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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
Despite the millions she had realized from her eight overseas tours alone, Bernhardt’s philanthropies, her eccentric prodigalities, and her medical expenses had left her desperately short of funds, and she determined, war or no war, leg or no leg, to undertake a ninth American tour. Warned against the peril of U-boats, she replied: “My star is still in the ascendant, and while it is high in the heavens I have nothing to fear. I feel young,” concluded the seventy-one-year-old, “and take joy in living, for my spirit is young and will never die.”
Lacking the stamina to carry her through an entire play, Bernhardt brought with her passages culled from eleven different plays and used a reduced company of actors. She left Bordeaux on September 30, 1916, reached New York on October 10, and stayed two years. She spent four and a half months, from April to September 1917, recuperating after kidney surgery in New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital.
When J. P. Morgan wanted her out of his library, she seized him by the necktie and declared, “When I speak, men listen.”
Next, managed by William Connor, she went on to appear not only in legitimate theaters but also in the country’s major vaudeville houses. Here she met Harry Houdini and asked him, “You do such wonderful things. Could you bring back my leg for me?” The master magician disclaimed such power. “Yes,” Bernhardt persisted, “but you do the impossible. I never was more serious in my life.”
Too proud to use crutches, she made her entrance borne in a kind of folding sedan chair, then performed sitting, lying down (for her renowned death scenes), or standing braced by some stage prop.
Even so, Bernhardt’s fellow vaudevillians considered her the toughest act to follow. The way she uttered a single word from one of the plays in her last farewell American tour, Emile Moreau’s Le Procès de Jeanne d’Arc, suggests her magic and her mystery.
“What is your name?” her interrogator asked.
“Jeanne,” replied Bernhardt, who remained standing throughout the scene.
She turned toward the audience, paused, then said, “Nineteen.” The audiences never failed to jump to their feet and cheer, for this ruined old woman, crippled, grown fat, had become, miraculously, a radiant young girl.