Actress, Seductress

To say she over-emoted is defamatory understatement. Audiences adored her.

Long before parents told their tantrum-throwing daughters “don’t be such a drama queen,” the world had a single branded role model for self-defeating histrionics. In the 1950s, when I was a tot, I heard mothers at the school gates shout: “Don’t be such a Sarah Bernhardt.”

The message was pretty unambiguous. Nobody wanted their little princesses to live the life of the great French tragedienne, with her denial of moral constraint, her ridiculous traveling menagerie and her monumental myth-making. Yet Bernhardt, who died in 1923, was also a secret heroine to many sedate homemakers. For all her defiance of convention, this was a woman who was staunch in her causes, contemptuous of male dominance, a feminist before her time, a Jew who never turned the other cheek. She was, as Robert Gottlieb notes in “Sarah,” an elegant contribution to Yale’s new series of Jewish lives, the most famous Frenchwoman since Joan of Arc: “All the world knew who she was.”

Her beginnings are almost untraceable. She claimed 1844 as her year of birth, though 1841 seems just as likely; the relevant documents were destroyed in the 1871 Siege of Paris. Her self-centered mother, Youle, the daughter of an Amsterdam Jewish oculist, was a seamstress and a courtesan of middling success. Bernhardt’s father may, or may not, have been a naval officer called Morel. She liked to believe that he watched over her unseen.

Youle often left her unruly daughter with aunts and nannies. At age 9, Sarah was sent to the nuns. Youle rejoiced at the strictures they imposed: “You have mastered my little wild animal,” she declared. The mother superior replied: “Oh no, merely tamed her.” Young Sarah took as her motto the dismissive phrase quand-même, best rendered in modern English as “whatever.”

At 15, endowed with a golden voice and a trim figure, she was accepted as a student at the haughty Conservatoire academy in Paris and sat for the famed photographer Nadar. In one of the portraits, reproduced in “Sarah,” she is “bare to the navel,” Mr. Gottlieb observes, “a fan coquettishly held up to her face . . . her breasts small, piquant.”



Bernhardt became a shrewd exploiter of her physical assets, forming what might be best described as a consortium of wealthy and powerful men, who shared her favors consensually and without rancor, ever ready to rally to her cause. “My stockholders,” she called them.

Scrabbling after theater work at age 20, Bernhardt became pregnant; the father may have been Prince Henri de Ligne of Belgium. In defiance of Youle’s neglect, she became an exemplary mother, cherishing her child, Maurice, to the end of her days.

She was without work for two years after Maurice was born but then, through the intervention of friends and lovers, secured a berth at the Odéon, downmarket from the Comédie-Française. Her first massive triumph came in 1872, when she played the queen who falls in love with a commoner disguised as a nobleman in Victor Hugo’s drama “Ruy Blas.” Classical or contemporary, Molière or Dumas, Bernhardt soon mastered them all. Jeanne d’Arc was inevitably a trademark role, as were, more surprisingly and across the gender divide, Hamlet and Macbeth.

What she did onstage, how she achieved so overwhelming an effect, can only be conjectured from literary descriptions, though the films she made late in life (some are on YouTube) give clues to her force. To say that she over-emoted is a defamatory understatement. Bernhardt went way over the top in all that she did, giving audience members an intimation of the passions that lurked within each and every one of them but could not be decently released.

She made a habit of seducing her leading men in their dressing rooms. She upgraded to literary eminences—”kiss me,” she demanded of the aged Victor Hugo, “on the mouth!” (He was 70, she 27.) But Bernhardt was romantically more calculating than insatiable; she used her liaisons in the furtherance of her legend. “My frail body is exhausted by the act of love,” she informed the actor Charles Mounet-Sully, the man who captured her heart, to the extent that it was possible. “Never is it the love I dream of. . . . You must not be angry at me. I am an incomplete person.” In many of her private letters, we are moved to pity.

Her tours of England and America began in the early 1880s. She whipped up storms of publicity with her small zoo of wild beasts and the coffin in which she was reported to sleep. “The cherished blood of Israel that runs in my veins impels me to travel,” she declared, advertising her origins in an era that simmered with anti-Semitism.

During the 1870 Franco-Prussian War she set up hospitals and got her lovers to furnish them with equipment and food. In World War I, she played for men in the trenches, all along the Marne. Her last foreign tour, in 1916, on one leg after amputation, was a patriotic attempt to secure U.S. support for suffering France. At her death in March 1923, a half-million admirers in Paris thronged the funeral route to the Père Lachaise cemetery.

“The good Lord,” Bernhardt once said, “permitted me a triumphant life.” And a complicated one. Mr. Gottlieb’s fluid style and lightly worn authority offer a lucid and essential modern guide to the making of celebrity, in an era before the noun existed.

With an eye ever open for the absurdity of her vocation, Mr. Gottlieb steers us through a thicket of fictions and half-truths about Sarah, many of them perpetrated by the “relentless fabulist” herself. Where the truth lies is sometimes obscure but truth in a life like Sarah Bernhardt’s is no more than a stage prop, something to be shrugged past with a dismissive quand-même.

Mr. Lebrecht’s latest book, “Why Mahler? How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed the World,” will be published by Pantheon next week.


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