Though she lived well into the 20th century — till 1923, in fact — legendary French actress Sarah Bernhardt is these days a creature of the distant past, resting in a comfortable cocoon of myth. Part of her legend stems from the fact that many believe Marcel Proust and Henry James, two of the world's supreme novelists, based important characters on "the divine Sarah."
She was said to be the model for the actress Berma in the French writer's seven-part masterwork, In Search of Lost Time. The actress is one of several paragons of artistry, whose virtues are extolled and held up as beacons by the narrator.
And James is said to have used Sarah as the source for Miriam Rooth in The Tragic Muse, another artist character with a deep passion for her metier.
But Robert Gottlieb tells us at the start of his new biography of Bernhardt that the myth-making began long before any writer sought to use her as inspiration; in fact, she wove a web of legends around herself from an early age. In the first section of this compact book, the author works to untangle the skein of half-truths and exaggerations the actress skillfully constructed.
The opening few sentences of the work run as follows: "Sarah Bernhardt was born in July or September or October of 1844. Or was it 1843? Or even 1841?"
The author states that, with some lesser figure, none of this would matter, "because we'd have no reason to doubt whatever he or she told us. But dull accuracy wasn't Bernhardt's strong point: She was a complete realist when dealing with her life but a relentless fabulist when recounting it."
Untangle the Knots
Gottlieb's Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt is the initial venture in a new series of brief biographies, published by Yale University Press, and given the overall rubric of "Jewish Lives." The author is himself a legendary figure in the New York publishing world. He's been the editor in chief of Simon and Schuster, Alfred A. Knopf and The New Yorker magazine, as well as being the author of another highly respected brief biography titled Balanchine: The Ballet Maker. All of this makes him a fine choice to untangle the knots in Bernhardt's life.
The most significant components of his subject's young years, Gottlieb argues, were the fact that she had a mother, Judith, a very minor courtesan, who happened to be Jewish and didn't love her daughter. The child also had no father.
These details might have derailed lesser mortals. But what Bernhardt did have "was her extraordinary will," writes the author, "to survive, to achieve, and — most of all — to have her own way. She would like us to believe that it was at the age of 9 that she adopted her lifelong motto, Quand même. You can translate quand même in a number of (unsatisfactory) ways: 'Even so.' 'All the same.' 'Despite everything.' 'Nevertheless.' 'Against all odds.' 'No matter what.' They all fit both the child she was and the woman she was to become."
Her mother, despite her less than glowing career, always had "one or two well-to-do 'protectors' " nearby, who would escort Judith to spas throughout Europe — which meant, of course, that others raised Sarah. And yet it was these well-connected "friends" who eventually got Bernhardt an audition at the highly respected acting school known as the Conservatoire; from there she moved on to the Comédie Française, the finest theater troupe in all France.
But according to Gottlieb, Bernhardt's eight months at the Française were not distinguished, though her dramatic exit from the troupe did catch the attention of Parisians. Bernhardt described the scene in her memoirs, which Gottlieb paraphrases and quotes from directly.
"Every year on Molière's birthday, the entire company came forward onto the stage to salute the bust of the great writer. 'It was to be my first appearance at a "ceremony"; and my little sister [Régine]… begged me to take her along.' In the wings, as Sarah waited to go on, Régine accidentally stepped on the train of an important elderly actress, Mme Nathalie, who whipped around and slammed her against a marble pillar. Régine was crying and bleeding. 'You miserable bitch,' Sarah shouted, and slapped Nathalie hard on both cheeks. Swoons, tumult, laughter."
Of course, the older actress demanded "abject apologies." Bernhardt insisted that the woman apologize to Régine first. There was a standoff, until the young actress stormed off. Though she may have lost her job, she'd also become, in one fell swoop, "the object of excited notoriety in Paris," especially in theatrical circles. "It was the first publicity coup of her career" — but, by no means, the last.
In the decade she stayed away from the theater of Molière, Sarah grew as an actress, Gottlieb tells us, and when she was invited back to the famed troupe that she'd left in a huff, she returned in triumph and began crafting the parts that would make her famous, larger than life characters like Camille, Phèdre, Joan of Arc, even Hamlet.
Some of her roles played on her ties to Judaism, even though Sarah had been baptized at a young age and raised as a Catholic. She enjoyed satisfying the public's need for beautiful Jewess parts, but her baptism didn't shield her from anti-Semitic attacks. Sarah often didn't help matters either. Following her conscience, she backed Alfred Dreyfus during the infamous affair when this innocent French Jewish soldier was accused of treason and the scandal nearly tore French society apart.
"Sarah," writes Gottlieb, "supported by others of her circle … fearlessly stood with the Dreyfus defenders, most famously rushing to side with her friend Zola when he wrote his impassioned 'J'accuse.' Headline from the right-wing press: 'The great actress is with the Jews against the army.' In other words, she was a traitor. To Sarah this was the supreme outrage. Her patriotism had always been unimpeachable, as she had demonstrated during the 1870 war. She may have had Dutch and/or German blood, she may have proudly proclaimed 'I am a daughter of the great Jewish race,' but she also felt herself French to the core."
But anti-Semitism hardly stopped her; little did, in fact. And her notoriety only burgeoned once she began her "life of touring," both on the continent and in the United States. Especially in America, her penchant for publicity found new and sometimes startling outlets.
In fact, Bernhardt, as Gottlieb shows, was one of the first international celebrities. He notes that "wherever she went she was first and foremost an Event, excitement about her arrival whipped up by an avalanche of publicity." She was painted and photographed and caricatured and both praised and damned in newspapers and other journals incessantly. And her notorious sex life was a source of endless gossip.
But she continued to perform — on various "stages" — into her 70s; even having a leg amputated at an advanced age didn't slow her down.
Summing up Bernhardt's legacy, Gottlieb states that she remains the paradigm for the "Great Actress," the way "Pavlova does for 'Ballerina' or Einstein for 'Genius.' She is still the most famous of all French women after Joan of Arc and the most famous French personality of the 19th century after Napoléon. But perhaps the most lingering effect of her name and fame resides in the minds of the untold number of women (so many of them Jewish — I know a dozen of them) who, when they were acting up as little girls, were lovingly scolded by their parents with the words, 'You're a regular Sarah Bernhardt.' "