…The answer is because, of course, my ignorance knows no bounds.
I was on a train in London yesterday, reading the latest issue of the Camden New Journal.
It had an article headlned The Divine Sarah – about the actress Sarah Bernhardt – adapted by Neil Titley from his own book The Oscar Wilde World of Gossip: A Subversive Encyclopaedia of Victorian Anecdote with a link to the wildetheatre.co.uk website.
On Amazon, that 2011 book is currently on sale for anything from £56 to £121.
At the risk of getting my ass sued for copyright infringement (my defence is that I am publicising the book), below are three extracts I have myself extracted from the Camden New Journal‘s adaptation.
Throughout the 1970s, Ken Russell and Barbra Streisand reportedly planned a Sarah Bernhardt biopic. But, alas, it was Reader’s Digest who produced a rather pedestrian 1976 movie The Incredible Sarah with Glenda Jackson directed by the solid and dependable Richard Fleischer. Surely such an OTT character deserves a much better modern OTT movie about her life?
Bernhardt was the illegitimate daughter of a Jewish Parisian courtesan whose clients included the cream of French society. In her younger days when acting failed to cover the bills, Sarah herself followed her mother’s profession and acquired a police file due to these activities. However, once established and wealthy, it was she who chose her numerous partners.
Proclaiming herself “one of the great lovers of my century” Sarah was reputed to have seduced every European head of state, including Pope Leo.
Although she only occasionally indulged in lesbian affairs, she had a virile edge that many women found attractive; the writer Robert de Montesquiou saw her as the epitome of the bisexual 1890s. To confound stereotyping even further, she was a very happily unmarried mother.
When a friend said to her at a party: “I’ve thought of your epitaph. All you’ll need on your tomb is: Resting at last,” Sarah shook her head and, indicating a nearby group of lovers, replied: “Not exactly. It would be better to inscribe: They can rest at last.”
Her acting achieved extraordinary heights of acclaim. The psychologist Sigmund Freud wrote: “After the first words of her vibrant, lovely voice, I felt I had known her for years.” Mark Twain added: “There are five kinds of actresses. Bad actresses, fair actresses, good actresses, great actresses, and then there is Sarah Bernhardt.
Her audiences reacted even more ecstatically. After one triumphant evening, two one-armed men in the front stalls were so enthused that they were seen to be clapping their remaining hands together.
She treated some of her less sophisticated audiences with disdain. As her performances were given in French, the vast majority had no idea what was being said. In Youngstown, Ohio, her curtain call speech was greeted with tumultuous applause in spite of the fact that she had just told them that they were morons.
She made numerous tours by train across the States, becoming known as “The Muse of the Railroads”. On one journey, the train driver refused to cross the bridge at St Louis as it was threatened by floodwater. Impatient as usual, Sarah bribed him $500 to keep going. They managed to reach the other bank, but the bridge collapsed behind them as they did so. The rest of her company was not amused.
Although still looking uncannily youthful, Sarah’s health began to fail after she was forced to have a leg amputated in 1915. After her leg had been amputated, an impresario offered her $100,000 for permission to exhibit it. Sarah sent a telegram in reply: “Which leg?”
When she died in 1923, her funeral in Paris was the largest since that of Victor Hugo in 1885.
The only thing I really knew about Sarah Bernhardt before reading the Camden New Journal article was that, after having her left amputated in 1915, she continued acting on stage (and in short films) for the next eight years, until her death in 1923.
She was clearly much, much more than just a simple theatrical leg-end.
Sarah played Hamlet in 1899…