Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt (Jewish Lives)
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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.
Meanwhile, Hugo hosted a dinner to celebrate the hundredth performance of Ruy Blas, and in the midst of the speeches and congratulations Chilly was felled by a stroke. He died soon thereafter, “causing me intense grief.” Possibly. The prestige of the Comédie-Française and the higher salary, plus the satisfaction at being wooed back after her ignominious rout nine years before, made Sarah’s decision to return there a certainty, and the comedy of her back-and-forth with Duquesnel and Chilly over
was seen as pushy and “modern”—fair game for caricature and resentment. 65 SARAH she was—his Oedipus as famous as her Phèdre, his Hernani as brilliant as her Doña Sol, his Hamlet the most admired of his time . . . until hers. And, again like Sarah, he went on forever, the leading man at the Français from 1870 to 1910. It could be said that their electrifying partnership restored the health of the company. The repertory they worked in was hardly restricted to the classics. A steady diet of new
in her memoirs: “How wonderful [Sarah] looked in those days! She was as transparent as an azalea, only more so; like a cloud, only not so thick. Smoke from a burning paper describes her more nearly! She was hollow-eyed, thin, almost consumptive-looking. Her body was not the prison of her soul, but its shadow. On the stage she has always seemed to me more a symbol, an ideal, an epitome than a woman. . . . It is this extraordinary decorative and symbolic quality of Sarah’s which makes her transcend
Pennsylvania. The other actors, without beneﬁt of private car or French cook, were miserable and bored—and their performances showed it. Marie Colombier in particular resented the lack of preferential treatment from her former best pal: “We live on preserves, sandwiches, biscuits, and sardines. Cold. Too late for dinner when we arrive at hotels. Sarah, needless to say, doesn’t suffer at all. Other than the young male lead, no one approaches her.” 106 THE LIFE OF SARAH BERNHARDT Yet Sarah is
role—the closest reading of a stage performance I know, anatomizing all the original subtleties of staging and gesture she brought to it. And her account provides further evidence of the extraordinary focus, intelligence, and labor Sarah brought to her work. (Nearly all the testimony we have from her co-workers conﬁrms her almost rabid attention to detail, her constant rethinking of her roles, and her insatiable energy—as ready to throw herself into sewing a costume as into changing a crucial