IN 1906, WHEN SHE was 62 and still had a long way to go to her beautifully rehearsed death at the age of 79, Sarah Bernhardt dictated her memoirs. For all their vivid charm and spirit, she was weary and in pain. A year earlier, leaping from a parapet in a performance of La Tosca, she had injured her knee, which later resulted in the amputation of her leg in 1915. But this accident hadn't stopped a tour of 62 American cities, her fifth; for Sarah (lampooned as "Sarah Barnum") was one of the age's great self-publicists. But a year of barnstorming, with pain subdued only by either rubs or the needle, brought her to a brief stanstill. And in her island retreat off the Breton coast, she poured out a wonderful farrago of authentic recollection, exaggeration, and embroidery that never bores because she had a good idea that literal truth is morecompelling than self-flattering fantasy, and mixed the two judiciously.
Ma Double Vie was published in 1906 in a wretched English translation that is now served up again as The Memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt. This fascinating narrative deserves better, for untrustworthy as it is, it gives more of Sarah's intoxicating personality than the picture book Joanna Richardson has set her hand to, which is a summary rewrite of her 1959 biography. There is still room for a much better illustrated life of Sarah - after Queen Victoria, the most photographed, painted, and caricatured woman of the 19th century.
She didn't so much accept the universe, like humorless Margaret Fuller, as compel it, by guile and by storm, to accept her. Worldwide adulation was perhaps a natural need for the little-loved bastard of an ambitious 16-year-old prostitute. Her early memories (she was farmed out for her first five years) contain truthful detail, but when the mother at last appears on the scene, fantasy seizes control. Though the Dutch Jewish courtesan who had so inconveniently been made pregnant by a Frenchman of good Catholic family couldn't wait to get her tempestuous child off her hands, the daughter 60 years later pretends to remember her "looking like a Madonna . . . she would have given her golden hair . . . her life itself, in order to save her child." But no until a chance meeting with her aunt Rosine, another high-flying courtesan, was Sarah restored to her reluctant mother. After a token caress, the aunt had turned away; Sarah flung herself at her carriage, breaking an arm and a leg, and achieved her desire to "go home."
Not for long. At seven she was sent to a convent, where her father, a great traveler, visited, promising to take her away some day; she never saw him again. Her wandering mother disappeared too and the child gave all her turbulent affections to nuns and priests. At 14 she was brought to Paris for a decision about her future. She herself longed fervently to be a nun, but her mother's lover, the Duc de Morny, suggested the conservatory - she should be an actress.
Illustrious influence got her in. Though her voice was already lovely, she was nothing much to look at - skinny but the standards of 1859, with a curiously unfinished face dominated by long golden eyes and a frizzy reddish mop. She wasn't ready to set the world afire - her first year she took second place for tragedy, the next year second for comedy - yer in 1861 she was engaged by the Comedie Francaise.
The party her aunt gave to celebrate the event suggests that the guests' influence had as much to do with it as Sarah's talent. Among them were the Duc de Morny; the minister of culture Count Walewski, who was Napoleon's illegitimate son; Rossini, who accompanied Sarah while she recited a poem; and a Hungarian count who was the first of the myriad lovers. In spite of the brave launching , she did poorly and after two years threw over the theater.
In 1864 she gave birth to her only child, Maurice (by a princely Belgian lover) - the only person she ever loved with all her heart, for that matter - and for three years lived a life very much like that of her mother and aunt. But in 1866 she was engaged to play at the Odeon, and finally at the advanced age of 25, made her first hit, a stunning one. People still remembered the incomparable classical tragedienne Rachel; Sarah was something altogether different. The theater critic Sarcey described her "gift of melancholy, plaintive dignity. All her movements are noble and harmonious . . . her voice is languishing and tender, her diction so rhythmical, so exquisitely clear that one never loses a syllable even when the words are breathed forth as a caress."
Her popularity took new dimensions when she turned the Odeon into a hospital during the Siege of 1870 and lavished on the wounded gifts from her friends and lovers: 30,000 eggs, 100 bags of coffee, 1000 boxes of preserves, 500 pounds of chocolate; brandy and wine from the Rothschilds, lint and linen from the Dutch ambassador.
When peace returned she was a sensation in Hugo's Ray Blas and the Comedie-Francaise invited her back. Banville declared this event "serious and violently revolutionary. It is poetry entering the house of dramatic art; the wolf in the fold." The public was dazzled by her flamboyant personality. Admirers swamped the studio where dressed in a white satin trouser suit, she had taken up sculpture - seriously enough to receive an honorable mention at the 1876 Salon. She painted, if not well; she became an art critic, emerging exhausted from rehearsal, galloping round from gallery to gallery, dictating her column to attendant secretaries, to be read by a breathless public "who must know what Sarah thinks of this or that picture."
Her apartment was the subject of even greedier curiosity, with its stuffed vultures, skeletons, caged monkey, dogs, cats, and coffin lined with pink satin in which she was said to receive her more composed lovers. It was even hinted that she practiced vivisection on her pets - journalistic hot air, yet not entirely; for though she loved to surround herself with animals, she was cruel to them in subtler, more commonplace ways.She went up in an orange balloon, made to her order, drinking champagne and eating foie gras sandwiches while drifting over Paris. The charming account she wrote of this escapade as seen through the eyes of a chair is included in the reprint of her memoirs.
And in her spare time she was the greatest actress of the day, perhaps not Rachel's equal, but one in whom Henry James recognized a "fascinating poetry of gesture and diction." She shed real tears on stage and reduced her overwhelmed audience to silence. After her triumph in Hugo's Hernani, he gave her a diamond to symbolize his own tears.
In 1879 she met the only man she ever considered her equal - not Hugo, but an impresario named Jarrett. "His eyes were blue," she wrote; "they were so pale that when they blazed in anger in seemed blind."
She had never yet thought of leaving Paris, where whe was so feverishly occupied, but jarrett started her on tours that countinued most of her life, took her all over the world, and made her fortunes. They began in London, where Oscar Wilde cast lilies at her feet (on which she trod reluctantly). Audiences who understood not a word of French were overcome by her womanly passion and suffering. After a speech in Phedre, a critic wrote, "No one could clap; we could only pant and clench our hands." Matthew Arnold uttered the only dissent: he allowed her every theatrical endowment but the one needed to keep all her charming gifts from turning to stale mannerism - "intellectual power," that austere seriousness about her art that had made Rachel great.
Returning in triumph to Paris, she was stunned by a bad notice, accusing her of vulgarity, and resigned from the Comedie, paying 143,000 francs for her freedom. The freedom her own troupe and toured America, Europe, and Russia, with a repertory whose piece de resistance was Dumas fils's La Dame aux Camelias ("You play the part with modesty," broadminded Queen Victoria told her, "and no one can complain"). She became a connoisseur of death scenes, dying each death with shattering realism, according to whether it was heart failure, tuberculosis, or poison.
The first American tour is glossed over in Joanna Richardson's little book, but it is the mainstay of the memoirs - her dramatic meeting with Lincoln's widow aboard ship; her resort to well-acted fainting-fits when crowds pressed too close; her to-do with U.S. Customs, who rifled her innumerable trunks, pawing through the precious garments to evaluate them and copy them for commercial exploitation; her visit to Thomas Edison in Menlo Park at 2 a.m.; her encounter with a dying whale in Boston and train robbers in Missouri; a visit to Niagara where she exhibited "pretentious coquetry" and stupid bravado, mercilessly discribed.
The icon Sarah becomes a real woman, volatile, reckless, intelligent, sensitive, and in no way, despite all her exhibitionism, a phoney. Some believed the memoirs were ghosted, but not Max Beerbohm: "No hack could have imparted to the book the peculiar fire and salt that it has - the rushing spontaneity that stamps it . . . as Sarah's own."
After her lucrative tours (one netted 3,500,000 francs) she would withdraw to her island in Brittany where she took pot shots at sea birds, fished, and played an inflexible game of tennis marked by strong serves but no foot-work. In 1893 she turned some of her energies to managing the Renaissance Theater, and its success led her to found her own theater, the Sarah Bernhardt. Here, in her mid-fifties, she played boy parts - Rostand's L'Aiglon and Hamlet. Punch suggested Sir Henry Irving as her Ophelia; Beerbohm found her Hamlet "tres grande dame"; her Pelleas, played to Mrs. Patrick Campbell's Melisande, led a tactless critic to remark that "they are both old enough to know better." But age hardly cut into the 14-hour days she spent in her theater, the extravagant entertaining, the travels.
After her leg injury in 1906, she was never again fully mobile, though at 65 she could still play Joan of Arc and state her age as 19 to applause, not laughter. Finally the leg was removed in 1915, but a maimed body and failing voice slowed her only a little. Carried on a litter, playing her parts in a chair, on a bed, or leaning on a table, she went on until she was 78. She had seriously begged Houdini to bring her back her leg, but she was not bitter, for she had a sensible philosophy and lived it: "Life is short, even for those who live a long time, and we must live for the few who know and appreciate us, who judge and absolve us, and for whom we have the same affection and indulgence.
In 1922 she was still on stage, and a month before her death began a new film (she had been making them since 1908). Even when she knew she was dying she invited her old colleague Mrs. Campbell to dinner and sat at the table, dressed in pink velvet, eating nothing, ineffably gracious, as always. A few days later, at the end of March 1923, she died asking for spring flowers and repeating scraps of her great death scenes.
Fifty thousand people lined up streets to watch her queenly funeral cortege. To two generations who saw her plain, and two more who knew only the cutl, the Mucha Posters, the fantastic voice on Edison discs, she was the very image of an actress. But of course her greatest role was always Sarah.