Bryan Goldberg, my boss’s boss and the man who pays my salary, recently bought a hat. Specifically, the hat is this hat: “the legendary ‘à la française’ hat of Emperor Napoleon I, worn during his campaign in Pologne (1807),” as Sotheby’s put it. In September, the headgear sold at an auction for €1,222,500 or some $1.43 million, as of that month.
You might recall that Goldberg paid $1.35 million for this website at an auction in 2018. In other words, he paid about $80,000 more for the 214-year-old hat of a man who tried to subjugate Europe, than for a blog that employs 13 people, multiple freelancers, and several columnists. Fair enough.
While Bryan did not let Gawker break this story (that honor went to the New York Post), he did agree to a lightly edited email exchange. But before we get into that, some brief context on the hat’s composition, provenance, and history. According to the Sotheby’s listing, Bryan’s new dome piece is “black felt ornamented with a red, blue and white cockade, beneath a black silk double band held together by a button covered with embroidered black silk threads.” The top part of the hat is reinforced with black felt; the interior is lined with “gray-greenish silk,” and “quilted with three concentric circles and longitudinal stitching to sides.”
Notably, this was not Napoleon’s only hat in this style. The emperor took to wearing those classic “à la française” chapeaux only after 1800, but eventually came to own about 120 of them. Each hat, modeled after those worn by his officers, cost 60 francs and came from the milliner Poupart & Cie. According to Sotheby’s, Napoleon kept a roster of roughly 12 hats at any given time, ordering four new ones each year. Apparently, the short king “disliked brand new hats,” so his valet “would be the first to use them.” While most of these headpieces lasted about three years, Napoleon wore this particular one for just 10 months, during “the Battles of Iena, Friedland and Eylau and at the Treaty of Tilsit.” A disgusting detail, via Artnet: it may have carried “trace amounts of his DNA.”
Now for our conversation. Here is how it began:
TARPLEY HITT SEPT 22, 2021, 8:16PM:
Leah mentioned you bought Napoleon’s hat at an auction. Have a second tomorrow to answer a couple of questions about buying Napoleon’s hat at an auction?
BRYAN GOLDBERG SEPT 22, 2021, 8:29PM:
I can’t do a phone interview but we can do an on the record email correspondence like we did last time, but this time you can ask me as many questions as you want (either all at once or back and forth like a tennis match of wits)…
Believe me, it will be worth it!
TARPLEY HITT SEPT 23, 2021, 8:29 AM:
Okay can you start by telling me a little bit about this hat? What made you think “I’d like to have that hat?”
BRYAN GOLDBERG SEPT 23, 2021, 1:50PM:
Great question, Tarpley.
I’ve known about the existence of this hat for quite some time. It actually sold at auction several years ago. But when Sotheby's announced that it was coming back up for bids, my father saw the article and sent it to me. Hats supposedly owned by Napoleon come up for auction every now and then, and most of them are of dubious authenticity. This one is real and has a particularly important backstory, so I had always been disappointed that I missed it the first time… back before I got interested in French history.
These days, I am somewhat obsessed with French history… at least I have been since around 2018, when it occurred to me that America might be in the sort of cultural and institutional upheaval that brings to mind the French Revolution. Being an obvious target for guillotine, I thought it might be wise to get fluent in 18th-century French politics. This naturally led to me reading several books about Napoleon. His is a pretty remarkable story. The man was born a nobody on an island in the middle of nowhere. He died on an island in the middle of nowhere. But in-between, he rose to the greatest heights that any human has ever achieved.
And that brings me back to the matter of this hat.
This is the very hat that Napoleon wore in his 38th year, 1807. Historians universally acknowledge that year was the peak of his peak. So when I had the chance to purchase this incredibly lucky hat that was worn during the apex moment of the most meteoric rise in human history… I had to buy it.
Had I been a wealthier man, I might have instead purchased an 8-bit jpg of an ape. Or perhaps I might have purchased a rare pair of Air Jordan sneakers. Maybe even a mint condition Mike Trout rookie card — or a collection of rare Pikachus! But I can’t afford those sorts of things, so I will have to settle for owning the actual crown of history’s greatest emperor. A century from now, hopefully people remember Napoleon as well as they remember titans like Mike Trout and Pikachu.
BRYAN GOLDBERG SEPT 26, 2021, 9:10AM:
Where Tarpley at ... so many questions i am ready to answer!
At this point, I sent Bryan a list of questions. Here is how he responded:
1. What attracted you to Napoleon? What books on him did you read? Were there elements of his personal history that stood out to you? Which?
The reason so many people admire Napoleon is because he represents the outer edge case of how far one can push the human experience. There’s a reason why he achieved what he did — he was history’s ultimate combination of genius, ambition, work ethic, guts, charisma, political acumen, and luck. And he was born at precisely the right moment for all of it to come together. Nothing like his story has ever come before or after. To admire Napoleon is to believe in the power of the individual to change the world. And few people changed the world more than he did.
Everyone should start with Andrew Robert’s biography of Napoleon, which has become a standard in the English language. There are also many great podcasts about Napoleon, the best of which is called The Age of Napoleon and is now 80 episodes deep. Beyond that, there are literally tens of thousands of books about the Emperor.
2. Napoleon wore this hat during his campaign in Poland — was this particular moment special to you? What do you know about that campaign?
This moment was incredibly special to Napoleon’s life. He almost certainly wore this exact hat as he signed the Treaty of Tilsit at the end of the Poland campaign. This was his apex. Napoleon himself called this the peak of his success. If only he had quit while he was ahead at this exact moment, history would be unimaginably different.
Shortly after signing the treaty, Napoleon retired this hat and put on a new one. He then entered a catastrophic war with Spain, which set off a chain of poor decisions. But Napoleon made those poor decisions while under the influence of other hats. I’m not sure that I would want to own the hat he wore during the Russian invasion or Leipzig or Waterloo. Napoleon was very superstitious, and if he could only bring one hat with him to the afterlife, it would almost certainly be the lucky one that I now own.
3. According to Sothebys, this hat was one of roughly 120 hats Napoleon acquired over time. Are you interested in any of the others or is this the hat for you?
Very few of those hats still exist today. Most of them are in poor shape or have little evidence to support their authenticity. They are also mostly in museums. In my opinion, the hat I got is the very best one. I really can't express how excited I am to own it!
4. When Michael Shaw Stewart first acquired this hat in 1814, he wrote in his diary “I will not say how much I would have given for it but having got it I know that no price would tempt me to part with it. I consider it as a most curious and interesting thing to be possessed of and I shall spare no care or expense to get it back home.” Do you feel similarly?
I cannot imagine ever selling this hat. I have never been more pleased with a purchase [Ed. Note: Okay...] At some point in the future, I will get offers of $10 or $20 million dollars for this hat, and I look forward to rejecting them. People already spend that kind of money for works by modern artists who nobody will remember or care about a century from now. Nobody is forgetting Napoleon.
5. You paid 1,222,500 EUR for this hat, which as of 9/27/21, converts to $1,430,080.50. In 2018, you bought Gawker for $1.35 million. One of those numbers is less than the other. Which do you value more?
I love Gawker more.
5.5. Following the publication of this piece, Bustle’s Chief Content Officer of Culture and Innovation Josh Topolsky proposed a follow-up question to Goldberg in a Signal chat: “She should have asked why you didn’t use they [sic] money to give everyone a raise at bdg [sic]. Or hire more journalists.” Here’s his answer:
That’s not how money works!
6. Do you plan to wear the hat?
Yes, I plan to wear the hat. If Napoleon were alive, he would insist that I wear the hat, because only a fool would pay 21 kilograms of gold for a hat that he does not intend to wear.
Perhaps I will wear the hat at my wedding — any woman who would allow me to do such a thing must clearly love me for the crazy person that I am. [Ed. Note: Bryan is single].
7. Where will you keep the hat?
It currently lives in an undisclosed storage facility. I will likely speak to several museums about public display. I will also build a new custom display case for the hat to properly protect and preserve it. But I wasn’t actually expecting to win this auction, so I am frantically trying to get this all figured out.
8. Sotheby's notes that “As Napoleon disliked brand new hats, Louis Constant Wairy, Napoleon’s valet, would be the first to use them.” Do you plan to have anyone, like say, bloggers at a website that you own, wear in the hat on your behalf?
I have never had a valet before, and I would love to have one. Are any of my bloggers volunteering for the job?
9. How tall are you?
Somewhere between 5’8 and 5’9, but I feel like I’ve started shrinking in my old age. Napoleon was of typical height for a man in his century. The myth of him being short was created by London newspaper cartoonists. Truly, it is one of history’s most famous examples of fake news.
And there you have it, an interview with the man who bought Napoleon’s hat, Bustle CEO Bryan Goldberg. Thank you Bryan.