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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
NEAR NEW ORLEANS, FEBRUAY 6: Rising floodwaters had so weakened the piles of a railroad bridge across St. Louis Bay that they threatened to collapse. The Bernhardt troupe occupied a special train consisting of three cars and the engine. Warned of the danger ahead during a station stop near the bridge, the trainmen proposed to backtrack and set out again for New Orleans via another route. But this would cause a day’s delay. In the show-must-go-on tradition, Bernhardt was all for taking a chance. Quand même. Jarrett conveyed her wishes to the engineer, who finally agreed, with one proviso: He wanted twenty-five hundred dollars, which he would telegraph to his wife, refunding the money if he survived. Bernhardt, who herself demanded payment before each performance in twenty-dollar gold pieces, unhesitatingly handed over the requisite number of coins.
“I had the vision of the responsibility I had taken upon myself,” she wrote later, “for it was risking without their consent the lives of twenty-seven persons.” The train sped across the bridge, which an instant later collapsed. Bernhardt let the engineer keep the twenty-five hundred dollars “but my conscience was by no means tranquil and for a long time my sleep was disturbed by the most frightful nightmares.”
BUFFALO, MARCH 20: Bernhardt visited Niagara Falls.
NEW YORK, MAY 3: For the final performance of the tour Bernhardt chose the ever-popular La Dame aux Camélias. The next day hundreds of people shouting, “Long live Sarah! Bon voyage!” ran after her carriage to the pier, where she once again boarded L’Amérique. Within seven months she had given 156 performances in fifty-one cities and netted $194,000.
And then, six years later, she was back. In March 1887 Bernhardt embarked on a grand tour of South, Central, and North America with a company that included her former paramour Angélo as well as her current one, Philippe Gamier. The men apparently got along fine with each other.
After conquering the major cities of Argentina, Uruguay (where Jarrett died and an associate, Maurice Grau, replaced him), Brazil, Chile, Peru, and Panama, she reentered the United States at Texas, leading on a leash a tiger cub named Ninette, the gift of an Ecuadorean naval officer. Later, in a Chicago restaurant, Ninette sank her teeth in a waiter’s arm and attempted to bite the maître d’hôtel.
This was Bernhardt’s first “Farewell American Tour,” so proclaimed by Henry Abbey and his new partner, Grau, who figured correctly that a last chance to see Bernhardt would bring people to the box office in numbers larger than ever. Actually, Bernhardt made seven more American tours, four of which were billed as farewell tours. During the voyage home in 1887 Bernhardt took a fall, landing on her right knee. The injury led to orthopedic complications that were to torment her for the rest of her life.
On February 2, 1891, the actress began a world tour that lasted almost three years. During the first month, when she played New York, she introduced La Tosca to an American audience. She also enacted Sardou’s Cléopâtre, using a live garter snake to represent the asp with whose venom the Egyptian queen kills herself. Backstage Bernhardt wore the snake around her wrist like a bracelet. Neither on this tour nor on the two that succeeded it—1896 and 1900—did Abbey and Grau resort to the farewell-tour ruse. The great Constant Coquelin accompanied Sarah in 1900, and they appeared together in both Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac and his L’Aiglon at New York’s Garden Theater. Bernhardt also performed the most daring of her “trousers” roles— Hamlet.
During the summer of 1905 Bernhardt (now managed by the Shubert brothers, Sam and Lee, and their partner, William Connor) undertook her second “Farewell American Tour,” covering both South and North America. On October 9, the eve of her departure from Rio de Janeiro for New York, she played La Tosca. The last act required her to fling herself over the parapet of Rome’s prison castle into the Tiber. To cushion her landing, mattresses were piled beneath the parapet out of sight of the audience. But a careless stagehand had misplaced them, and Bernhardt’s already weakened knee struck the bare boards. She suffered such pain that she could not take a curtain call, and in minutes the whole leg swelled. Her companions implored her to remain in Rio for treatment, but she would not hear of it. The United States part of her tour was to start in Chicago during early November, and the ocean trip to New York took twenty days.
At sea the ship’s doctor tried to examine her. She noticed that his hands were soiled, the fingernails black, and she refused to let him touch her. Left untreated for three weeks, her condition deteriorated, and when she finally was hospitalized in New York, she had to rearrange her itinerary. She was unable to walk until November 15. Five days later she resumed her tour in Chicago, then she moved back east, then south, and then west to California, playing, in all, sixty-two cities.