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The Drama of Sarah Bernhardt

Additional books on Sarah Bernhardt drawn on for this article

Sarah Bernhardt

by Henry Gidel
Paris: Flammarion, 401 pp., €23.00

Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama

by Carol Ockman and Kenneth E. Silver
catalog of the 2006 exhibition at the Jewish Museum, New York City
Jewish Museum/Yale University Press, 216 pp., $50.00

Being Divine: A Biography of Sarah Bernhardt

by Ruth Brandon
London: Secker and Warburg, 466 pp. (1991)

Dear Sarah Bernhardt

by Françoise Sagan, translated from the French by Sabine Destrée
Seaver, 232 pp. (1988)

Sarah Bernhardt

by Philippe Jullian
Paris: Balland, 271 pp. (1977)

Madame Sarah

by Cornelia Otis Skinner
Houghton Mifflin, 356 pp. (1967)

Les Mémoires de Sarah Barnum

by Marie Colombier, with a preface by Paul Bonnetain
Paris, 332 pp. (1883)

Sarah Bernhardt won’t go away. She was born in 1844 and died in 1923, long past her glory days and well out of our reach. Her few silent films are awkward and off-putting. Yet she remains the most famous actress the world has ever known. Books about her, films, plays, dance works, documentaries, exhibitions, merchandise—they keep on coming. Only last year, a big new biography was published in France—respectable, but essentially going over the same old ground. Also last year, the Jewish Museum in New York staged an exemplary Bernhardt exhibition, which demonstrated, among other things, why Bernhardt was the priestess of Art Nouveau, with her elaborately rich costumes, her splendid ornaments of gem-studded precious metals, and—obvious in the portraits, the photographs, the caricatures—the way she almost always stood and sat: in a pure Art Nouveau spiral.

Among the scores of books on Bernhardt, there have been two major biographies in English: by Ruth Brandon (1991), particularly perceptive on Sarah’s emotional life, and by Robert Fizdale and Arthur Gold (also 1991), brilliant on her artistic and social surround. And let’s at least acknowledge Françoise Sagan’s bizarre contribution, Dear Sarah Bernhardt (1988), a fictional exchange of letters between Sagan and the long-gone Sarah. (It turns out they had a lot to say to each other.)

Other fiction? At least a dozen novels, beginning in the nineteenth century with Edmond de Goncourt’s mean-spirited La Faustin, Félicien Champsaur’s Dinah Samuel (Sarah as lesbian), and the sensational roman à clef The Memoirs of Sarah Barnum by her one-time intimate Marie Colombier. And, as recently as 2004, Adam Braver’s Divine Sarah, a confused fantasy of Bernhardt doing drugs in L.A.

The movie The Incredible Sarah starring Glenda Jackson? Flee it. The French TV documentary with English voice-over by Susan Sontag? Not very illuminating. Jacqulyn Buglisi’s modern-dance work Against All Odds (I saw it only a few weeks ago in New York)? Unconvincing. On the other hand, totally unlikely and highly amusing: her star turn in one of the “Lucky Luke” books (like Tintin and Astérix, a hugely successful French series of graphic novels for kids). Sarah is setting out on the Wild West leg of her first American tour and President Rutherford B. Hayes entrusts her safety to Cowboy Luke.

And then there’s her presence in a variety of Hollywood movies, from Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch (“Every time I show my teeth on television, I’m appearing before more people than Sarah Bernhardt appeared before in her whole career”) to Judy Garland in Babes on Broadway to an aging Ginger Rogers as a very young Sarah, intoning “La Marseillaise” in The Barkleys of Broadway.

Merchandise? In the past few months eBay has brought me the 1986 “Dame aux Camélias” memorial plate (Limoges); one of several available embroidery patterns based on the famous Art Nouveau posters by Mucha; and a 1973 Mexican comic book called Sara, la Artista Dramática Más Famosa en la Historia del Teatro. So far I’ve resisted the book of Sarah Bernhardt paper dolls, the Madame Alexander Sarah Bernhardt doll, the “asymmetrical” Bernhardt earrings, and the “Heirloom” Sarah Bernhardt peony.

Why this ongoing attention to a French theatrical star of the distant past? You can ascribe it to Sarah’s rich and notorious private life, always ripe for retelling; to the central role she played in the history of the theater in particular and the culture of her time in general; to the unique way she grew into legend—morphing from a tarty little actress into the most famous French person of her century after Napoleon and the most admired Frenchwoman in history after Joan of Arc (whom she played—twice; she didn’t manage Napoleon, but one of her greatest triumphs was as his doomed son, L’Aiglon).

Her undying celebrity would not have surprised her: from her earliest years she was determined to be noticed, to conquer the world, and to do it her own way. When at the age of nine she was dared to jump a ditch and broke her wrist falling into it, she cried out in rage, “Yes, yes, and I’ll try it again if I’m dared to! I’m going to do exactly what I want all my life!” That’s when she decided on “Quand même” as her motto, and she never relinquished it. She decorated her stationery, her dishes, her silver with it; it was inscribed on the flag she flew over the little fort she bought and summered in on Belle-Isle, off the Brittany coast; it was as much a part of her legend as her scrawniness, her legion of lovers, the coffin she sometimes liked to sleep in. But how to translate it? “Even so”? “No matter what”? “All the same”? “Despite everything”? “Nevertheless”? “Against all odds”? “Whatever”?

Quand même” may not be translatable, but the message is clear: “Nothing can stop me!” And nothing did—not war, illness, scandal, bankruptcy. Sarah was not only “divine,” she was indefatigable, reckless, tireless, brave, commanding. She has to reach New Orleans for a performance while floods are threatening a bridge over a swollen river? She bribes the engineer of her private train to make the desperate attempt, and moments after they’re safely across, they hear the bridge crash into the river. When she’s a seventeen-year-old debutante at the Comédie-Française, she explodes when a veteran actress slaps her little sister backstage and slaps her back, refuses to apologize, and is gone from the company. Marie Colombier publishes that scandalous roman à clef? With her son, Maurice, and her current lover, she invades Marie’s apartment, wreaks havoc, and slashes her with a whip. Quand même.

She was provocative, generous, maddening, fun to be with—and untruthful: self-dramatizing, embroidering, storytelling. That bridge on the way to New Orleans? Maybe, although in three different accounts—her own, her granddaughter’s, her grandson-in-law’s—it’s a different river and a different destination each time. Basic facts? We can’t be certain what year she was born, what street she was born on, or even who her father was—a young law student named Édouard Bernhardt (or was he her mother’s brother)? A naval officer from Le Havre named Morel? Paris’s Hôtel de Ville, where the relevant municipal data were kept, went up in flames during the Commune. It’s not even 100 percent certain that the father of her beloved Maurice (she was twenty when he was born) was the Belgian Prince de Ligne. Her story is that the Prince wanted to marry her, but his stuffy aristocratic family said “Non“—shades of La Dame aux Camélias; Marie Colombier’s far more likely story is that when Sarah invaded the Prince’s mansion in Paris with the news of her pregnancy, he showed her to the door, remarking that when you sit on a patch of thorns, you can’t tell which particular thorn has scratched you.

And is it remotely possible that on her first Atlantic crossing, in 1880, she saved the life of Abraham Lincoln’s widow by grabbing her when a huge wave struck the ship and Mrs. L. was about to plunge headfirst down a dangerous staircase? “A thrill of anguish ran through me,” writes Sarah in her autobiography, My Double Life,

for I had just done this unhappy woman the only service I ought not to have done her—I had saved her from death. Her husband had been assassinated by an actor, Booth, and it was an actress who had now prevented her from joining her beloved husband. I went back to my cabin and stayed there two days….

We can turn to Dumas fils, author of La Dame aux Camélias (she played it almost three thousand times), for the ultimate word on Sarah’s veracity. Referring to her notorious thinness—the physical quality that most defined her, that was endlessly derided and caricatured in her early years—he said affectionately, “You know, she’s such a liar, she may even be fat!”

In regard to her childhood we have only her memoirs to go by, and though they’re factually preposterous, they come across as emotionally true. Yes, her demi-mondaine mother, known as Youle, sent her off semi-permanently to a farm in Brittany (her first language was Breton), but did she really fall into a fire only to be saved by some neighbors who threw her “all smoking, into a pail of milk”? When eventually she was brought to Paris by her nurse-turned-concierge, was she really lost to her mother, like a child in Dickens or Les Misérables, and only retrieved when her Aunt Rosine happened to alight from her carriage in the sordid courtyard where tiny Sarah was playing? And did she then really fling herself from a window, breaking her arm and her kneecap, to prevent Rosine from leaving without her?

Yet however fanciful her autobiography is, it has verve and charm—what Max Beerbohm called its “peculiar fire and salt…[its] rushing spontaneity.” She’s completely believable in the portrait she sketches of herself as a child installed at a fashionable convent school: turbulent, savage, imperious. (Those poor nuns!) And we sense all too keenly her anguish at having been abandoned by her adored mother: adored, but not adoring. From the first, Youle dealt with her as an impediment, not a beloved child. The favorite was Sarah’s half-sister Jeanne (father unknown), who was placid, conventionally pretty (Sarah never looked like anyone else), and easy to control. Not even the strict and withholding Youle, who was even coldly dismissive of her acting, could control Sarah—nobody ever could.

The depth of the psychic wounds she received as a sensitive child with no father and a rejecting mother reveals itself not only in the elaborations of her memoirs but in The I dol of Paris, a trashy semi-autobiographical novel she produced late in life. Her heroine, Espérance, is not only a beautiful budding actress of genius but has ideal parents: a distinguished professor of philosophy about to be inducted into the Académie Française and a loving, tender mother—they live and breathe to attend to her every whim. As a novel it’s ludicrous, but as an act of wish-fulfillment it’s fascinating—and saddening. Clearly, despite the unparalleled triumph of her life, she never got over having been an unwanted and unloved child.

When she was twelve, Sarah took her first communion and officially became a Catholic, despite the fact that her mother was Jewish, of German-Dutch stock. In the convent she also learned the manners and speech of well-bred Parisians—she could pass for a lady. But she wasn’t a lady, so what was she to do with her life? The turning point came when she was fifteen—out of the convent, fit for no occupation, and a drag on her mother’s life and finances. The illegitimate daughter of a courtesan, Sarah could hardly marry into society, and she was adamant about not marrying into the dreary petit-bourgeois world some of her relatives would have settled for.

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