing says the statue “doesn’t satisfy” Danes anymore. How could she? Wexø: “It’s quite often like that. The thing that represents your country doesn’t often have a lot of meaning for the people living in the country.” The last decade has clarified a reckoning that originally, literally, came to a head in 1964. The heirloom is poised on the fault line of the nation’s quaint past and its sophisticated future — a position made clear by high schoolers in their 2011 op-ed for Politiken, when they swiped “Denmark can no longer live in Biedermeier cosiness with thatched cottages, the Little Mermaid and the Skagen painters.”
“It will be difficult to eradicate such fame,” that paper’s editor acknowledged almost 30 years earlier (ultimately he signed off, “Long live the little mermaid!”). “We can’t raze her,” says Munk. “We have Den lille havfrue by luck, as a burden and a gift.” A diplomat says, “She’s popular. And she’s part of our image abroad, and that’s fine, so let’s get the best out of her.” With vague, shifting amounts of contempt and affection, some Danes call the Little Mermaid their “eternal whore.”
The rightist Danish People’s Party thinks she’s a dish. The party opposed the Ministry of Culture’s request to ship the mermaid to the 2010 World EXPO in Shanghai, where she would be parked in a spa-like blue lagoon, the queen of the country’s New Nordic–style castle architected by hotshot Bjarke Ingels and themed “Welfairytales.” With news of the plan, someone tarted the statue up in a pink bikini top and yellow and green bottom, made of Post-it notes. The question of the business trip was remitted to the city council, where Technical and Environmental Mayor Morten Kabell — of Denmark’s Red-Green Alliance, its socialist green organ — says: “If we could’ve voted ‘whatever,’ that probably would’ve been the majority vote.”
“Our opinion,” that of the Alliance, “was, as a socialist, if someone wants to borrow something from you, then you give them permission. So if the ministry wants to borrow her, of course they can.”
With the mermaid as its centerpiece, the Danish pavilion became the second-most-popular stop at the World EXPO. (Second to the Chinese.) “She did a really great job,” Christopher Bo Bramsen, former ambassador to China, Denmark’s Commissioner General to the fair, said later. “I don’t think we’ve ever had such a branding-Denmark success as we had with her.” The Chinese named a car after the statue (the hybrid Chang’an C201 Mermaid). Belgian colleagues looked on with annoyance: they’d brought a copy of their iconic Manneken Pis, but it was like being eclipsed at show-and-tell. “We’ve had good connections with Beijing and Shanghai ever since,” Kabell says. “The Chinese appreciate gestures.” They appreciate that the Danes sent the real McCoy. “If the Little Mermaid can serve as leverage with two of the most important cities in the world,” the politician adds, “cool.”
A spring/summer day, a canalboat tour grumbles by after a rest. “Mummy,” her daughter inquires, “how does she have babies?” A Korean man smooths his khakis and throws up a peace sign. “Open doz eyes,” a Slavic lady directs. “I’m just so tired,” her companion complains. “Pietro, non andare nell’acqua!” A man in red shorts, boat shoes, a Breton tee and Chanel shades, instead of smiling, grimaces. “One more!” Someone calls. “One more! Tanks. Tanks uh lot!” Next in queue are impatient with these photo-op hogs. A late-age Polish couple toes the cobbled downslope — the wife doesn’t want to hazard it; her husband can’t persuade. A twenty-something with magenta hair, in flannel and cutoffs, enacts candidness. The wind kicks up. Umbrellas crop on the esplanade.
Munk knows statues. He used to be a curator at the sculpture museum that houses Jacobsen’s private collection (“a cathedral,” the sponsor’s granddaughter calls it, but it’s named the Glyptotek, literally “a storing-place”). Bloodless/boneless/brainless/heartless/lifeless shapes wearing our features and impersonating our expressions. He is struck by the way people behave in the presence of them, and the Mermaid in particular. You can hear Spanish troubadours singing “La Sirena.” See dragon boaters paddling past pull oars out of the water and freeze them skyward (their gesture of salutation). See an Australian man release his wife’s ashes at the statue’s webbed feet. People who approach with a nearly Catholic attention to sainthood. “She’s almost holy,” says the diplomat. Their compulsion to touch polishes the most reachable part of her, a left, mid-metamorphosis leg that glows like a bell and flashes when sunlight hits it. At Langelinie the shore echoes the quietest splash from once upon a time, very long ago: the passage of the primordial superfreak from ocean to terra firma. “What stirs there in these people?” A writer for the paper Jydske marveled. “Naturally, a latent need for mysterious worship.”
Men cannot help themselves. Buddhist monks visit. Obama’s security details. The Ramones. In 1984, the photographer Søren Kirkegaard (a real man, not a statue) brought the late American artist Keith Haring. When they reached her, Haring took a piece of chalk from his pocket, but as soon as he applied it to the granite base, “People were screaming at him,” Kirkegaard remembers. “Stop it, stop him! Police, come! We were, Just a second! It’s a school crayon, we can wash it off … — Police, police! Fifty or sixty tourists were screaming.” Haring drew one of his bubble figures with wings and a fish tail.
Today, more than one million people visit the statue each year, and these tourists “need their picture,” Signe Hedemann Mikkelsen, a former WoCo project leader, says. “It’s a war zone for that picture. That’s the proof you give back home. Look, we went there. That’s me.” A decade ago, the city put in a cul-de-sac at Langelinie to help conduct the tour bus traffic. “Every one of those buses with sixty persons in each wants to go and be photographed,” says Munk. “I mean, logistically, it could take an hour for every busload of tourists. Their program is about one hour, all included; so the association of tour guides wanted us to solve the issue for them. And we said, ‘Well, no way. It’s your problem. If you can’t figure it out, skip her!’”
About then, the association asked for the statue to be scooted farther out into the water. “And they were so irritated, I think they leaked it to the press. The next day I had telephone calls and emails from Japan, from the United States, from France about our department’s plans to move our special friend.” Munk folds his hands.
Mm. It’s a joke I have around here: If I need something to do, I only have to make a press release for the Little Mermaid which is slightly controversial; I’ll have the world calling. But no, we wouldn’t budge her. The proximity is part of the whole aesthetic setup, and I like it. She is where she is.
Technical and Environmental ultimately removed a few stepping stones to discourage close contact and hasten the process, so if you come, you meet the mermaid on her terms. First, the esplanade is unevenly paved in large stones, which will almost certainly trip you up. Second, if you want to reach her, tide and recent rainfall depending, you lurch along a meter of half-submerged rocks slick with algae. Your feet get soaked “and some of the visitors never reach the goal,” a native observes. “They leave the battlefield wet and bruised.” In 2008, the municipality thought to put up a sign — “Climbing on the monument is not allowed.” — to shield against litigation in the event of an accident. “It isn’t to protect her,” Munk clarifies.
The painter Jeanette Elmelund harbors a Free Willy–like desire to transplant the statue somewhere “cozy” and “safe.” Hence her portrait of Den lille havfrue, titled “Better Life,” has farmhouse wallpaper in the background, and the statue’s throne of stone is done like a teacup in the royal porcelain factory’s signature Delft design. Elmelund plans to depict the Little Mermaid again: “I think she and I are going to have coffee and apple pie.” Denmark’s relationship with the mermaid feels, a young lifestyle consultant says, “like a guilty pleasure.”
When the city hosted a party for the statue’s 100-year jubilee, on August 23, 2013, the national radio morning show was on-site before sunrise. Flowers had been left on the altar of the Little Mermaid’s lap — not retail: the bouquet a child picks in the neighborhood to give its mother. Television crews frowned at the leaf blowers and street sweepers and interviewed an early bird from Baltimore, who described the feel of the statue’s skin “like satin.” The city buses with routes to the brewery and Langelinie flew celebratory Danish flags. “Usually that is reserved for royalty,” Mikkelsen, who served as the Mermaid’s party planner, says. “But she is royalty.”
Pageantry included a walkathon; the release of a Carlsberg brew; a myth-versus-fact marine biology quiz from the new national aquarium; solemn recital of the Andersen eventyr; speeches; a brass bands; and a free pop-up post office. (Eight thousand postcards printed with her face went out.) Dozens of female volunteers jumped into the harbor to form the number of the centenarian’s age. In 13 cities — Paris, London, Delhi, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Rome, Shanghai, Beijing, Sydney, and New York included — VisitDenmark hired ladies to doll up in body paint, seashell tops and lycra tails, and perch on rocks serving Danish pastries and champagne. The festivities closed in Copenhagen with an after-party at one of the harbor’s fashionable venues and a red-and-white fireworks display that hung sparkling like chandeliers above the statue’s head.
The first half of the mermaid’s life had not been so busy. Schoolkids climbed up to watch wooden ships, and then steel ships swan in and out of the harbor. On shore leave, sailors gave flowers, blew kisses, or saluted. She was offered uncooked herring, a fur coat.
End of summer, 1961, as the statue neared Decade V, university students enameled on a white bra and panties and brightened her hair — possibly in relation to the recently printed Jeg, en Kvinde (I, a Woman), an autobiographical novel about an ingénue turned nympho. The mermaid had joined the sexual revolution, with hair that matched the Danish flag, the color of a perfectly ripe strawberry. The police wiped her off with turpentine, but the attempts to update the Little Mermaid had begun. “It comes in waves,” Munk the keeper says now. “And of course, I think every time, it’s like a new story added to her myth.”
After the Danish parliament agreed to an Equal Pay Act, in 1973, she was decked with a suffragette-style sash, with a sign: “See — it was a real fairytale.” In 1986, activists draped a plastic white sheet over the statue; the sign read that “In the event of a ‘Yes’ vote on February 27” — the Danish referendum on the Single European Act — “the Little Mermaid will be dismounted and swapped out for a bronze sculpture of [Altiero] Spinelli,” one of the fathers of the European Union.
Later 1986: After nightfall, the Little Mermaid was approached by militant squatters who believed in an ancient right to settle unused land. The BZ’ers (from besættere, “occupiers”) dressed her as one of theirs: they painted her head black, kohled her eyes red, then girded her throat with a thick red scarf.
1989: Demonstrators collared the mermaid with chains and branded her rocky island “EF” (EU), in question of Denmark’s participation in the new Single Market. 1996: She was blanketed with winter clothes during a conference on homelessness. 2004: The day before the entry debate, she was outfitted in a burka and a sash worded “Turkey in the EU?” 2007: Veiled in Islamic chador; the next night, robed in the KKK suit. In 2009, when the Ministry of Integration denied asylum to some 60 Iraqis the country had been hosting, a priest invited them into his church, where they invoked sanctuary; and when police forcibly removed the refugees for repatriation, the mermaid was masked with a printout of the responsible minister’s face. A sign posted to her bronze bazooms read “SEND BIRTHE TO CHINA INSTEAD.”
The Little Mermaid is “the virgin in the roaring sea,” blindfolded, skewered with a fake harpoon over whaling practices. Painted sickly green and handling a dildo on International Women’s Day.
More than a foot of arm was amputated in the summer of 1984 — drawing thousands of rubberneckers. One Danish woman implied tourism bosses had orchestrated the hit themselves, as a publicity stunt. (“They know, it’s money in the bank!”) “Venus fra Milo,” Danes were calling her. WHO researcher Dr. Alexander Gilad, from Tel Aviv, supposed it was another nutcase. He’d been coming to Copenhagen for 20 years, and “I love the Little Mermaid,” the scientist told reporters. “Maybe she’s nothing special in terms of art. But she’s cute.” The old provocateur Jørgen Nash promised he’d had nothing to do with it — “I am full of anger that a psychopath has sawn off the right arm of my old girlfriend.” (Soon, in one of his many memoirs, Nash promised to “tell the whole story about the mermaid’s head.” This was his racket.)
The doers, it turned out, were a yoke of teenagers. They awoke on Sunday next to a coppery pipe with an elbow: “They came to the station with one arm, two hangovers and lots of apologies,” a policeman said. At least, Berlingske Tidende grouched, what happened in 1964 “had a certain class about it.”
When the statue is thus trimmed, the cost of metallurgy is usually compounded by the cost of the feat of evacuation. The city architect acknowledged the great expense, but hedged, saying that Copenhagen “has, over the years, doubtlessly made a solid profit from the Little Mermaid.” There still was not road access to Langelinie in the 1980s. Thence came logisticians; they measured the depth of the harbor and okayed Herkules, the country’s biggest floating crane, to sidle up and gently lift the statue out: “Beauty and the Beast,” Politiken described the drama. Trucked to a foundry in the suburbs, the Little Mermaid waited in the open air outside, but the bronze caster warned, “I’m sleeping in the workshop as long as she’s here.” And brute reseated belle a week later.
An explosion threw the mermaid from her pedestal on September 11, 2003. In his living room, down the street from the office, opera on the stereo, Munk sighs: “She jumped. What a mess.” She sustained two- and three-inch holes in her knees; one wrist cracked and the blast loosened interior parts that shot through like bullets in reverse or punched lumps in the statue’s form. Divers dragged the Little Mermaid from the water, but made it worse. Her hair, cheeks, and back were badly abraded, bringing the grand total to a 150 hours’ worth of work, the hurt repaired, as always, at the royal foundry.
The clear-eyed bronzesmith who shakes his head a lot there is Peter Jensen, the Mermaid’s Doctor. He recovered from the Baltic as many shards of the original bronze as possible, melted them down, reapplied and chemically patinated that flesh with copper nitrate and Ferric chloride, but “I could not find it all,” he says, “so her skin is thinner in those places.”
“A repeat client,” Doc Peter calls the statue.
The Little Mermaid first came under his care six months after the Disney movie triumphed in American theaters, in 1990, when someone snicked a 7-inch gash at her nape, then either broke the blade, gave up, or grew a heart. Peter welded the cut and concealed its scar with patina. Police told reporters, “The old lady is doing fine.” But eight years on, someone did succeed with the replacement head. (Maybe a freelance news videographer looking to make big bucks from the sale of suspiciously unique footage.) Bizarre as the circumstances beclouding the first decapitation were, Berlingske dubbed this latest “mysterious media happening” a “tradition.” The paper yawned: “A joke is rarely enjoyable when it’s told twice.”
“The Little Mermaid slayer is in fact a hero,” a WoCo PR coordinator countered. The beheading — the whole world was reporting it, again — would fetch “more tourists and more money” (“disaster would be if the mermaid completely disappeared”). Politiken: “VANDALISM IS A BRAND.”
This time, a cad in a black hoody anonymously surrendered the head to a television station three days later. Police brought it to city hall, where mayoral staffers looked after the ball of bronze by passing it among themselves and taking polaroids. “It was really very heavy,” one says.
Peter remounted the head and armored her neck. “We have made something special inside Den Lille Havfrue, but are not allowed to tell anybody what that is,” states his sister Pia, the foundry’s clerk. “The city council wants this to remain a secret forever — so that nobody can start thinking of any smart way to disturb the statue.” Munk’s department reviewed many proposals. One would’ve put in a rotating ball to force an aspirant cutthroat to saw all around the neck’s diameter. Craftsmen whisper her neck is stuffed with amber (it washes up on Denmark’s western coast), which would gum up a trespassing blade.
The doc assures: “It won’t happen again.”
When she’s fouled, whenever possible, the city tries to keep the long nose of the international press out of it (“It makes so much noise,” Peter says.) by doing the cleaning or making the repairs onsite, in the wee hours, so no one is the wiser.
But the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question, who prized away the mermaid’s cephalic part in 1964? Doc Peter imagines it was American marines out for a souvenir. Such joes would have had the opportunity, he says, and hardware. They were young, and suppose one of them kept the head all these decades; suppose he dies and his offspring find Denmark’s Little Mermaid’s head in their father’s garage. What would Denmark do if it got the head back? Would the second noggin be replaced by the original? Peter pauses, in thought. “I don’t know.” Maybe it would be too deteriorated, because like rust, patina becomes corrosive after a point. “We call it ‘battery effect.’”
One account has it that Jørgen Nash donated a box to the National Archive, a package with undivulged contents, which the jester stipulated was not to be cracked open until the future, on a date that has not yet arrived. “Unfortunately,” an archivist reminds, “there are a lot of stories about Jørgen Nash and the mermaid’s head. Most of the rumors Nash made up himself.” Even so, an administrator at the Royal Library remembers the box being dropped off in the early ’80s, but “what since happened to it or if it was ever opened,” she emails, “I do not know.” The question is redirected to the Collection of Manuscripts and Rare Books, which does.
Inside was a 3-D plaster rendering of the head of Jørgen Nash, a Yorickian joke (“fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy”) that still rests on one of the librarian’s desks. Anyone who can develop a story from the beyond the grave like this should be applauded. Who actually dunit to the mermaid does not matter. Nash swung in to view and fulfilled a syzygy — H.C. Andersen, C. Jacobsen, J. Nash: this unlikely cohort grabbed hold of a legendary body that dates to the advent of civilization, and changed her stars. “We heard the call for Langelinie,” a junior reporter working the night desk that April dawn in 1964 remembers. According to the police dispatch, the statue had been “damaged,” so he and a photographer raced down, the first, along with a duo of constables, to arrive: “We looked to each other and thought, ‘Ah. This is going to be a good story.’”
“They like to take a can of paint and — boom — she’s red or blue or yellow,” says Otto Christophersen, a silver-haired specialist with the firm contracted to clean public property of graffiti, and, as the Mermaid’s groomer, someone who’s ministered to the statue many times over the past 20 years. “She’s been every color, I think,” with a face painted like a clown’s, a mouth greased by various shades of lipstick.
On occasion, Munk says the police have engaged a generic cleaning service without consulting him. “I want to be sure they do it the right way. They might use anything to get it off.” Pink residue from one of those times, when young anarchists spray-painted the mermaid in bubblegum-colored paint in 2007, was discovered in the statue’s bellybutton three years later, in 2010, when she was withdrawn for her Singapore Air flight to Shanghai. “There wasn’t time to bathe,” says Munk, who chaperoned. Other problems came to light. Chinese customs agents had sold a first look to local media outlets, to which the Danes responded “Absolutely not.” By the time they inspected the mermaid’s crate, the agents had already become annoyed at being told what they could and could not do. “When they discovered a live spider, they had this poker face. They quarantined her.”
He describes the intermezzo. The Danish retinue was summoned after some hours to a meeting, “a formal thing following a set of codified Chinese rules that we were hardly able to understand, so we just nodded and agreed and smiled.” Munk furnishes photographs of Chinese authorities sending a flashlight and vacuum hose up her derrière. “She was miserable.”
The month before, in December, the Copenhagen Summit had tried to rehab the Kyoto Protocol. Activists left penguins made of ice at Langelinie; they engulfed the mermaid in an inflatable biosphere and accessorized her with statement pieces: snorkels, lifesavers, radiation-protection masks. The statue inspired “The Angry Mermaid Award,” which agitated a response from the public affairs office of Monsanto, its recipient.
With the Moscow verdict to jail Pussy Riot in 2012, Danes protested outside the Russian embassy while the statue rocked a hot pink balaclava. On January 12, 2015, a metal sign lashed to her arms read “Jeg er Charlie.”
“That’s why she’s lost her head, lost her arm, has been painted and everything,” the planner says, “because she’s a symbol. She can start the dialogue. Why are people doing this? Well, that’s the problem.” Realizing the jubilee in 2013 presented a perfect opportunity to abuse the statue, she’d hired four bodyguards to watch over the Little Mermaid. “I was surprised nobody came for her.” But saying the statue is a passive canister of human feeling does not do justice to the aura of a willful bronze mermaid seemingly alive to the theater of contemporary events.
The groomer: “I think she’s got something to say.” The keeper: “They are comments of the moment.” His friend, the cultural anthropologist Jacqueline Ryle, has to wonder. “Is she possessed? Is the Little Mermaid a priestess dispensing divine advice? Doesn’t it seem?”
Last year, in April, the provo-kunstner Uwe Max Jensen commemorated the 50th anniversary of the beheading, which he says “added something dark to the Little Mermaid” and calls “the biggest happening ever made in Denmark.” At 1 p.m. the Mermaid’s New Jester walked butt-naked out to the pier with a handsaw, climbed up to her, and mimed Jørgen Nash’s 1964 splish-splash slash. Afterward he stood upside down, with his head in a black bucket, as the crowd cheered him on. The Little Mermaid “is a monster,” he says. “I am unconvinced she died, or can.”
Universal Pictures is developing a live-action adaptation of the Andersen fairy tale. The director Joe Wright was attached to the project, but went on to film another fabled character of the collective conscious, that of Peter Pan, out this summer, and the Little Mermaid’s second director Sofia Coppola has just exited, reportedly because she and the studio could not agree on a talent to play the star fish.
Frausing thinks someone “ought to be able to do interesting stuff to this story. It’s like pirates or Vikings or samurais; the point is not so much what is the ‘real story’ as how pop culture is able to renew an interpretation and reshape existing cliché into new material.” A four-quadrant movie is unlikely to redraw the character’s profile, but it will color the patina on her regnant form, the bronze that slumps over Copenhagen Harbor’s gray rocks and teal water: of a suffering outsider who dreamt and gambled and came to grief, who pulls humans to her like a kindred soul. If the point of 1964 was extermination, it is no wonder it did not work. If it was storytelling, no wonder it did. “The real threat to the Little Mermaid,” the cultural historian foresees for the statue, “is rather to be forgotten, trivialized, or ignored.”
Day and night, for now, the Nordic sea princess is out there. She sits as quietly as Jane Goodall whilst the drama of apes plays around her. And while 20th-century tourism may have invented her, the curious Little Mermaid is a tourist herself.
Chantel Tattoli is a journalist who has contributed to Architectural Digest, The Hollywood Reporter, and Salon. She has an MFA from the Savannah College of Art and Design.
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