Napoleon’s Chair

It’s an ordinary mahogany bergere chair. What makes it special? The chair belonged to Napoleon during his exile in the 1800’s on St. Helena but there are hundreds of other items that would seem to be more interesting. After Napoleon was captured at Waterloo his possessions toured England. That’s right people lined up to see his gold tongue scraper and cashmere jockey shorts. Then when he died it’s likely that the priest called in to administer the last rights lopped off the royal John Thomas. His counterpart the English chaplain who tiptoed off with the royal arm chair seems tame by comparison.

So why am I fascinated with Napoleon’s chair? It’s the damage to the rattan on the right arm. Did Napoleon grip it in a sudden rage or did he gradually wear it away tapping his fingers in annoyance at the numerous acts of petty revenge inflicted on him by his captors? It brings the whole mad story of his last days on St. Helena into perspective. It’s the Fitzgerald nickel.

What’s the Fitzgerald nickel? I give a nickel to anyone that tells me they’re interested in writing. It’s confusing till I relay the dialog from The Last Tycoon where the writer learns why he’s a writer:

This is you.

A girl comes in.

She doesn't see you.

She takes off her gloves.

She opens her purse.

She dumps it out on the table.

You watch her.

This is you.


She has two dimes, a matchbox
and a nickel.

She leaves the nickel
on the table.

She puts the two dimes
back into her purse.

She takes the gloves...
they're black.

Puts them into the stove.

Lights a match.

Suddenly, the telephone rings.

She picks it up.

She listens.

She says, "l've never owned
a pair of black gloves

in my life."

Hangs up.

Kneels by the stove.

Lights another match.


you notice...

...there's another man
in the room...

watching every move
the girl makes.

What happens?

l don't know.

l was just making pictures.

What was the nickel for?

Jane, what was the nickel for?

The nickel was for the movies.

What do you pay me for?

l don't understand
the damn stuff.

Yes, you do...

or you wouldn't have asked
about the nickel.

You’re a writer when you ask about the nickel. You’re a writer when you ask about the damaged arm on Napoleon’s chair. It’s all about the Fitzgerald nickel.

The dialog is from The Last Tycoon released in 1976 and directed by Elia Kazan. Screenplay by Harold Pinter.

The love of the Last Tycoon is the last unfinished novel of F. Scott Fitzgerald who died in 1940 at the age of 44.

Napoleon’s Chair is occasionally on display at the Maidstone Museum

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9 Responses to Napoleon’s Chair

  1. Penny says:

    Why is the bottom worn out only at the front? Was his legs so short that he sat on the edge like a child? Can you picture him sitting on the edge of the chair swinging his legs?
    All the while setting the future for so many that will die for him.

    • chikuba says:

      At the time Napoleon is sitting in this chair every day he’s in a gloomy, dark, and dank house on St. Helena which is tropical hence the rattan. The island was full of yellow fever, hepatitis, and especially deadly dysentery. Napoleon either has stomach cancer at this time like his father or he’s slowly being poisoned to death by the application of arsenic powder to his food. The cast of characters is wide and varied from Napoleon’s entourage (several of whom could have motive to poison him) to the repeated petty cruelty of the English meant to humble him in even the slightest ways. There’s a faithful valet, a mistress or maybe even two, and incompetent doctors. The doctors are interesting because several more qualified physicians were dismissed with the Governor General for diagnosing ailments counter to the benefit of the English empire.

      Maidstone museum says that the chair was removed from public display in 1997 after developing a rather large hole in the seat. I imagine that someone wanted to sit in the chair and put their fat bottom right through it. In the little story I’m working on the chair is actually a time displaced net attempting to trap the Emperor and catching other little fishes that sit on the chair too.

      • chikuba says:

        I just found this interesting tidbit about the chair he sat in before the battle of Waterloo.

        “For instance, I wonder if it is scarred with the violent slashings Napoleon left in many of the chairs in which he regularly slouched. Because he did.

        He had, memoirs tell us, an insatiable inner violence. And as he sat at meetings, he would take his pen knife from his pocket and stab and gash the wooden arms of the beautiful chairs in which he sat. He even treated the arms of his thrones like this.”

  2. Patrick says:

    Interesting.. point to ponder

  3. It’s interesting to consider needing someone to tell you that you are a writer, that you don’t already know.

    • chikuba says:

      one of the first things I learned about drawing is that we don’t actually see what we think we see. The assignment is to draw a chair. Everyone knows that all four legs of a chair must touch the ground or a chair will be wobbly. If you’ve not taught yourself to see exactly what’s there you will almost invariably draw the chair out of perspective because your mind is telling you that the chair shouldn’t be wobbly. It’s not as easy to define this kind of thing in writing but once you start looking for Fitzgerald nickels they do start popping up. Even if you don’t include them in your work they’re keeping your brain from imposing a wobble in your work.

  4. vange says:

    And as he sat at meetings, he would take his pen knife from his pocket and stab and gash the wooden arms of the beautiful chairs in which he sat.

    Who knew he was such a jerk? LOLOLOL

  5. Jenny Beans says:

    I would like to sit in Napoleon’s chair, even if just for a minute, and listen to see if it spoke to me.

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