A Biography
The life story of Jean-François Gravelet
alias Blondin, the Ropewalker
by Jean-Louis Brenac, a French descendent of Blondin
Jean-François Gravelet’s childhood

Gravelet’s family came from Champignolles, a small village in Normandy. His grandfather Pierre formed a troupe of acrobats and rope-dancers with his two sons, Etienne and André. After his father’s death, in 1803, André continued acrobatics and rope-dancing until 1810, when, at 20 years old, he was conscripted into the army for five years, during which it is possible that he participated in the Russian campaign and the battle of Waterloo. After leaving the army, he returned to his former profession and married an acrobat, Eulalie Merlet. They had four children: Pauline (1820), Jean-François, who was born on the 28th of February 1824 in Hesdin (Pas-de-Calais, France), Louis-André (1829), and Louis (1831). Along with other acrobats, André and Eulalie formed their own troupe of rope-dancers, their children joining them as soon as they were able to walk on the rope. The troupe performed in France, moving from town to town and occasionally venturing into neighbouring countries. Pauline and Jean-François were highly talented tight ropewalkers.

After André’s death in 1837, Eulalie carried on with her children. Pauline married and left the troupe but was replaced by Marie Rosalie Blancheri after her marriage to Jean-François on the 6th of August 1846, in Tarascon (Bouches du Rhône, France). Jean-François and Louis-André were the main performers of the Gravelet brothers troupe which amounted to 15 persons in total. Jean-François performed extraordinary feats. On horizontal high ropes: using a regular four-legged chair, he balanced it cornerwise on its legs sitting upon it, moving it from side to side, standing upon it, climbing over its back, and even edging it along the cord; even more difficult, he turned a somersault over the chair placed in the middle of the rope and landed on his feet on the other side of it. On low rope: putting aside the pole, he performed backward and forward somersaults over burning candles; he also performed as a violinist, playing extremely fast tunes (it is alleged that he was able to perform somersaults without missing a note); similarly, he often appeared with a drum, which he played with an intensity and rapidity equal to half a dozen drummers, whether leaping high into the air or spinning backward or forward. He claimed to be the first acrobat in Europe, which he surely was.

Blondin in America

In 1851, Gabriel Ravel invited him to join the Ravels, a French troupe of tightrope walkers, acrobats and pantomimes which was already famous in America. He chose “Blondin” as a stage name and sailed with Gabriel Ravel to New-York from France, leaving behind his wife Marie Rosalie and their three children, Aimé Leopold, five years old, born on 3rd of June 1846 in Vauvert (Gard, France) who died on the 9th of November in Saint-Chinian (Hérault, France); Aimé Jean-Baptiste, two and half years old, born on first of November 1848 in Vienne (Isère, France) and Emélie, eighteen month old, born on the 26th of September 1849 in Nevers (Nièvre, France). Whilst performing in Niblo’s Garden Theatre, in New-York, he fell in love with a 15 years old singer, Charlotte Lawrence, whom he married on 21st of August 1852 in Boston, thus becoming a bigamist! Their marriage was blessed by the Reverend Edward T. Taylor, preacher of the Seamen’s Bethel church, who was notably the inspiration for Father Mapple in the 1851 Herman Melville novel Moby Dick.

For eight years, they toured Canada, United States and Cuba with the Ravels and the Martinetti Family, another French troupe of acrobats. In October 1855, they crossed Nicaragua and performed in California for five months. After parting company with the Ravel and Martinetti families in 1859, Blondin enjoyed a tremendous success throughout his two seasons at Niagara, crossing the Niagara river several times, including three times carrying his agent Harry Colcord on his back, and once on stilts, in the presence of Prince Edward, heir to the British throne. After these exploits, he became famous in the United States and throughout the British Empire, but remained little known in France, as the Parisian press held him in contempt.

His mother died in 1854 while he was abroad.

The conquest of London

In May 1861, at the beginning of the Civil War, Blondin left America for England with his second wife and their three children, Adele (1854), Edward (1855) and Iris (1859). His new agent, Henry Coleman, travelled ahead to London and negotiated with the Directors of Crystal Palace a fee amounting £100 per performance, a sum four times larger than had even been paid before. During a two years period, he achieved great success, firstly in London, mainly at Crystal Palace, where he drew immense crowds (1,480,000 spectators in total), then subsequently all over the United Kingdom, in fifty major cities (again 1,500,000 spectators).

In October 1863, his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, accompanied by his Majesty the King of Greece and Prince Christian of Denmark, with a large entourage, visited Crystal Palace and gave Blondin the great honour of witnessing a part of his low-rope performance.

Blondin and Charlotte set up home at 32 Finchley Road, St John’s Wood. They called their house Niagara Villa and enjoyed a high standard of living; Charlotte gave birth to two more children, Henry Coleman (1862), named in honour of his agent, and Charlotte (1866). For the next thirty years, Blondin alternated seasons between London and the rest of United Kingdom and from time to time tours to Europe and the rest of the world.

Tours around Europe

In 1863, he completed a six-month tour of Spain and Portugal including a performance in the presence of Queen Isabel II and the Royal Family. On returning to London, Henry Coleman informed Blondin that he no longer wished to travel and decided to set up residence in Regent Street where he went into business as a wine merchant. Mssrs Corbyn and Parravicini replaced Coleman as Blondin’s sole and exclusive Agents. They organized a tour in Italy, Austria, Germany and Russia. On September 1864, Blondin was in Saint Petersburg for a fortnight but, due to rain, he was only able to give a solitary performance.

At the beginning of 1865, Henry Coleman went bankrupt and Blondin, who had entrusted all of his £13,600 earnings to Coleman, lost everything.

At the end of the year, he went back to Saint Petersburg via Berlin and gave performances during several months at the Concert Hall of the Waters Minerales in Novaya Derevnya.

His first appearance in France, in July 1866, at Plateau de Gravelle, in Bois de Vincennes, was disappointing. The audience was small because the public were confused that a so-called “Blondin, the Hero of Niagara”, had performed during the previous two years at Mr. Arnault’s Hippodrome. The following year, Blondin returned for the 1867 International Exhibition. Mr. Arnault advertised his Blondin impersonator's performance on the 15th of June, at the same time as Blondin’s performance at the new Parc de Cremorne, in Asnières. Blondin immediately sued and Arnault was obliged to cancel his show and was ordered to pay Blondin 500 Francs in compensation. Quite unfairly, a part of the Parisian press, mainly Le Figaro, expressed hostility towards Blondin. The atmosphere was difficult and when Blondin discovered that his rope had been sawn so that only one fibre remained, he decided to break his engagement in Asnières and returned to London where, on the 4th of June 1868, he was naturalized British under his name "Jean Francois Gravelet”.

Around the world

In 1870, after a tour in Belgium, Holland and Germany, Blondin went back to Spain and was appointed Chevalier of the Order of Queen Isabel la Catolica by Francisco Serrano, Regent of Spain. From then on, he liked to be called “Chevalier Blondin, hero of Niagara”. In October 1873, he set sail for what was to be a very successful eighteen-month tour in India and Australia. The steamship upon which he was travelling, the Flintshire, was totally wrecked at Cleveland Bay, on the north-east coast of Australia. All passengers were rescued safely, however. Blondin lost only his rope. He returned to England in March 1875, and in September of the same year he set sail again with Charlotte and their three youngest children for a two years round-the-world tour via Australia, New-Zealand, California, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. Between Aden and Ceylon, on board the steamer Poonah, while on her way to Australia, Blondin performed an audacious feat, walking his rope drawn from the mainmast to the mizzen. He reportedly had to sit down five times while heavy waves battered the ship. It was during this tour that his young son, Henry Coleman, acted for the first time as his assistant.

His third appearance in France, at the end of 1877, at the Palais de l’Industrie, in presence of General Grant, former President of the United Sates, was a tremendous success. Things were going well and Blondin expected to build on his success the following year at the Paris Universal Exhibition. A French businessman, Félix de Hogues, enticed him to participate in his ambitious project, Galeries Parisiennes, which he planned to develop near the Pont de l’Alma especially for the occasion. It included 300 shops, several bars and restaurants, and an artificial lake, the highlight being the crossing of an artificial Niagara Falls by Blondin. Inspired by the project, Blondin invested everything he had in the idea. Sadly, Felix de Hogue was accused of fraud and subsequently arrested; after his release, he fled to Belgium. Blondin was once again ruined financially and was forced drastically to reduce his standard of living. He sold Niagara Villa and moved to a more modest residence at N°6 Boscobel Gardens, near Marylebone Station. In search of money, he went from performance to performance throughout the United Kingdom, Europe, India (Calcutta) and Ceylon.

On the 29th of October 1881, after the death of Marie Rosalie Blancheri, his legitimate wife, he married once again Charlotte Lawrence, in order to try to correct their marital status.

At the beginning of 1888, Blondin signed a contract with Imre Kiralfy, a well known theatrical producer, for a series of performances in New York. After his arrival, on the 4th of June 1888, he was annoyed to discover that he was required to use a safety net and that he had to abandon his plan to produce his show in Central Park as there were strong protests against it. He was forced to perform in St George, Staten Island and then in Coney Island, with a large net stretched beneath his rope. Despite his success, Blondin was very much disillusioned, particularly when his proposal of a tightrope exhibition over the Niagara river was halted by the authorities at the Falls. He said : “ I do not like America. I will not come here again.” and with that, returned to England. His wife Charlotte died on the 15th of December 1888.

Blondin at home

In 1889, Blondin purchased a property at Little Ealing. It included a house that he called Niagara House, with spacious gardens and grounds. He lived there with his daughter Adele, Francisco Pastor’s widow, a coachman, a servant and his dogs. He was a fan and breeder of black-and-tan terriers, and usually had with him about a dozen of these creatures. His son Henry Coleman lived close by with his family. He was often visited by the most prestigious English reporters, come to interview the man who had been, undoubtedly, one of the most popular entertainers in the world.

He was still very active, but in 1895, while performing in Blackpool, he sprained his back very severely and returned to his hotel suffering from immense pain. Miss Katherine James, a 29-years-old barmaid at the hotel, attended to him. She proved to be a skilful nurse and he invited her back to Little Ealing; they were married on the 29th of November 1895. The morning after his wedding, Blondin travelled to Glasgow, in order to carry out a fortnight's engagement. He was at that time seriously diabetic and began to lose his sight. He gave his last performance in Belfast on August 1896 and died on the 22nd of February of the following year in Little Ealing.

He was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery on the 25th of February 1897. The ceremony was attended by a large crowd and a coil of rope tied with white ribbons was placed on top of his coffin. The service was conducted by the Rev. M. C. Richardson, whose eulogy presented Blondin as a model of courage and domestic virtue.

The French newspapers announced that Blondin had left behind a personal fortune amounting to 1,800,000 Francs, the equivalent of £72,000. In reality, it was much smaller, nearer £3,500, including the value of Little Ealing and £1,445 as personal effects. His French children, Aimé and Emélie, went to London to claim their share of Blondin’s inheritance. They asserted their rights in court and obtained what was due to them, which, because of British inheritance laws, amounted to very little - £450, reduced to half after payment of lawyers’ fees.

A journalist commented that despite the thousands of times that Blondin had risked his life and the princely income that for years rewarded his daring, he sadly died a poor man.