Napoleon's Privates

When historian and journalist Tony Perrottet first met Dr. John K. Lattimer, the elderly American urologist who bought Napoleon’s penis at auction in 1977, he was introduced to the doctor’s extraordinary collection of historical memorabilia kept in his New Jersey home—including Nazi suicide vials, medieval chastity belts, Abraham Lincoln’s blood-stained collar, Marilyn Monroe’s bathing suit and JFK assassination relics. The doctor’s omnivorous interest echoed the passions of 18th century scholars and the largely forgotten use of Secret Cabinets—specially designated rooms within the world’s great museums where anything deemed scandalous was safeguarded under lock and key and access was granted only to a lucky few. With that time-honored model in mind, Perrottet decided to put together a collection of the choicest morsels culled from the dark recesses of Western history for the edification of the modern reader.

Napoleon’s Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped is a shamelessly entertaining guide to the arcana of history, a book that unearths the most exciting new research on themes that interest us deeply—sex, celebrity, wealth, greed and debauchery through the ages—and transforms it into an immediately accessible form. The result is a compendium of fascinating and irreverent stories that are guaranteed to add zest to any modern dinner party conversation.

Luckily, history is full of such jaw-dropping anecdotes—and just by recounting them, Perrottet shows, we can learn a huge amount about history without even trying. What was it really like to wear a chastity belt? Were champagne glasses molded from Marie Antoinette’s breasts? Is it true that Italian castrati made better lovers? What were the dreaded French impotence trials? Why did the Marquis de Sade hate his mother-in-law? And what was J. Edgar Hoover’s favorite evening dress? In Napoleon’s Privates, Perrottet shows how even the most frivolous-sounding question can provide a vivid entrée to forgotten worlds of the past.

“A terrifically funny writer... Informative and twice as quirky.”
—Boston Globe

“It’s so great to have a truly funny (and poetic) writer putting the lurid colors back on the pale marble, where they belong... Full of the ‘get-a-load-of-this’ factor—those juicy, vivid stories you can’t wait to tell your friends. To my mind, that quality is the distinguishing trait of great nonfiction.”
—Teller of Penn & Teller

“It’s refreshing to find such an entertaining writer whose history is also meticulously researched. Perrottet’s take on the past is erudite, original and witty—even, frequently, hilarious.”
—Paul Cartledge, Professor of Classics, Cambridge University


Celebrity memorabilia is big business these days, with Marilyn Monroe’s bra or Mohammed Ali’s boxers fetching astronomical prices at auction. But for specialist collectors, one intimate item is in a different class entirely: Napoleon’s penis.

To the horror of the French government, which refuses to accept its authenticity, the relic has drifted around Europe and the U.S. since the Emperor’s death in exile in 1821, dried out like beef jerky and kept in a leather presentation box adorned with a gold-embossed crown. Adding insult to injury, the item now resides in a suitcase under a bed in suburban New Jersey. How could such a sacrilege occur? According to its 19th century owners, the organ was illegally removed during Napoleon’s autopsy by his vindictive and possibly murderous physician, Dr. Francesco Antommarchi, then smuggled back to France by his corrupt, greedy chaplain, the Abbé Ange Vignali….

Follow the long march of Napoleon’s privates on page 20.


How best to worship the perfect breast? Throughout history, men have dreamed of sipping fine wine from replicas of their lovers’ busts, cast in glittering crystal. In antiquity, a temple on the island of Rhodes displayed a goblet that was believed to have been modeled on the breasts of Helen of Troy by her paramour Paris. In the Middle Ages, love-besotted French king Henry II had his wine glasses fashioned on the "apple-like" breasts of Diane de Poitier. And in the late 1700s, the legend sprang up that Queen Marie-Antoinette’s breasts were the model for the shallow, broad-rimmed champagne coupes that are still often used today. (Although the modern fashion is more for the tall, thin and decidedly un-breast-like champagne flutes).

Find the truth about bubbly and breasts on page 3 of Napoleon’s Privates.


Guests at the Berghof, Hitler’s private chalet in the Bavarian Alps, must have endured some unpleasant odors in the otherwise healthful mountain air.

It may sound like a Woody Allen scenario, but medical historians are unanimous that Adolf was the victim of uncontrollable flatulence. Spasmodic stomach cramps, constipation and diarrhea, possibly the result of nervous tension, had been Hitler’s curse since childhood and only grew more severe as he aged. As a stressed-out dictator, the agonizing digestive attacks would occur after most meals: Albert Speer recalled that the Führer, ashen-faced, would leap up from the dinner table and disappear to his room.

This was an embarrassing problem for a ruthless leader of the Third Reich. . . .

Find out how Hitler’s favorite flatulence cure may have cost him the war on page 204 of Napoleon’s Privates.


The spectacle of the fleshy FBI chief lurching around the corridors of New York’s Plaza Hotel in drag is now indelibly lodged in American popular folklore. The story has is deeply satisfying, since it proves that the powerful Hoover, who monitored, harassed and blackmailed thousands of Americans about their sex lives, was a rank and villainous hypocrite. Unfortunately, it is based entirely on the testimony of only one witness - Susan Rosenstiel, the former wife of a wealthy liquor distiller, who was quoted at length in the over-heated Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover, a 1993 biography by muckraking Brit Anthony Summers and excerpted in Vanity Fair magazine....

Find out what really happened at the Plaza Hotel on page 200 of Napoleon’s Privates.

What were Casanova’s best pick-up lines?
(They got better as he got older).
How uncomfortable was it to wear a chastity belt?
(Surviving examples are so bizarre, were they ever worn at all?)
Which Italian Renaissance genius "discovered" the clitoris?
(He could have just asked the Venetian nuns).
Will Lincoln ever be outed?
(Just because he spent three years sharing his best friend’s bed...)
What was the party etiquette at Caligula’s orgies?
(Holding one’s own could be a stressful business in ancient Rome).
What were condoms made from in the 17th century?
(At least the material was organic).
How were impotence sufferers put on trial in medieval France?
(And why this should be a new reality TV show).
What were the kinkiest private clubs of Hogarthian London?
(Austin Powers would have blanched).
And what was the truth about Napoleon’s privates?
(Was it a big baguette or petit éclair? And did size matter to Josephine?)

The Twisted Journey Of 'Napoleon's Privates'
Interview with Tony Perrottet on NPR