Bernhardt In America


From the first word she uttered the audience sat mesmerized. “In Sarah Bernhardt’s voice there was more than gold,” Lytton Strachey once wrote, “there was thunder and lightning, there was heaven and hell.” She could inject feeling and passion, it was said, into a recitation of the alphabet. She was extremely slender, with a shape, as depicted in innumerable posters and paintings, of such sinuosity as to have inspired, so some contended, the Art Nouveau curve. The composer Reynaldo Hahn, a close friend, wrote: “In all her gestures there is something of the spiral…. She sits down in a spiral-like movement, her dress twists around her body, clings to it tenderly in a spiral.”

The critics too were captivated by Bernhardt’s personality, though they had reservations about the depth of her artistry. “That she fell very short of really impressive power in the great scene of the play,” the New York Times reviewer argued after her opening night, “seems to us unquestionable…. She is, in all likelihood, a woman of extraordinary talent, rather than a woman of genius; but she is undoubtedly a positively great artist.” According to the New York Daily Tribune critic, “She is an extraordinary woman; less, however, in her art … than in the constitution of her nature, wherein she stands almost alone.”

She took twenty-seven curtain calls. Thousands followed her carriage back to the Albemarle Hotel a block from the theater and stood beneath her balcony, applauding and cheering until she appeared, bowing and throwing kisses. A band serenaded her with the “Marseillaise.”

Her four-week New York engagement ended on Saturday, December 4; it had generated receipts of nearly $100,000. Under Bernhardt’s contract she received $1,000 per performance plus 50 percent of each performance’s gross if it exceeded $4,000. Thus in New York alone she earned more than $46,000.

The next stop on the Bernhardt itinerary was Boston, but on Sunday she took a detour in a publicity ploy devised by Jarrett and Abbey and went south to Menlo Park, New Jersey, to visit Thomas Alva Edison. The inventor showed her around his laboratory, then two of his assistants recorded a duet of “John Brown’s Body” on a cylinder and Edison himself recorded “Yankee Doodle.” The actress declaimed a few alexandrines from Phèdre, and the squawky playback sent her into gales of laughter.

BOSTON, DECEMBER 6–19: After a performance of La Dame aux Camélias, the Boston Herald wrote: “In the presence of such perfection, analysis is impossible.”

A dock on the Charles River became the scene of one of Bernhardt’s most bizarre adventures. Beside the dock floated a whale, with two harpoons in its flanks, which had been sighted at sea in that condition by one Henry Smith, who operated a fleet of codfishing vessels. He approached Sarah Bernhardt with an invitation to view the behemoth. Amused, she accepted, and Jarrett escorted her to the dock, where Smith, a squat, little figure, greeted her, doffing a fur hat. He persuaded her to climb up onto the whale’s back. Supported by Jarrett, she slipped and slid along the icy surface and, at Smith’s suggestion, retrieved a sliver of whalebone “for good luck.”

Bernhardt, said one American critic, was “extraordinary…less, however, in her art…than in the constitution of her nature.”

NEW HAVEN, DECEMBER 20: As Bernhardt entered her hotel, she found Henry Smith, fur hat in hand and smiling as if he anticipated her appreciation of what she was about to see. A moment later an enormous carriage filled with singing minstrels rolled past the hotel. On the panels of the carriage was a crudely painted depiction of the Divine Sarah atop the whale. Sandwich men followed the carriage bearing on their placards: “Come and see the enormous cetacean killed by Sarah Bernhardt who herself pulled out its fins to be used as whalebones for her corsets, which are made exclusively by Madame Lily Noé, the famous corset maker. … Address all orders to Mr. Henry Smith, sole representative of Madame Lily Noé for the entire United States.” Bernhardt spun around and fetched Smith two staggering slaps in the face.

MONTREAL, DECEMBER 21–25: From his pulpit the Roman Catholic bishop of Montreal fulminated eloquently against the wicked Frenchwoman and her immoral plays. “My dear colleague,” Bernhardt replied, “why attack me so violently? Actors ought not to be hard on one another.”

After her last performance, cheering members of the audience unharnessed the horses of her sleigh and hauled it to her hotel.

CHICAGO, JANUARY 15–22, 1881: Another denunciation from a bishop. This time Henry Abbey wrote a rejoinder: “Monseigneur: It is my custom when I come to your city to spend five hundred dollars on publicity. But, as you have done it for me, allow me to send you two hundred and fifty dollars for your poor.”