Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

“Quand Même”            (1844)

Oct 22, 2023 by Marlene Wagman-Geller


“Slow down? Rest? With all eternity before me?”

     Used a letter holder named Sophie made from a human skull? Check. Accessorized with a stuffed bat? Check. Slept in a coffin? Check. And the woman who could answer in the affirmative to these questions was also the possessor of the honorific “Divine.”

       A flamboyant nineteenth-century actress’ name is employed by mothers to criticize their melodramatic daughters, “Who do you think you are? Sarah Bernhardt?” However, no matter how histrionic, no matter how eccentric, no one could emulate the famed star in eccentricity, in talent, in hubris.

    Bernhardt’s onstage and offstage life rivalled one another in showmanship. Sarah was the illegitimate daughter of Youle Bernhard, a Jewish woman from Amsterdam who became a sought-after courtesan when she arrived in Paris, and a father, most likely an officer from Le Havre. Sarah spent her early years with a foster family in Breton where she attended a Versailles convent. A drama queen when thwarted, on one occasion she threw herself in front of a carriage; on another, out a window. Youle did not involve herself in Sarah’s life other than to make her contribute to the family’s income by working as a teenaged courtesan.

       The Duc de Morny, the half-brother of Napoleon III, one of Youle’s lovers, knowing a good actress when he saw one, paid for the fifteen-year-old to attend the prestigious Conservatory for Dramatic Arts; two years later she transferred to the Comédie-Francaise. At her 1862 debut, she pronounced, “The curtain of my life has risen.” To her great angst, she failed to attract notice, partially because she was unfashionably thin for the times. A wit remarked that Sarah was so skinny that when she got into a bath the level of the water went down. As her friend, the novelist Alexandre Dumas observed, “You know she’s such a liar that she may even be fat.” Sarah enhanced her white skin by pricking her gums with a needle before her stockholders, what she termed her paid customers, came to call. Critics panned her performances and further salt entered the wound when Youle told her, “See! The whole world calls you stupid, and the whole world knows that you’re my child!”

       The performance that captured the public’s interest took place in 1893, an event played out behind the theater’s curtain.  Régine, Sarah’s younger sister, was backstage where the cast was celebrating an annual ceremony to honor Molière, and she accidentally stepped on the train of veteran actress Madame Nathalie. Angered, the older woman shoved Régine against a pillar. Sarah’s knee-jerk reaction was to scream, “You miserable bitch,” and she slapped Nathalie on both cheeks. She refused to apologize, and in the first publicity coup of her career, Sarah tore up her contract. The incident made her the talk of Paris.   

       Sarah depended on wealthy lovers for support until she joined the Théâtre de l’Odéon, run by a father and son; she slept with them both. Her performances made her a star in the theatrical firmament. When she played the Queen of Spain in Victor Hugo’s play Ruy Blas, the aged writer knelt down and kissed her hand, murmuring, “Merci, merci.” The tribute was genuine, not merely the result of their earlier affair in the course of which he had gifted her a human skull. She took a brief hiatus in 1864 for the birth of her son, Maurice, whose father may have been a passing Belgian dalliance with Prince de Ligne.

      Although the consummate narcissist, Sarah possessed a social conscience. During the 1870 siege of Paris, she managed to transform the Odéon into a field hospital, filling the dressing-rooms, auditorium, and stage with cots for injured and dying men. She persuaded her well-heeled stockholders into supplying provisions, and in one case, convinced one to donate his overcoat. She also thumbed her nose when it came to her religion. Sarah had been raised as a Catholic, and as a child, she had entertained an inspiration to be a nun. Indeed, one of her prize possessions was a rosary, a gift from Pope Leo XIII. Nevertheless, in an age of virulent anti-Semitism, she adhered to her Jewish roots. Caricatures circulated of her with an accompanying Star of David along with bags of money, denoting her as a money-grubbing Jew. The only truly embittered disagreement she had with her beloved son was over the Dreyfus Affair where she defended the Jewish officer charged with treason.

      Due to her surging popularity, the Comédie Francaise arranged her return, and she transformed into its shining star. The newspaper, Le Figaro, declared that everyone was coming to Paris to see two profiles: that of the new Eiffel Tower and Sarah Bernhardt. Sigmund Freud wrote of her performance, “my head is reeling,” and he hung her photo in his office. D. H. Lawrence compared her to “a gazelle with a beautiful panther’s fascination and fury.” Mark Twain observed, “There are five kinds of actresses. Bad, fair, good, great. And then there is Sarah Bernhardt.” The Divine-her honorific- leading lady also served as muse: Oscar Wilde wrote Salome for her; Marcel Proust portrayed her in his novel In Search of Lost Time; Aubrey Beardsley drew her portrait as Salome holding John the Baptist’s severed head. One naysayer was the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw who later admitted his acrimony was because she had reminded him of his Aunt Georgina.

    From 1880 onwards, Sarah made regular tours of Europe and America, and she took along her menagerie of pets-dogs, a snake, and an alligator called Ali-Gaga, who passed away as a result of consuming too much champagne. Australians danced to “The Bernhardt Waltz,” Argentina gifted Sarah 13,000 acres of land, in London, a young Oscar Wilde laid an armful of lilies at her feet. In America, hordes of reporters bombarded the famed thespian: What was her waist size? Did she feed live birds to her lion cub?  While in New York, Sarah made her way to a theater through a crowd of overly enthusiastic admirers who rushed forward, arms extended, demanding she sign their shirt cuffs. At one point, to avoid the throng, her younger sister Jeanne, camouflaged in Sarah’s boas and veils, hoodwinked the fans while the prima donna made her getaway. She took the opportunity to visit Thomas Edison who gave her a tour of his laboratory and persuaded her to make a recording on his new invention: the phonograph.

     However, not everyone was in Camp Bernhardt. Fundamentalist preachers branded her as sinful. After a Texas theater owner refused to rent his place for her performance, she set up a tent that resulted in the stubble of cornstalks that tore at the hems of the ladies’ dresses. 

      The woman who had grown up in a foster home, with the money from her roles as an actress and a courtesan, purchased her own home located in the Monceau area of Paris, as over-decorated as her stage sets. She shared the space with Maurice, her menagerie of pets, and a constant stream of visitors. Guests who came through her door were the stuff of legend: Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, Louis Pasteur, Oscar Wilde, Teddy Roosevelt. She served as a muse; Alexander Dumas declared after a visit, “but when I get home, how I can write! How I can write!”

    The most utilized piece of furniture was the Bernhardt bed, as her lovers were legion. Some of the famous were Albert Edward, AKA the Prince of Wales, Charles Haas, (Proust’s model for his character Swann,) Victor Hugo, Gustave Doré, as well as a variety of female partners.

     Along with own her own property, Sarah, who always desired to be at the helm of her ship, purchased her own playhouse which she christened, unsurprisingly, the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt. She often played male roles, including when she appeared as Hamlet. Another signature performance was in Edmond Rostand’s L’Aiglon, a play centered on the subject of Napoleon’s doomed son. As she expertly expired-something she did at the end of most of her productions-a critic wrote, “dying as angels would die were they allowed to.” The weeping audience rose to its feet, their enthusiasm undimmed by the fact that the star was fifty-six and had played the role of a twenty-year-old.

     Despite looking after her exotic animals, grueling schedule, and erotic liaisons, Sarah took

the conventional step of marriage. She fell for a dissolute Greek shipping heir, Aristides Damalas, twelve years her junior, who she described as, “generous, handsome, and as pleased with himself as Narcissus.” They married in England in 1882, between her engagements in Naples and Nice. He worked as a representation of a Greek delegation stationed in Paris, and due to diplomatic indiscretion, his country reassigned him to a post in St. Petersburg. Acting the part of the devoted wife, Sarah changed her tour engagements and followed him to Russia. Aristides reverted to his old morphine habit, and one day abruptly deserted to join the French Foreign Legion. When he died from his drug addiction at age forty-two, Sarah referred to herself as the widow Damalas. Irish writer Bram Stoker stated he had partly based his character of Dracula on Sarah’s husband.

      Alongside van Gogh’s ear, Bernhardt’s leg is the most famous appendage in history. She had suffered an injury years before when she had leapt from a parapet while performing La Tosca and had endured chronic pain. According to legend, under anesthetic, where she endured an amputation, she had drifted into unconsciousness while singing “La Marseillaise.” P. T. Barnum offered her $10,000 for the severed limb to put on display. She refused, “If it’s my right leg you want, see the doctors; if it’s the left leg, see my manager in New York.” Eight months later, at age seventy-one, she starred in La Dame aux Camelias, the play that Verdi later adapted as La Traviata, where she moved about the stage in a wheelchair that she preferred to a wooden leg. Shortly afterwards, Sarah set off for her ninth and last American tour to convince the United States to enter World War I.  She also made her way to the Front to entertain the troops in mess tents and ruined barns where she described herself as hopping about “like a guinea hen.”

      The immortal thespian’s specialty was dying from daggers, betrayal, heartbreak. When the actress herself passed away in her son’s arms in 1923, thousands of Parisians detoured to the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt. During World War II, the Germans de-baptized the playhouse because of Sarah’s Jewish roots and renamed it the Théâtre de la Ville. Her funeral was the largest since that of her admirer, Victor Hugo. Currently, Sarah’s leg resides at Bordeaux University medical school; her tomb lies in Père Lachaise Cemetery.

     Of all the realms of dialogue that Sarah had spoken, perhaps the best that encapsulates her remarkable life were words she had first uttered at age nine when she leapt across a ditch that no other of her friends would attempt. The French translation is in spite of everything or after all, the verbal equivalent of a shrug: “Quand même.”