The divine Sarah

In the latest in his series on eminent Camden Victorians, Neil Titley considers the actress – and celebrity – Sarah Bernhardt

Thursday, 27th January — By Neil Titley

Harvard Theatre Collection Sarah Bernhardt

Sarah Bernhardt. Photo: Harvard Theatre Collection

IN 1969, the singer Johnny Cash released At St Quentin, a concert recorded live in front of the convicts at the notorious Californian prison. Over half a century earlier in 1913 Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) had anticipated this exploit by giving a dramatic recital in the same jail before 2,000 prisoners. Five (presumably transitory) inhabitants of Death Row were allowed seats on the front bench for the occasion.

This show was just one of Bernhardt’s thousands of international performances that included her Camden visits to the Palace Theatre, Cambridge Circus, in 1892. She revelled in risqué roles and it was here that her sensual portrayal of Cleopatra prompted one elderly audience member to utter the immortal line: “How unlike, how very unlike, the home life of our own dear Queen.”

While undoubtedly a magnificent actress, her greatest talent lay in what Henry James described as: “to the supreme degree, she had the advertising genius – she may indeed be called the muse of the newspaper”. Using her eccentricities to add fuel to the myth, Bernhardt created the concept of the modern “celebrity”.

She was widely reported as travelling with her own silk-lined coffin – she was photographed in it, occasionally slept in it, and reputedly made love in it. Although her use of cocaine would have caused comment in the modern press, in the 1880s it was of little account (it being a habit she shared with Queen Victoria and Pope Leo XIII).

In addition to her mercurial personality, Sarah was physically striking, her wild blonde curly hair framing her attractive face above her famously slim body. An admirer said that she had “the head of a virgin and the body of a broomstick”.

Bernhardt was the illegitimate daughter of a Jewish Parisian courtesan whose clients included the cream of French society. In her younger days when acting failed to cover the bills, Sarah herself followed her mother’s profession and acquired a police file due to these activities. However, once established and wealthy, it was she who chose her numerous partners.

Proclaiming herself as “one of the great lovers of my century”, Sarah was reputed to have seduced every European head of state, including Pope Leo. Although she only occasionally indulged in lesbian affairs, she had a virile edge that many women found attractive; the writer Robert de Montesquiou saw her as the epitome of the bisexual 1890s. To confound stereotyping even further, she was a very happily unmarried mother.

When a friend said to her at a party: “I’ve thought of your epitaph. All you’ll need on your tomb is: ‘Resting at last’,” Sarah shook her head and, indicating a nearby group of lovers, replied: “Not exactly. It would be better to inscribe: ‘They can rest at last’.”

Her acting achieved extraordinary heights of acclaim. The psychologist Sigmund Freud wrote: “After the first words of her vibrant, lovely voice, I felt I had known her for years.” Mark Twain added: “There are five kinds of actresses. Bad actresses, fair actresses, good actresses, great actresses, and then there is Sarah Bernhardt.”

Her audiences reacted even more ecstatically. After one triumphant evening, two one-armed men in the front stalls were so enthused that they were seen to be clapping their remaining hands together.

Some questioned where the actress ended and the woman began. In his book La Faustin, Edmond Goncourt portrayed one character that he based on Bernhardt. In one scene the character, an actress, is alone with her dying lover. The lover awakens from unconsciousness to see the actress practising in the mirror the deathbed facial agonies she has just observed on his own face.

She made numerous tours by train across the States, becoming known as “the Muse of the Railroads”. On one journey, the train driver refused to cross the bridge at St Louis as it was threatened by floodwater. Impatient as usual, Sarah bribed him $500 to keep going. They managed to reach the other bank, but the bridge collapsed behind them as they did so. The rest of her company was not amused.

She treated some of her less sophisticated audiences with disdain. As her performances were given in French, the vast majority had no idea what was being said. In Youngstown, Ohio, her curtain call speech was greeted with tumultuous applause in spite of the fact that she had just told them that they were morons.

Throughout her life, she always insisted on being paid in cash. Her 1891-92 tour was her most extensive, including much of Europe, Russia, North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and Samoa. She returned to Paris bringing a trunk containing 3,500,000 francs.

Although still looking uncannily youthful, Sarah’s health began to fail after she was forced to have a leg amputated in 1915.

When she died in 1923, her funeral in Paris was the largest since that of Victor Hugo in 1885.

After her leg had been amputated, an impresario offered her $100,000 for permission to exhibit it. Sarah sent a telegram in reply: ‘Which leg?’

Adapted from Neil Titley’s book The Oscar Wilde World of Gossip. For details go to www.wildetheatre.co.uk

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