n°3/ Shrek was French

February 2012

By Nathalie Azoulai


In the 1940s, Maurice Tillet left France for the USA. Since the age of 20 he had been suffering from acromegaly, a disease that provokes abnormal growth of the hands, feet and face. He spoke 14 languages; he was a poet and chess player. Yet his physique saw him become a wrestler – the “Freak Ogre of the Ring.” In 1990, William Steig, an illustrator who had worked for the New Yorker since the 1930s, created a children’s book called Shrek, the Yiddish word for terror. The main character was the spitting image of Maurice Tillet. How was Steig inspired by Tillet? Did he see Irving Penn’s famous 1945 photograph of him? Why, nearly 50 years later, did he find himself attracted to Tillet’s form? History doesn’t tell us. While Maurice Tillet died in 1954, there have been other famous acromegaly sufferers, including Richard Kiel (the James Bond villain, Jaws) and Diane Arbus’ Jewish giant.