A riveting portrait of the great Sarah Bernhardt from acclaimed writer Robert Gottlieb
About the Author
Robert Gottlieb is the author of Lives and Letters, George Balanchine, and Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens. 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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SarahThe Life of Sarah Bernhardt
By ROBERT GOTTLIEB
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2010 Robert Gottlieb
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOne 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
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."
Excerpted from Sarah by ROBERT GOTTLIEB Copyright © 2010 by Robert Gottlieb. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
ContentsSarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt....................1
A Gallery of Roles....................121
A Note on Sources....................221
What People are Saying About This
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