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Bernhardt In America
In the years between the dedication of the Statue of Liberty and the First World War, the Divine Sarah was, for hundreds of thousands of Americans, the single most compelling embodiment of the French Republic
July/August 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 5
During Sarah Bernhardt’s 1912–13 American tour, the souvenir program for La Dame aux Camélias quoted Mark Twain: “There are five kinds of actresses: bad actresses, fair actresses, good actresses, great actresses, and Sarah Bernhardt.”
In her own country the prestigious Journal des Débats pronounced her a national institution, maintaining that “to criticize her is like criticizing the tomb of Napoleon.” It was Oscar Wilde who, when she came to England in 1879, cast an armful of lilies at her feet and hailed her as the “Divine Sarah.”
Throughout Europe, Russia, and North and South America, Bernhardt received from the public (if not the clergy) the kind of homage usually reserved for royalty. There have doubtless been actresses of subtler artistry, certainly actresses more beautiful, but Bernhardt’s sheer presence transcended her art. She possessed an aura of power equaled by no other monstre sacré before or since. Her bizarreries, her scandalous entanglements, enhanced the legend. Her motto, embroidered on her linens, printed on her visiting cards, and engraved on her richly embossed revolver, was Quand Même, which means “in spite of everything” and suggests a defiant “damn the consequences.”
When her prodigality brought her close to bankruptcy—as it did throughout her career—she would tour America. All told, she brought some six million dollars home with her. Anyone willing to reconstruct those hegiras must rely in part on her imaginative press agents as well as on her own perfervid memoirs. Nevertheless, through this fog of innuendo and exaggeration, one can see the true outline of an extraordinary personality.
Sarah Bernhardt was born in Paris in 1844, the daughter of a Dutch courtesan named Judith van Hard and her lover, Edouard Bernard, a law student. A baby being an impediment to her mother’s calling, Sarah was brought up first in a boarding home and then in a convent. The sickly, temperamental child wanted to become a nun, but one of her mother’s lovers, the Duc de Morny, instead had her enter the national school of acting, the Conservatoire. Morny, who was Napoleon III’s half-brother, also had the clout to get her into the Comédie Française in 1862. She made no particular impression on the critics and left the national theater after a year.
Bernhardt found the Odéon Theater more to her liking. It was less hidebound, more venturesome. By 1866 she had begun to make herself known, portraying with her “golden voice” and intensity the great classic and romantic roles such as Dona Sol in Victor Hugo’s Hernani and the title role in Racine’s Phèdre. During the Franco-Prussian War she won further adulation by setting up a military hospital in the Odéon. In 1879, back with the Comédie Française, she opened in London in Phèdre. Her reception was phenomenal, and with an international reputation to buoy her, she became too outspoken about the management for the conservative Comédie. She left in 1880 to form her own company.
Later that same year she set out for America, bringing along her troupe, her domestic staff, some hundred pieces of luggage, and her spirit of quand même. She left from Le Havre on October 15 aboard the worn old steam sailer L’Amérique. The weather was rough, and the Divine Sarah spent the first three days of the voyage seasick in her cabin, comforted by her leading man and lover of the moment, who billed himself simply as Angélo.
After she had recovered sufficiently to venture on deck, she noticed a stout, sorrowful-looking woman clad in mourning black. As Bernhardt watched, an immense wave sent the lady rolling helplessly across the deck. Bernhardt managed to seize one of her legs before the woman went headfirst down a companionway. They introduced themselves. “I am the widow of Abraham Lincoln,” said the woman in black. Bernhardt was horrified. “I had rendered this unhappy woman the one service she did not want,” she wrote in her memoirs, “that of saving her from death. Her husband, President Lincoln, had been assassinated by an actor and it was an actress who prevented her from joining him.”
In America the advance publicity orchestrated by a canny British impresario, Edward Jarrett, was generating tremendous curiosity. Quite aside from the chance to enjoy a great theatrical experience, everybody, it seemed, wanted to see the eccentric marvel who—Jarrett made sure they knew—kept a tiger cub as a household pet and slept in a satin-lined coffin.
To Jarrett’s secret delight, scurrilous anonymous pamphlets—one of them called “The Love Affairs of Sarah Bernhardt”—added piquancy to his client’s image. They accused her of bearing four bastards sired by the czar of Russia, Emperor Napoleon III, Pope Pius IX, and a man guillotined for murdering his father. “Absurd,” Bernhardt remarked when the canard reached her attention ashore, “but it would be better than to have four husbands and no children, like some women in this country!”