John Moynihan on the grande dame who nearly foresook the Comedie Francaise for a convent
Being Divine a biography of Sarah Bernhardt by Ruth Brandon (Seeker, £17.99)
ONE indisputable conclusion generates through Ruth Brandon's absorbing biography of, surely, the nineteenth century's most celebrated actress Sarah Bernhardt, la divine, la grande, was conclusively an international star decades ahead of her time, not only in ambition, but through the original methods she used to achieve her spectacular fame.
Bernhardt was in every sense a thruster; she was clever enough to appreciate that the rise in media communications and with it, a longing for gossip world-wide, could boost her many international touring productions including Phaedre and Jeanne d'Arc. Her huge, adoring fan club, many of whom were women, craved for news about their globe-trotting heroine even though the news was not always kind. La divine was once pelted with eggs on stage in Quebec for being beastly about her Canadian hosts.
Everything Bernhardt did off and on stage was big news and though she suffered many dramas during a turbulent life, the great actress kept going with an almost elephantine will-power, born of formidable self confidence. She loved being grand, which showed through the amount of luggage she took with her on tour. When she took enough suitcases to Naples to block the bay, the Neapolitans put around a rumour that one trunk contained her own coffin.
Bernhardt, as her biographer convincingly shows, rivalled a modern Madonna in her sometimes outrageous quest to gain fame; she had presence, she had power, she had a•raging temper which many of her famous successors on Broadway and Hollywood found difficult to emulate. Bernhardt lived long enough to make the odd silent movie herself; during the last in 1923 she was taken ill on set and died shortly afterwards.
She could rival Madonna in her quest for fame
But this was long after her glory days at the turn of the century when she was queen of the Parisien stage, feted by royalty including the Prince of Wales, the world's aristocracy, and many writers, like the loyal Maurice Rostand, who wrote the epitaph on her tombstone: "Ci-git Sarah/qui survivra.."
Henry James was in doubt about the will of an actress who kept strange pets, and was fond of wearing black tights when playing Hamlet: "she is a celebrity because, apparently, she desires with an intensity that has rarely been equalled to be one, and because for this end all means are alike to her ..."
But for all the glitter and international fame la divine was far from being a contented woman. Her life, as Brandon unravels with a great deal of compassion, had begun in a most dismal way. Not fo, her, a happy
childhood. Far from it, she was almost without any paternal love from the moment she left the cradle.
Her mother, Julie, a model, and roaming courtesan, was not on the scene enough to offer young Sarah love and affection, while her father always seemed to be away in China. Sarah and her two sisters were often in the care of aunts, and the budding actress was frequently in a mood to rebel, once hurting herself by throwing herself out of a bedroom window in protest about her living conditions.
La divine Sarah nearly took the veil
A happy spell at a convent convinced this growing, strong willed Catholic girl that taking the veil would be the best way to solve her problems, but Brandon is certain this was not a wise decision. "Nuns, oine they have made the great decision to become a nun, do not nee-I are indeed forbidden to make any more such decisions; this is the essence of their life. Sarah, being an optimist, would not submit to despair: the veil, had she taken it, would have been her easy way out Instead she reserved her rebelliousness for her early studies at the "authoritative" Comedic Francaise in Paris, taking off eventually not only to form her own company but to produce an illegitimate son, Maurice. In later life, after she had become famous, Bernhardt made a late marriage with a Greek actor, which proved a mistake, and made her intensely unhappy. Her husband was jealous of her fame, while happy to spend her money.
In moments of pique, he would threaten to .7,o off and join the French Foreign Legion. Needless to say, Maurice, now grown up, did not care for this difficult man who was much younger than his mother!
Sarah Bernhardt would suffer much emotional and physical pain before her death. During the First World War, she had aleg amputated, but kept working up to the end of her life.
Her fan club persisted and she reluctantly had to build a high wall around her Breton house to keep tourists from snooping for the vaguest sight of her at a window.
Much of this devotion, of course, had been caused by her own zest for fame. Naturally her municipal funeral in Paris drew the weeping crowds as Brandon writes "by the end it could truly bis said that she was divine".