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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
When prodigality brought her close to bankruptcy—as it did throughout her career—Sarah Bernhardt would tour America.
Clergymen denounced this “monster of the Apocalypse” and threatened theatergoers who saw her with eternal damnation. In Orange, New Jersey, mothers convened to mount a campaign “against this European courtisane who is coming over to corrupt our sons.”
L’Amérique dropped anchor in New York Harbor at approximately six-thirty on the balmy, sunny morning of October 27. Thousands were already up and waiting on the pier to catch a glimpse of the legendary actress, while a small steamer, the Blackbird, set out, bearing scores of city officials, persons of consequence (including Henry Abbey, Jarrett’s American partner and one of the country’s foremost producers), and eager newspapermen. Approaching L’Amérique, the Blackbird hoisted the tricolor flag, and a brass band broke into the “Marseillaise.” At the sight of the multitude clambering aboard, threatening to engulf her, the actress retreated to her cabin and locked herself in. Only Jarrett’s reminder of how much she needed a friendly press persuaded her to come out, ascend to the salon, and face the crowd.
“The apparition,” reported The New York Times the next day, “… was somewhat ethereal yet womanly. Mile. Bernhardt is a lady of middle height, erect in carriage, and of girlish, not angular physique. A perfect head, set almost defiantly on a slim and delicate neck, is crowned by a wealth of silken hair with a tint of burnished gold. Wonderful black eyes, which seem as fathomless as they are earnest and dauntless, rivet the beholder’s attention. A faultless nose of the best Hebrew type reveals in its delicate chiseling the aesthetic artist and her race. In repose the mouth is large but refined and as firm as the will which won the great actress her place on the stage….”
Bernhardt carried a large velvet handbag. A customs officer who insisted over her protests on looking inside found a pair of baby shoes. They had been worn by her adored son, Maurice, now sixteen and at school in Paris, who had been born of a brief liaison with the witty Belgian prince Henri de Ligne. (Once, when returning from a long voyage, the prince was asked by his wife whether he had been faithful to her; he replied, “Often.”)
Henry Abbey had booked his prodigy a second-floor suite with balcony (last occupied by Ulysses S. Grant) at the fashionable Albemarle Hotel on lower Fifth Avenue. After slipping into a white robe with a girdle of turquoise and gold, she reluctantly admitted the horde of reporters and submitted to an inquisition, Jarrett serving as interpreter. To most of the questions she replied with indignation, mockery, or both. No, she did not always sleep in a coffin, sometimes dress like a man and smoke cigars, feed live quail to her lions. What dish did she favor? “Mussels.”
Her public’s anticipatory excitement, meanwhile, had continued to grow. With seats priced at the then outrageous rates of ten, fifteen, and twenty-five dollars, the lines to the Booth Theater at Sixth Avenue and Twenty-third Street circled the block. Long before curtain time on opening night the house was sold out.
On November 8, 1880, the curtain rose on Adrienne Lecouvreur, by Eugène Scribe and Ernest Legouvé, a tearjerker about an actress whose rival for the love of a nobleman murders her by sending her a bouquet of violets with a poisonous aroma. With the exception of Racine’s Phèdre and Victor Hugo’s Hernani, all the plays that Bernhardt brought to America were lightweight; chosen for audiences of which only a minority understood French and which therefore appreciated a simple plot easy to follow, they also afforded the actress an outlet for the high-flown histrionics at which she excelled. Victorien Sardou tailored four plays to her requirements, the most popular of which was La Tosca (like Adrienne Lecouvreur, the basis for an opera). But Bernhardt scored her supreme success as the tuberculous courtesan Marguerite Gauthier in Alexandre Dumas fils’s La Dame aux Camélias (which Verdi borrowed for La Traviata). She portrayed Marguerite first in New York on November 16, and thereafter some three thousand times.