July/August 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 5
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
In her own country the prestigious Journal des Débats pronounced her a national institution, maintaining that “to criticize her is like criticizing the tomb of Napoleon.” It was Oscar Wilde who, when she came to England in 1879, cast an armful of lilies at her feet and hailed her as the “Divine Sarah.”
Throughout Europe, Russia, and North and South America, Bernhardt received from the public (if not the clergy) the kind of homage usually reserved for royalty. There have doubtless been actresses of subtler artistry, certainly actresses more beautiful, but Bernhardt’s sheer presence transcended her art. She possessed an aura of power equaled by no other monstre sacré before or since. Her bizarreries, her scandalous entanglements, enhanced the legend. Her motto, embroidered on her linens, printed on her visiting cards, and engraved on her richly embossed revolver, was Quand Même, which means “in spite of everything” and suggests a defiant “damn the consequences.”
When her prodigality brought her close to bankruptcy—as it did throughout her career—she would tour America. All told, she brought some six million dollars home with her. Anyone willing to reconstruct those hegiras must rely in part on her imaginative press agents as well as on her own perfervid memoirs. Nevertheless, through this fog of innuendo and exaggeration, one can see the true outline of an extraordinary personality.
Sarah Bernhardt was born in Paris in 1844, the daughter of a Dutch courtesan named Judith van Hard and her lover, Edouard Bernard, a law student. A baby being an impediment to her mother’s calling, Sarah was brought up first in a boarding home and then in a convent. The sickly, temperamental child wanted to become a nun, but one of her mother’s lovers, the Duc de Morny, instead had her enter the national school of acting, the Conservatoire. Morny, who was Napoleon III’s half-brother, also had the clout to get her into the Comédie Française in 1862. She made no particular impression on the critics and left the national theater after a year.
Bernhardt found the Odéon Theater more to her liking. It was less hidebound, more venturesome. By 1866 she had begun to make herself known, portraying with her “golden voice” and intensity the great classic and romantic roles such as Dona Sol in Victor Hugo’s Hernani and the title role in Racine’s Phèdre. During the Franco-Prussian War she won further adulation by setting up a military hospital in the Odéon. In 1879, back with the Comédie Française, she opened in London in Phèdre. Her reception was phenomenal, and with an international reputation to buoy her, she became too outspoken about the management for the conservative Comédie. She left in 1880 to form her own company.
Later that same year she set out for America, bringing along her troupe, her domestic staff, some hundred pieces of luggage, and her spirit of quand même. She left from Le Havre on October 15 aboard the worn old steam sailer L’Amérique. The weather was rough, and the Divine Sarah spent the first three days of the voyage seasick in her cabin, comforted by her leading man and lover of the moment, who billed himself simply as Angélo.
After she had recovered sufficiently to venture on deck, she noticed a stout, sorrowful-looking woman clad in mourning black. As Bernhardt watched, an immense wave sent the lady rolling helplessly across the deck. Bernhardt managed to seize one of her legs before the woman went headfirst down a companionway. They introduced themselves. “I am the widow of Abraham Lincoln,” said the woman in black. Bernhardt was horrified. “I had rendered this unhappy woman the one service she did not want,” she wrote in her memoirs, “that of saving her from death. Her husband, President Lincoln, had been assassinated by an actor and it was an actress who prevented her from joining him.”
In America the advance publicity orchestrated by a canny British impresario, Edward Jarrett, was generating tremendous curiosity. Quite aside from the chance to enjoy a great theatrical experience, everybody, it seemed, wanted to see the eccentric marvel who—Jarrett made sure they knew—kept a tiger cub as a household pet and slept in a satin-lined coffin.
To Jarrett’s secret delight, scurrilous anonymous pamphlets—one of them called “The Love Affairs of Sarah Bernhardt”—added piquancy to his client’s image. They accused her of bearing four bastards sired by the czar of Russia, Emperor Napoleon III, Pope Pius IX, and a man guillotined for murdering his father. “Absurd,” Bernhardt remarked when the canard reached her attention ashore, “but it would be better than to have four husbands and no children, like some women in this country!”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.