Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt

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Overview

Everything about Sarah Bernhardt is fascinating, from her obscure birth to her glorious career—redefining the very nature of her art—to her amazing (and highly public) romantic life to her indomitable spirit. Well into her seventies, after the amputation of her leg, she was performing under bombardment for soldiers during World War I, as well as crisscrossing America on her ninth American tour.

Her family was also a source of curiosity: the mother she adored and who scorned her; her two half-sisters, who died young after lives of dissipation; and most of all, her son, Maurice, whom she worshiped and raised as an aristocrat, in the style appropriate to his presumed father, the Belgian Prince de Ligne. Only once did they quarrel—over the Dreyfus Affair. Maurice was a right-wing snob; Sarah, always proud of her Jewish heritage, was a passionate Dreyfusard and Zolaist.

Though the Bernhardt literature is vast, Gottlieb’s Sarah is the first English-language biography to appear in decades. Brilliantly, it tracks the trajectory through which an illegitimate—and scandalous—daughter of a courtesan transformed herself into the most famous actress who ever lived, and into a national icon, a symbol of France.

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Editorial Reviews

The Forward
Gottlieb's Sarah is a fine introduction to a fascinating woman, giving the reader a lively sense of why, so many decades after her death, the name of Sarah Bernhardt, above all others, still stands for actress.—Julius Novick, The Forward

— Julius Novick
Newsweek
Immensely entertaining.—Jeremy McCarter, Newsweek

— Jeremy McCarter

NPR Books We Like
An elegant and engaging portrait worthy of Bernhardt. . . a terrific book.—Glenn C. Altschuler, NPR Books We Like

— Glenn C. Altschuler

Palm Beach Post
Comprehensive and illuminating about many things besides Bernhardt—French anti-Semitism, sexual mores amongst the intellectual aristocracy, etc.—without being exhausting. I can't imagine Bernhardt's story being told better.—Scott Eyman, Palm Beach Post

— Scott Eyman

New York Review of Books
Appropriately lively. . . Gottlieb's affable, anecdotal style suits the subject well.—Graham Robb, New York Review of Books

— Graham Robb
New York Times Book Review
[A] sharp, efficient biography.—Emma Brockes, New York Times Book Review

— Emma Brockes
Los Angeles Times
Robert Gottlieb is true to the mystery of his subject's self-invented life. He also does what few biographers of famous women seem able or willing to do: He focuses on her work. . . . Vintage Gottleib, full of humor and refreshingly free of hagiography.—Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times

— Susan Salter Reynolds
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Robert Gottlieb's book is appropriately small, beautiful and packed with drama. . . . Mr. Gottlieb is a meticulous reader, researcher and distiller of information. . . . Although he claims we can know little about her actual performances, he manages to make them come alive. I see her and hear her, declamatory to our modern sensibilities, alarmingly natural and passionate to audiences of the late 19th century.—Kathleen George, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

— Kathleen George

Daily Beast
One ends this breathlessly readable and deeply intelligent book in as much awe of Sarah as people and audiences were in her own lifetime; it is that rarest of books, a serious biography that reads not only like a novel, but like a big, romantic, sprawling, over-the-top novel. Gottlieb has made of her story a wonderful book—one, which, to pay it its highest due, any editor, including himself (and me), would give his or her eye-teeth to have published!—Michael Korda, Daily Beast

— Michael Korda
Wall Street Journal
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.—Norman Lebrecht, Wall Street Journal

— Norman Lebrecht

New York Jewish Week
In 'Sarah: The Life of Sarah Berndhardt', Robert Gottlieb presents (his subject) appreciatively, in full color, in all her exuberance, extravagance, beauty, passion and talent. This is the first English-language biography in decades of the first internationally known stage star.—Sandee Brawarsky, New York Jewish Week

— Sandee Brawarsky

Books & Culture
Gottlieb shows in this fine, sympathetic biography [that Sarah Bernhardt] put the world on a leash and added it to her own private menagerie.—Betty Smartt Carter, Books & Culture

— Betty Smartt Carter

Pages
Very readable. . . . Gottlieb holds the reader's interest throughout. . . . [An] excellent biography. . . . Recommended very highly for casual reader as well as for specialists.—Richard Weigel, Pages

— Richard Weigel

Bowling Green Daily News
Robert Gottlieb's biography of Bernhardt is very readable and covers the actress' fascinating life qutie well.—Richard Weigel, Bowling Green Daily News

— Richard Weigel

Forward
Gottlieb writes about Bernhardt with convincing respect and sympathy, tempered with quiet amusement at her oddities and excesses. His lucid, conversational, urbane prose is accompanied by numerous illustrations. . . . Gottlieb's Sarah is a fine introduction to a fascinating woman.—Julius Novick, Forward

— Julius Novick

Book Report
it's an ambitious book, a real doorstopper. . . . You'll learn all manner of facts.—David Wood, Book Report

— David Wood

Newsday
[Robert Gottlieb] does what few biographers of famous women do: He focuses on her work.—Susan Salter Reynolds, Newsday

— Susan Salter Reynolds

The Jewish Week
Robert Gottlieb presents her appreciatively, in full color, in all her exuberance, extravagance, beauty, passion and talent.—Sandee Brawarsky,

— Sandee Brawarsky

New England Book Festival
Received Honorable Mention in the Biography/Autobiography category of the 2010 New England Book Festival

— Biography Honorable Mention

Vogue

"A fascinating look at Bernhardt''s mythology and the stagecraft behind it. . . . What Sarah understood--as Gottlieb, a storied editor and publisher makes clear--was how the heightened drama of performance might be extended to her own life."--Vogue

Economist

"Sarah Bernhardt is a gift to the raconteur. Mr. Gottlieb takes full advantage. Where he can, he stages her life as a performance, with knowing asides and a certain kind of old-fashioned fun." — Economist

Los Angeles Times

"Robert Gottlieb is true to the mystery of his subject''s self-invented life. He also does what few biographers of famous women seem able or willing to do: He focuses on her work. . . . Vintage Gottleib, full of humor and refreshingly free of hagiography."--Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times

— Susan Salter Reynolds

Wall Street Journal

"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."--Norman Lebrecht, Wall Street Journal

— Norman Lebrecht

Newsweek

"Immensely entertaining."--Jeremy McCarter, Newsweek

— Jeremy McCarter

New York Times Book Review

"[A] sharp, efficient biography."--Emma Brockes, New York Times Book Review

— Emma Brockes

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"Robert Gottlieb''s book is appropriately small, beautiful and packed with drama. . . . Mr. Gottlieb is a meticulous reader, researcher and distiller of information. . . . Although he claims we can know little about her actual performances, he manages to make them come alive. I see her and hear her, declamatory to our modern sensibilities, alarmingly natural and passionate to audiences of the late 19th century."--Kathleen George, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

— Kathleen George

New York Review of Books

"Appropriately lively. . . Gottlieb''s affable, anecdotal style suits the subject well."--Graham Robb, New York Review of Books

— Graham Robb

The Forward

"Gottlieb''s Sarah is a fine introduction to a fascinating woman, giving the reader a lively sense of why, so many decades after her death, the name of Sarah Bernhardt, above all others, still stands for actress."--Julius Novick, The Forward

— Julius Novick

Palm Beach Post

"Comprehensive and illuminating about many things besides Bernhardt--French anti-Semitism, sexual mores amongst the intellectual aristocracy, etc.--without being exhausting. I can''t imagine Bernhardt''s story being told better."--Scott Eyman, Palm Beach Post

— Scott Eyman

Shelf Awareness

"A delectable, witty short biography of legendary French actress Sarah Bernhardt, and a decidedly unstuffy debut for Yale''s Jewish Lives series."--Shelf Awareness

Daily Beast

"One ends this breathlessly readable and deeply intelligent book in as much awe of Sarah as people and audiences were in her own lifetime; it is that rarest of books, a serious biography that reads not only like a novel, but like a big, romantic, sprawling, over-the-top novel. Gottlieb has made of her story a wonderful book--one, which, to pay it its highest due, any editor, including himself (and me), would give his or her eye-teeth to have published!"--Michael Korda, Daily Beast

— Michael Korda

Shakespeare Geek

"There''s an amazing amount of information here, about an amazing woman. . . . This is the first English-language biography of Sarah Bernhardt, and it is wonderfully informative as well as entertaining. I''m glad I''ve been given the opportunity to experience it, and will never again think of her as just that woman who was famous for playing Hamlet."--Shakespeare Geek

NPR Books We Like

"An elegant and engaging portrait worthy of Bernhardt. . . a terrific book."--Glenn C. Altschuler, NPR Books We Like

— Glenn C. Altschuler

Library Journal
Mapping out the early personal life of Sarah Bernhardt is not exactly like trying to nail jelly to a wall, but it does come close. The details are hazy, the documentation has vanished, and the primary literature is highly suspect. This is not the first time that Gottlieb, former editor in chief at Simon & Schuster and Knopf, has been involved with a Bernhardt biography: in 1991, he edited Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale's The Divine Sarah, the last full-length English-language biography of the actress. Gottlieb is an engaging and amusing writer. The ten or so pages devoted to a description of Bernhardt's acting style will be instructive to the receptive theater student.Verdict Taken together, this book and The Divine Sarah represent all that is known about Bernhardt until the next cache of letters is discovered. The best answer to the question, "Why this book?" may be in the stacks: in one particular small university library, the Bernhardt books circulate often. Recommended for college libraries, particularly if the Gold and Fizdale book is absent.—Larry Schwartz, Minnesota State Univ. Lib., Moorhead
Emma Brockes
In Sarah, Robert Gottlieb's sharp, efficient biography, the woman whose name is a byword for theatrics emerges as the first modern celebrity, skilled at P.R., canny with endorsements, engaged in her own mythologizing and with a howling emptiness at her core…Colette wrote of Bernhardt's "indomitable, endless desire to charm, to charm again, to charm even unto the gates of death." And, as this biography admirably shows, well beyond that point, too.
—The New York Times
Stephen Lowman
…a smart and sprightly biography. Robert Gottlieb shows how Bernhardt nurtured celebrity with her outlandish style and exaggerated stories about herself, or even made them up entirely.
—The Washington Post
Shelf Awareness
"A delectable, witty short biography of legendary French actress Sarah Bernhardt, and a decidedly unstuffy debut for Yale's Jewish Lives series."—Shelf Awareness
Vogue
"A fascinating look at Bernhardt's mythology and the stagecraft behind it. . . . What Sarah understood—as Gottlieb, a storied editor and publisher makes clear—was how the heightened drama of performance might be extended to her own life."—Vogue
Wall Street Journal - Norman Lebrecht
"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."—Norman Lebrecht, Wall Street Journal
Los Angeles Times - Susan Salter Reynolds
"[Robert Gottlieb] does what few biographers of famous women do: He focuses on her work."—Susan Salter Reynolds, Newsday
Newsweek - Jeremy McCarter
"Immensely entertaining."—Jeremy McCarter, Newsweek
The Forward - Julius Novick
"Gottlieb writes about Bernhardt with convincing respect and sympathy, tempered with quiet amusement at her oddities and excesses. His lucid, conversational, urbane prose is accompanied by numerous illustrations. . . . Gottlieb's Sarah is a fine introduction to a fascinating woman."—Julius Novick, Forward
NPR Books We Like - Glenn C. Altschuler
"An elegant and engaging portrait worthy of Bernhardt. . . a terrific book."—Glenn C. Altschuler, NPR Books We Like
Palm Beach Post - Scott Eyman
"Comprehensive and illuminating about many things besides Bernhardt—French anti-Semitism, sexual mores amongst the intellectual aristocracy, etc.—without being exhausting. I can't imagine Bernhardt's story being told better."—Scott Eyman, Palm Beach Post
New York Review of Books - Graham Robb
"Appropriately lively. . . Gottlieb's affable, anecdotal style suits the subject well."—Graham Robb, New York Review of Books
New York Times Book Review - Emma Brockes
"[A] sharp, efficient biography."—Emma Brockes, New York Times Book Review
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - Kathleen George
"Robert Gottlieb's book is appropriately small, beautiful and packed with drama. . . . Mr. Gottlieb is a meticulous reader, researcher and distiller of information. . . . Although he claims we can know little about her actual performances, he manages to make them come alive. I see her and hear her, declamatory to our modern sensibilities, alarmingly natural and passionate to audiences of the late 19th century."—Kathleen George, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Daily Beast - Michael Korda
"One ends this breathlessly readable and deeply intelligent book in as much awe of Sarah as people and audiences were in her own lifetime; it is that rarest of books, a serious biography that reads not only like a novel, but like a big, romantic, sprawling, over-the-top novel. Gottlieb has made of her story a wonderful book—one, which, to pay it its highest due, any editor, including himself (and me), would give his or her eye-teeth to have published!"—Michael Korda, Daily Beast
New York Jewish Week - Sandee Brawarsky
"Robert Gottlieb presents her appreciatively, in full color, in all her exuberance, extravagance, beauty, passion and talent."—Sandee Brawarsky,
Books & Culture - Betty Smartt Carter
"Gottlieb shows in this fine, sympathetic biography [that Sarah Bernhardt] put the world on a leash and added it to her own private menagerie."—Betty Smartt Carter, Books & Culture
Pages - Richard Weigel
"Robert Gottlieb's biography of Bernhardt is very readable and covers the actress' fascinating life qutie well."—Richard Weigel, Bowling Green Daily News
New England Book Festival - Biography Honorable Mention
Received Honorable Mention in the Biography/Autobiography category of the 2010 New England Book Festival
Book Report - David Wood
"it's an ambitious book, a real doorstopper. . . . You'll learn all manner of facts."—David Wood, Book Report
Carol Ockman
“With panache worthy of his subject, Gottlieb lays out the players as if Bernhardt’s life were a stage drama. His charismatic prose captures the spell of the consummate mythmaker.”—Carol Ockman, coauthor of Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama
The Sunday Times - Peter Carey
“Her story is a mushroom cloud of gossip, rumour, scandal and scholarship, and condensing it requires rare self-restraint. But Gottlieb has produced a book that is wise, funny, affectionate and enjoyably compact.”—Peter Carey, The Sunday Times
Independent on Sunday - Lesley McDowell
“Gottlieb emphasises the murkiness of sources in this entertaining biography"—Lesley McDowell, Independent on Sunday
The Guardian - Victoria Segal
“Robert Gottlieb sifts through the fiction in this hugely entertaining biography of the theatrical legend, and often casts doubt on the competing accounts of her life with little more than a raised eyebrow.”—Victoria Segal, The Guardian
Sunday Times - John Carey
'A book that is wise, funny, affectionate and enjoyable as well as blessedly compact.' — John Carey, Sunday Times
American Spectator - Joseph A. Harris
"In his timely new biography, Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt, Robert Gottlieb traces the meteoric, improbable, epic life of the illegitimate daughter of a high-flying Paris courtesan who became the most famous actress in theater history."—Joseph A. Harris, American Spectator
Mail on Sunday - Michael Simkins
"At only 220 pages, Sarah is necessarily a breathless account of a life that would happily occupy a book three times longer; yet it makes for an absorbing, at times fantastical read, and is leavened throughout by a dry wit and affectionate scepticism."—Michael Simkins, Mail on Sunday
Daily Express - Duncan Fallowell
"A fabulous story and Gottlieb has produced a brilliant short biography, telling you everything you want to know in 200 pages. He’s especially good at analysing what Sarah’s magic was but there was so much of it you’ll have to read the book to find out."—Duncan Fallowell, Daily Express
The Observer - Olivia Laing
"Robert Gottlieb is a firmly even-handed biographer and his engagingly zippy account focuses particularly on exposing the cracks in the contradictory stories that Bernhardt and her hagiographers assembled about her life…This is a sterling biography, equal to its subject."—Olivia Laing, The Observer
Literary Review - Rupert Christiansen
"Although Bernhardt's fame is universal and the literature about her immense, the major postwar English language biographies have long been out of print...Gottlieb's succinct survey is timely"—Rupert Christiansen, Literary Review
London Review Of Books - Terry Castle
"Suave, intelligent, always slyly entertaining."—Terry Castle, London Review Of Books
Birmingham Post - Richard Edmonds
"A riveting account of a life lived in the spotlight"—Richard Edmonds, Birmingham Post
Los Angeles Book Festival - Biography/Autobiography Honorable Mention
Honorable Mention in the Biography/Autobiography category of the 2010 Los Angeles Book Festival
The Lady - Miranda Seymour
"Short, witty and tender…This book is one that your friends and family will actually want to read: a better stocking-topper for the literary-minded is hard to imagine."—Miranda Seymour, The Lady
Voice of the Dutchess Jewish Community - Rabbi Rachel Esserman
"Gottlieb does an excellent job describing Bernhardt, making her come alive for the reader or, perhaps more accurately, making her larger-than-life personality seem real. With its general overview of her life, the book serves as a perfect introduction to her personal life and her career."—Rabbi Rachel Esserman, Voice of the Dutchess Jewish Community
Jewish Chronicle - John Nathan
"Gottlieb's Life casts a  reassuringly sceptical eye over a plethora of less-than-reliable writings about Berhardt, some of them the actress's own memoirs."—John Nathan, Jewish Chronicle
Economist
"Sarah Bernhardt is a gift to the raconteur. Mr. Gottlieb takes full advantage. Where he can, he stages her life as a performance, with knowing asides and a certain kind of old-fashioned fun." — Economist
Shakespeare Geek
"There's an amazing amount of information here, about an amazing woman. . . . This is the first English-language biography of Sarah Bernhardt, and it is wonderfully informative as well as entertaining. I'm glad I've been given the opportunity to experience it, and will never again think of her as just that woman who was famous for playing Hamlet."—Shakespeare Geek
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300141276
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 9/21/2010
  • Series: Jewish Lives Series
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 790,480
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Gottlieb is the author of the acclaimed Balanchine: The Ballet Maker. He writes for the New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and other publications, and is dance critic for the New York Observer. His career in publishing—as editor in chief of Simon and Schuster, Alfred A. Knopf, and The New Yorker—is legendary.

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Table of Contents

Contents

Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt....................1
A Gallery of Roles....................121
A Note on Sources....................221
Bibliography....................223
Acknowledgments....................227
Index....................229
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First Chapter

Sarah

The Life of Sarah Bernhardt
By ROBERT GOTTLIEB

Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS

Copyright © 2010 Robert Gottlieb
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-14127-6


Chapter One

One summer day, some months before her death, my grandmother, who was then seventy-eight years old, summoned me to her room in the Manor house of Penhoët and said: "Lysiane, you are a writer and some day you must write a book about me. So I am going to entrust you with certain objects and certain documents." "But," I replied, "you have already written your memoirs yourself." "Yes, but they stop in 1881 and we are now in 1922. besides," she added with a smile, "perhaps I did not tell everything." -Lysiane Bernhardt

I

Sarah Bernhardt was born in July or September or October of 1844. Or was it 1843? Or even 1841?

She was born in Paris at 5, rue de l'École de Médecine (that's where the plaque is). Or was it 32 (or 265), rue St. honoré? Or 22, rue de la Michandière?

We'll never know, because the official records were destroyed when the Hôtel de Ville, where they were stored, went up in flames during the Commune uprising of 1871. With someone else that would hardly 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. Why settle for anything less than the best story? For the ultimate word on Sarah's veracity we can turn to Alexandre Dumas fils, who, referring to her famous thinness, remarked affectionately, "You know, she's such a liar, she may even be fat!"

We do know who her mother was, but her father remains an enigma. We think we know who the father of her son was, but can we be sure? Everything about her early years is elusive-no letters, no reminiscences of family or friends, and what few documents that exist, highly obscure. Her singularly unreliable memoirs, My Double Life, carry her through her first thirty-five or so years, and they're the only direct testimony we have of her life until she's in her mid-teens. Yet despite her obfuscations, avoidances, lapses of memory, disingenuous revelations, and just plain lies, we can track her path, and (more important) begin to grasp her essential nature.

There are three basic components to her experience of childhood, two of them enough to derail an ordinary mortal: her mother didn't love her, and she had no father. What she did have was her extraordinary will: 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 nine 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.

The mother-Judith, Julie, Youle Van Hard-had her own reserves of strength and willpower, but unlike Sarah's, they were hidden under layers of lazy charm and an almost phlegmatic disposition. She was a pretty blonde, she played and sang appealingly, she was a congenial hostess, and she welcomed the expensive attentions of a variety of men-about-town. As a result, she had managed to fashion for herself a comfortable niche in the higher reaches of the demimonde of the Paris of the 1840s. Never one of the great courtesans-les grandes horizontales-she nevertheless always had one or two well-to-do "protectors" to squire her around the elegant spas of Europe.

Youle conducted a relaxed salon to which a group of distinguished men gravitated, among them her lover baron Larrey, who was the Emperor Louis-Napoléon's doctor (his father had been chief medical officer of the first Napoléon's armies); the composer rossini; the novelist and playwright Dumas père; and the duc de Morny, known as the most powerful man in France, who was Louis-Napoléon's illegitimate half-brother. Morny was a highflying and successful financier as well as the president of the Corps Legislatif, exerting immense political influence without entering the field of politics himself. It was Rosine, Youle's younger, prettier, livelier sister, who was Morny's mistress-except when Youle herself was; in these circles, it hardly mattered. The important thing, since it would prove crucial to Sarah's life, was that Morny was a regular fixture in the intimate life of the family.

Youle and Rosine had come a long way. Their mother, Julie (or Jeanette) Van hard-a Jewish girl either German or Dutch in origin-had married Maurice Bernard, a Jewish oculist in Amsterdam. There were five or six daughters (Sarah doesn't make it easy to keep track of her aunts) and at least one son, Édouard Bernard, who, like Sarah, eventually morphed into "Bernhardt." When their mother died and their father remarried, Youle and Rosine struck out on their own, first to Basel, then on to London and Le Havre, where in 1843 Youle-perhaps fifteen years old-gave birth to illegitimate twin girls, both of whom died within days. Documents about their birth provide the first verifiable data we have about her. Although the twins' father isn't named, the supposition is that he was a young naval officer named Morel, from a prominent Havrais family.

Undeterred, the ambitious Youle quickly set out for Paris, her daytime occupation seamstress, her nighttime career a quick ascent into the demimonde. Soon, two of her sisters followed her to Paris: the younger Rosine, who would surpass her in the ranks of courtesans, and the older Henriette, who made a solid marriage to a well-off businessman, Felix Faure. (The Faures would be the only respectable bourgeoisie of Sarah's youth.) Quickly-or already?-Youle was pregnant again, with Sarah, whose name appears in various documents as Rosine Benardt (her application for the Conservatoire) and Sarah Marie Henriette Bernard (her certificate of baptism).

The most likely candidate for the honor of having fathered Sarah is that same naval Morel. His (or someone's) family lawyer in Havre later administered a sum of money that Sarah was to inherit on her marriage; he also at times involved himself in the child's future. Another suggested candidate was a brilliant young law student in Paris with whom Youle lived happily in poverty (a likely story!), until his family forced them apart. (It's La Dame aux camélias, Sarah's greatest success, before the fact.) Sarah never names her father in My Double Life, although on her certificate of baptism, filled out when she was thirteen, he's called Édouard bernhardt. But isn't that the name of her mother's brother? Looking for consistency in Sarah's early history is a fruitless task.

What matters, finally, is that there was no father. In My Double Life, Sarah sketches a highly implausible tale. She rarely saw him-his business, whatever it was, kept him away from Paris until he suddenly died in Italy. He did, however, come with Youle to enroll Sarah in the aristocratic convent school he insisted she attend-apparently the only occasion on which the three of them did something together. As she tells it, on the night before she was to be installed in the school, her father said to her, "Listen to me, Sarah. If you are very good at the convent I will come in four years and fetch you away, and you shall travel with me and see some beautiful countries." "Oh, I will be good!" she exclaimed; "I'll be as good as Aunt Henriette." "This was my Aunt Faure," she writes. "Everybody smiled."

After dinner, she and her father had a serious talk. "He told me things that were sad which I had never heard before. although I was so young I understood, and I was on his knee with my head resting on his shoulder. I listened to everything he said and cried silently, my childish mind distressed by his words. Poor Father! I was never, never to see him again." Nor are we to hear about him again except when Sarah remarks in passing that he was "handsome as a god" (what else could he have been? No parent of Sarah's could be merely good-looking), and that she "loved him for his seductive voice and his slow, gentle gestures."

It's clear that Sarah needed to believe that she was important to this shadowy father-that he was lovingly concerned about her even when he was absent. That impression is strengthened by the father (and mother) she invented for a ridiculous novel she wrote in her old age. In Petite Idole (The Idol of Paris), Espérance-the beautiful beloved daughter of a refined family-is destined to become a great actress at a far younger age than Sarah did, and with far less difficulty. Espérance is worshiped by her all-loving, all-understanding, and highly distinguished parents, who are prepared to sacrifice anything and everything (including the philosopher-father's induction into the Académie Française) to their daughter's well-being. (She ends up marrying a duke.) The pathetic act of wish-fulfillment that this fiction represents only serves to underline the deep traumas of Sarah's childhood. After more than half a century, the most illustrious woman of her time was still grappling with having been an unwanted and unloved child.

She narrated her story more than once-in her memoirs, of course, but also, toward the end of her life, both to her granddaughter Lysiane and to Lysiane's husband, the playwright Louis Verneuil. Each of them wrote a hagiographic biography of her based presumably on her account. (Verneuil was obsessed with Sarah, and he and Lysiane were divorced within months of Sarah's death, suggesting that their marriage was more about their grandmother than about each other.)

There was also a series of interviews that in 1898 Sarah gave to a friendly journalist, Jules Huret, from which, with her encouragement, he fashioned a biography.

And then there's a self-serving but sporadically convincing account of Sarah's birth by Thérèse Berton, whose late husband, Pierre, had been Sarah's leading man and leading lover for a number of years as her career was getting under way. Mme Berton is obviously filled with resentment and envy-with real rancor-toward Sarah, but she did spend years in her company, on the endless tours that Berton and Bernhardt conducted long after their affair had turned into collegiality. (He was a very good actor, and an excellent foil for her stardom.) Mme Berton assures us that Sarah confided in her totally, with the firm understanding that after Sarah died, Berton would tell the whole truth and nothing but. Otherwise, of course, she would never have set pen to paper.

"Have I the right to divulge this secret of all secrets, for nearly fourscore years locked in the breast of the greatest woman of four epochs? ... Have I the right to tear the shroud from that dead face, and let the world gaze afresh on a long-familiar visage, only to find a new and wondrously changed entity beneath?" after an intense struggle, having "fought it out with myself through long, sleepless nights," Mme Berton decides that she does have the right-indeed, the obligation. "The last thing [Sarah] wanted was for the facts of her life to be at the mercy of imaginative chroniclers."

The Berton version: In Frankfurt, pretty young Julie Van Hard falls madly in love with a young French courier in the diplomatic corps and follows him to Paris, until his parents (of noble birth) step in, whereupon he abandons her without warning and without money. For weeks, "a stranger in a strange land," little Julie "lived as best she might.... Whatever she did, no one can blame her." (In other words, Sarah's mother sold herself.) Eventually she struck up an acquaintance with a law student, also from Le Havre and "one of the wildest youngsters in the Latin Quarter," who was registered on the books of the University of Paris as Édouard Bernhardt. However, the family name of this man, according to what Sarah learned later, was actually de Therard, and his baptismal name was Paul. It was he who rented the little flat on the rue de l'École de Médecine in which Sarah was-or wasn't-born. But two weeks before that was to happen, Édouard/Paul bernhardt/de Therard returned to Le Havre, though "he wrote ardent letters to the forsaken mother and sent regular sums for the child's support."

Can any or all of this be true? It would make sense, if the father was studying at the University of Paris, that the flat was in the rue de l'École de Médecine, in the heart of the Latin Quarter. (A more likely because more matter-of-fact explanation is that this flat was where Julie's midwife lived.) Might it have been that with a baby coming, Therard took on a variation of Julie's name, Bernard, rather than use his own, and borrowed her brother's name as well? Again, we'll never know.

What motivated all of Sarah's lies and deceptions about her birth, Thérèse Berton would have us believe, was her anguish over her illegitimacy's being revealed to the world. Yet this seems highly unlikely, given that in her circles illegitimacy was hardly an impediment to social acceptance. After all, the duc de Morny himself was proudly illegitimate (his mother being Queen Hortense of Holland), and-more directly to the point-neither Sarah nor her son, Maurice, ever attempted to hide his illegitimacy. Indeed, Sarah flaunted this irregularity, perpetually joking about who Maurice's father might be.

Does it matter who Sarah's father actually was? Yes, because it mattered to her. Family mattered to her. She named her son Maurice after her grandfather; she herself was named after her Aunt Rosine; she was compulsively attentive to her mother and her two half-sisters as long as they lived; and Maurice was, from first to last, the most important person in her life. (One of her biographers explains that strong attachment to family is a well-known Jewish characteristic.) Her father, whoever he was, clearly did not share this characteristic, but then no one has ever suggested that he was Jewish.

However powerful a presence her absent father was in Sarah's psyche, Youle's actual presence-when she bothered to be present-was just as powerful. One can sympathize with this teenage girl, groping for a foothold in the Paris demimonde, who found herself on her own, and with the additional impediment of a baby. Perhaps she resented the baby's existence. Perhaps she found it hard to be reminded of the absconded father. But for whatever reasons, from the start Youle was not very interested in her child. It wasn't lack of maternal feeling-when her second daughter, Jeanne (father unknown), was born, in 1851, Youle adored her, pampered her, and made it painfully obvious that she loved her far more than she did Sarah.

By the time Sarah was three, she had been sent away to a small village near Quimperle in brittany to be cared for by a nurse who had probably performed the same services for Édouard Bernhardt when he himself was little-that's Édouard the presumed father, not Édouard the uncle. There, in a modest peasant dwelling, Sarah spent her early childhood, her first language Breton rather than French, and with no education of any kind. "My mother's age was nineteen; I was three years old; my two aunts were seventeen and twenty years of age; another aunt was fifteen, and the eldest was twenty-eight, but the latter lived in Martinique and was the mother of six children. My grandmother was blind, my grandfather dead, and my father had been in China for the last two years. I have no idea why he had gone there." (Nor do we; nor is there any reason to believe that he was there.) Youle almost never came to see her. Sarah was essentially a foster child.

Then, still according to Sarah, there took place a frightening accident that led eventually to a new life. One day, with the nurse out in the field gathering potatoes and the good woman's husband laid up in bed, unable to move, the little girl managed to fall into the fireplace. Some neighbors heard her foster father's screams, and "I was thrown, all smoking, into a large pail of fresh milk." Within days, "My aunts came from all parts of the world, and my mother, in the greatest alarm, hastened from Brussels with Baron Larrey.... I have been told since that nothing was more painful to witness and yet so charming as my mother's despair." At last Sarah had Youle's attention. "Mother, admirably beautiful, looked like a Madonna with her golden hair and her eyes fringed with such long lashes that they made a shadow on her cheeks when she lowered her eyes. She distributed money on all sides, she would have given her golden hair, her slender white fingers, her tiny feet, her life itself, in order to save her child." And she was as sincere in her despair and her love as in her usual forgetfulness. Sarah was slathered with a mask of butter that was changed every two hours. It worked! "I didn't even have a scar, it seems. My skin was rather too bright a pink, but that was all."

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Sarah by ROBERT GOTTLIEB Copyright © 2010 by Robert Gottlieb. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2010

    Highly Recommended

    I read Sarah's memoirs, before I read this book. Thus I knew of some of the events in her life in her own perception.

    I was surprised to see that R. Gottlieb is very good at being analytical and not judgmental. Although he is clearly fascinated by his subject, he's not ecstatic over her. Being very interested in the profession of acting I was also surprised to learn about Sarah's technique, which is usually either not mentioned at all or takes a backstage to her behavior off stage.

    The book is a very easy read; and it is not overly analytical or superficial. R. Gottlieb is a very good biographer, and I'd like to read his other books.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 21, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Puts modern day movie stars in the shade

    Let's see who this paragraph describes: She is a child of her age-of her moment-and she has known how to profit by the idiosyncrasies of the time. The trade of a celebrity, pure and simple [has] been invented.. She is in a supreme degree what the French call the génie de la réclame-the advertising genius. (pg. 81). Madonna? Lady Gaga? Paris Hilton? No, indeed. This is an excerpt of a review written by Henry James in 1880 about the world's greatest actress, Sarah Bernhardt, who was touring America at the time. Bernhardt was born in 1844 (or thereabouts-her birth records disappeared in a fire and all her life she invented and reinvented facts about herself) and died in 1923. She was the unloved daughter of a Dutch Jewish courtesan and never knew who her father was. She was a member of France's national theater, the Comédie Française, and later owned her own theater. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, she turned the Odéon Theatre into a hospital. She toured the whole world, always acting in French and winning thunderous applause from audiences who didn't understand a word she said. Fortunately for us, she also made some films, in the silent age, alas, so if we go to YouTube we can see little snippets of her performances. She acted with some of France's greatest, handsomest leading men, and like more movie stars than we can name also went to bed with them. Some of her finest roles were in La Dame aux Camelias (called Camille in the U.S. to sort of disguise the fact that the tragic heroine was a prostitute), Racine's Phèdre, Cleopatra, Hamlet (she loved trousers roles), and Jeanne d'Arc. Even after she had her leg amputated in her seventies, she continued to act. Tout le monde filled the streets of Paris for her funeral. Quill says: Pay no attention to those celibi-idiots in the grocery-store and TV tabloids. This is the true story of a great actress whose talent-and scandalous life-puts any modern day movie star in the shade. On every page, you'll ask yourself, What did she do next? What did she do? On-stage and off, she acted.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted October 17, 2011

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    Posted October 19, 2011

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