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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
A cabal of Western theater owners agreed not to book her because when one theater in a city announced her coming appearance, the others could sell no tickets. (Prices for a Bernhardt performance ran high, and people preferred to save their entertainment money for the French star.) Bernhardt proposed a simple solution: Let the Shuberts erect a big tent. The brothers complied, and Sarah Bernhardt traveled circus fashion through the West, playing under canvas.
For her third and fourth farewell American tours, 1910–11 and 1912–13, she cast in the dual service of jeune premier and inamorato an actor of Dutch origin, Lou Tellegen, who neither onstage nor off exhibited any quality beyond an Apolloesque physique and profile. An artist’s model before he tried acting, he had posed for Rodin. Tellegen was an indefatigable lecher who later published an autobiography entitled, in magnificent understatement, Women Have Been Kind to Me. At the outset of their liaison Bernhardt was sixty-six, Tellegen twenty-seven. When the novelist and playwright Octave Mirbeau asked Bernhardt at what age she expected to renounce love, she replied, “With my dying breath.”
She also loved gambling and hated to lose. On the long trips between cities she would organize an endless game of dominoes, enlisting Tellegen as her partner and two other members of the company as opponents. Her limit was only two cents a game, but if she lost, she would fling the dominoes all over the car and scream at Tellegen, “Assassin!”
On New Year’s Day of 1911, in New York, the actress signed the guest register of the library that J. P. Morgan had built to house his collection of rare volumes. Admission then was by appointment only, and it was the curator, Belle Green, who had issued the invitation. When Green informed Morgan of the impending visit, he growled, “Actresses are not welcome,” and stalked out. Bernhardt was still there when Morgan returned. She seized him by the necktie and declared, “When I speak, men listen.” The old titan melted, and they remained friends until his death two years later.
The Players, an actors’ club founded by the great Edwin Booth, facing New York’s Gramercy Park, did not welcome women, but for Sarah Bernhardt the taboo was lifted. A reception was held in her honor on June 20, 1911. She wished to view Booth’s quarters on the fourth floor, preserved just as he left them. An elevator barely big enough for two passengers normally rose to the suite; the club superintendent, Walter Oettel, who ran the elevator, never forgot the event. “We were obliged to stand very close to each other,” he wrote thirty-two years later in his memoirs about the club. “In such delightful juxtaposition, one of Madame’s beautiful roses fell from her corsage. I slowly pulled the rope, but the car would not move, our combined weight was too great. I stepped out—but not without the rose—which I picked up from the floor of the elevator. Its recent wearer told me I might keep it, and I have today the fragrant faded flower….”
The elevator never did rise high enough, obliging Bernhardt to walk up three flights. The cage now stands unused between floors, the building having been remodeled around it, with a large poster of Sarah Bernhardt inside, a ghostly memento of her visit.
Bernhardt encountered her most appreciative audience ever during the 1912–13 tour. On February 22, 1913, she performed for the two thousand-odd inmates of California’s San Quentin state prison a one-act drama, Une Nuit de Noël sous la Terreur (“A Christmas Night under the Terror”). “For an hour,” read a letter from the prisoners, “through your wondrous personality and entrancing art we have been, in soul and in mind, at perfect liberty—captive only of that remarkable force and fire which have made men call you divine….” Shortly after the performance, as the prisoners cheered, she took a flight in a two-seater airplane.
Between tours, back in Europe, Bernhardt costarred with Tellegen in two motion pictures, La Dame aux Camélias and Queen Elizabeth. Adolph Zukor became the American distributor of the latter, a four-reeler. It proved an immense success and laid the foundation for his production company, Famous Players Pictures. Bernhardt’s affair with Tellegen ended with the 1912–13 tour; he stayed in America and three years later married the diva Geraldine Farrar.
Bernhardt’s damaged knee steadily worsened, giving her constant pain. Walking had become so arduous that the furnishing of her sets had to be arranged to provide support when a scene required her to cross the stage. In addition, she contracted chronic uremia. Her debility, together with the outbreak of war in August 1914, precluded any tours abroad. She gave several performances, nevertheless, for the poilus at the front. On February 21, 1915, she telegraphed Reynaldo Hahn from Bordeaux: BELOVED FRIEND THEY ARE GOING TO CUT OFF MY LEG TOMORROW MORNING THINK OF ME. SARAH.