sarah bernhardt wild women of the west cowgirl magazine

The pliant figure leaned over the ship’s rail, expressive eyes intent on the blue-green waters of the harbor.  A mass of wavy, light brown hair with tints of gold lifted and curled with every breeze, its arrangement a matter of complete indifference to the angler.  Suddenly the slender form froze, breath held, and then, with a quick yank and a breaking smile, lifted the rod and hauled a wriggling fish aboard the Cabrillo.  Exclaiming in French, dark eyes sparkling with pleasure, Sarah Bernhardt ordered her catch, small as it was, to be prepared for dinner.

It was May 19, 1906, and the farewell production of Camille was scheduled for a few hours later at the ocean auditorium built on the water at Venice, California.  Sarah stayed, and fished, at the hotel built like a ship, and performed in the adjacent theater on the wharf at the seaside resort, Venice of America.  Having caught a fish, Sarah wended her way to her quarters.  Piled high in her dressing room were the results of a recent shopping trip to the Oriental bazaar nearby:  silk and crepe matinee coats of pink and pale blue and mauve, all embroidered in butterflies and bamboo designs.

The tiny window in the dressing room provided a sparkling view of the ocean, and the streaming sunshine picked out details of the furnishings:  a repoussé silver powder box, containers of pigment, eyebrow pencils, silver rouge pots, and scattered jewelry twinkling in the light.  The tragedienne who attracted huge audiences wherever she went swooped up a small tan and white fox terrier, wriggling with joy at her return, and snuggled it close for a moment as she related the happy details of her fishing venture to a visiting reporter.  Then, she put down the small dog and closed her mind to the fun waiting outside the porthole.

Within moments Sarah became Marguerite Gautier, filled with the sadness and torment of the beautiful French courtesan in Camille, the play by Alexandre Dumas that became her signature role, performed all over the world more than 3,000 times.  Sarah’s ability to sink fully into the character of the play made the tragic death scene so convincing that it became a trademark for “the Divine Sarah.”

No one played tragedy with such believable intensity as Sarah Bernhardt, and no one brought as much passion and enthusiasm to the pursuit of pleasure.  From fishing on the southern California coast to bear hunting in the woods outside Seattle, on every western tour the French actress indulged in some kind of adventure.  Sarah Bernhardt threw herself into life with the same characteristic energy she put into her stage appearances.  Yet she often slept in a coffin, preparing for that final sleep.

She was born in Paris, France, on October 23, 1844, the illegitimate daughter of milliner-come-mistress Judith Van Hard and, probably, law student Edouard Bernard.  Named Henriette-Rosine Bernard, she was a thin, sickly child, alternately deeply depressed or shouting with joy.  Her dramatic nature revealed itself early.  At the age of eight, seeing her aunt’s carriage stopped in the street near the house where her mother had left her for months and being forbidden to leave by her caretakers, she forced open a second-floor window and jumped out in front of the carriage.  Although the fall resulted in a dislocated shoulder and shattered kneecap, her aunt was compelled to pay attention to the child’s hysterical pleadings to be taken away.

Sarah could neither read nor write, and her behavior veered between opposite extremes of emotion, depending on her moods.  The spectacular descent from the window achieved its goal:  Her mother and her aunt decided something had to be done about her education.  Her mother sent her to school, and later, with the help of the Duc de Morny, she was trained in dramatic arts and began her career at the Comedie Francaise.

Always frail, she nearly died from lung problems, and as a teenager, sure that she would not live long, Sarah nagged her mother into buying her a coffin so that she could get used to lying in it; photographs show her in quiet repose within the silk-lined box.  Yet her passionate energy was revealed in the many altercations with other actresses and producers that made her first years in theater so difficult.

By 1864 the aspiring actress had met with some success.  Severely afflicted with stage fright, which affected her all her life, some of her performances were uneven at best.  Reviews were not terrible, but for a young woman who expected perfection, even modest phrases like “she carries herself well and pronounces her words with perfect clarity” seemed the epitome of insult.

After performing a bad part in a poor play, Sarah went to Brussels where she met Prince Henri de Ligne.  An affair resulted in pregnancy, followed by the birth of a son, Maurice.  Some fifteen years later, she still carried Maurice’s first little shoes in her purse-they were once discovered by a customs inspector in the bottom of her handbag.

 She didn’t speak English, but that had not deterred British audiences from growing hysterical over her command of a tragic role.  Her flamboyant lifestyle added to the reputation that carried her to triumph across the Channel.  Reports of her menagerie, including a lion, pictures of the opulent interior of her home, her jewels, her lovers, and the coffin in which she still sometimes slept, all fanned the imagination of the staid British public.

Her fame was immense in Europe by the time she first toured the United States in 1880.  After early appearances in eastern states, where her adventures made headlines and huge crowds waited for a glimpse of the famous face and form, she started west, playing in major cities like Salt Lake, Denver, and, finally, San Francisco.  San Francisco’s Morning Call of May 17, 1887, described the well-dressed throng that turned out for her first performance, “When 8 o’clock arrived and the house was filled it was, in the words of the old-time usher “Gus,” the best house the Baldwin has seen.  Bob Eberle ran his arithmetical eye over the assemblage and put it down at over $4500.  The ladies costumes were of the most elaborate order, even to the family circle, usually staid, but for this occasion brilliant in the sheen of silks and the glitter of diamonds.”   

The reviewer found not one wrong note in Bernhardt’s appearance at the Baldwin Theater.  In the May 30, 1887, edition of the paper, an accounting provided total receipts from her performances at nearly $41,400.  Reporters found her exploits off the stage as compelling to write about as the tragedies she enacted.

Within a few years, Sarah’s extremely thin figure had been caricatured in Europe and America.  Drawings of the actress in newspapers show a wraith figure crowned by a large head and masses of wild hair.  The Call of April 1891 provided a full description of the famous actress and her lifestyle: “In the Salon of 1876 Bernhardt’s portrait was twice exhibited.  One of the pictures shows her sitting in a white gown, slightly reclining on a sofa, and at her feet lays an immense dog.  When Alexandre Dumas saw this portrait he remarked:  “Un chien qui garde un os”; in English:  “A dog watching a bone.”  

Despite the death’s-head images that marked her fame, Sarah lived every moment with total intensity.  The same reviewer in the Call described her frail constitution: “which does not, at the same time, prevent her from drawing largely on all the sources of enjoyment in life.  She rides spirited horses and drives a fiery Russian span.”

Finally, says the admiring reporter, she is “passionately fond” of fencing, which she learned in order to play a role that required she masquerade as a boy.  That role may have been one of the most difficult she ever performed.  In fact, without Sarah in the lead, Alfred de Musset’s drama Lorenzaccio might not have been produced because it was considered too difficult to stage.  It was based on a story from the dreaded Medici reign in Florence, Italy.  In the play Sarah’s role was that of the young Lorenzo, intent on ridding the city of the tyrant Alexander.  As a correspondent in The Argonaut of 1897 wrote, “She is the incarnation of the voluptuous, cynical, tigerish Foul Lorenzo.  Every expression of face is a study.  She has learned to walk, move, and speak like a man.  Not once does she betray her sex.  In the fencing scene with Scoronconcocto, when the fury of hate and vengeance is upon the youth and he presses the bravo, half forgetful that it is not his abhorred enemy he holds at the point of his sword, Sarah is superb.  It appears that at every rehearsal she donned male attire, that she might grow thoroughly accustomed to it, and the result is that she is as much at home in doublet and hose as if she had never worn a skirt in her life.”

On the first night of the play, The Argonaut correspondent reported that the audience “reached delirium point:”  “I shall not soon forget the appearance of the house, the sound of the applause still rings in my ears, and I shall long be haunted by the vision of the panther-like form, mastered by the demon of murder, as it sprang on its sleeping victim.”

At this time Sarah was fifty-two years old, yet no one considered her too old to take the lead in any play, even one so demanding as Lorenzaccio.  Nor had her energy diminished: while she rehearsed the fencing scenes during the day, she performed every night in the original French version of Camille, even acting as stage manager between times.

The ability to convince her audiences that she was the person she represented in the role she played was made abundantly clear when she played Joan of Arc in her sixties.  At one point in the play Joan was asked her age by a judge.  “Nineteen,” Sarah would say, turning slightly toward the audience, which, knowing the truth, sometimes stood up and cheered her ability to convince them of her youth.

A description of her appearance just after the turn of the century belies the skeleton caricature so long used to identify the actress.  A reporter described the lines scribed by time and suffering in the famous countenance:  “Sarah Bernhardt is not precisely beautiful.  She has deeply expressive blue eyes, white, even teeth, a fine nose whose nostrils nervously tremble in passion, and a purely chiseled chin.  The best gift nature has bestowed upon her is her voice.  This soft, deep organ is capable of unlimited modulation; its tones creep into the soul of the audience, and vaguely suggest a sultry evening breeze, or a warm, heavy fragrance of pinks.  When she is on the stage her voice dominates the conversation as an organ does a church service.”

Members of the clergy, on the other hand, were not so admiring of Sarah’s performances.  Bishops and ministers warned their flocks away from the dramas that she brought to life.  The California editor of The Wave in 1891 defended her, however, explaining,  “It is not the fault of this woman that there is in the characters she represents-however baleful and obnoxious they may be-more dramatic value than in the village maiden.  The genius of Bernhardt rarely makes the woman she represents loveable to those who see the representations; her La Tosca is a tigress, her Cleopatra a serpent, and her Camille a cat.  As she portrays them we pity them for their sufferings, but abhor them for their deeds.”

Sarah had a hard time understanding the objections to the characters in plays such as Camille, which she performed repeatedly in America.  “This play, that the public rushed to see in crowds, shocked the overstrained Puritanism of the small American states,” she wrote.  “The critics of the large cities discussed this modern Magdalene.  But those of the small towns began by throwing stones at her.  This stilted reserve on the part of the public, prejudiced against Marguerite Gautier, we met from time to time in the small cities.”  For Sarah a town of 30,000 was “small.”

Quand meme” was Sarah’s motto.  The phrase means roughly “in spite of everything,” and it perfectly described her feisty nature.  She adopted the motto at the age of nine after accepting a dare to jump a ditch, which resulted in a fall and a sprained wrist.  She insisted she would do it again if dared.  If nothing else in her long, adventurous life, she always dared.

While on her first tour of America, she went to the manufacturer and bought a Colt revolver.  This was not an empty gesture designed for publicity.  When an attempt was made to rob her train of the jewels and money it was said to contain, her “pretty little revolver” ornamented with cat’s-eye stones did not have to be used, as a guard apprehended the thief.  Sarah’s revolver, however, was not just an unusual accessory.  She was a good shot.  While in Seattle, she went on a bear hunt and returned without a bear, but carrying a gray squirrel and several birds.

Traveling in a special “Palace Car,” she crisscrossed America many times.  In one season she made 156 appearances in fifty cities and towns.  The luxurious railcar was embellished with walls of inlaid wood, lit by brass gas lamps, and furnished with splendid carpets, sofas, piano, and potted palms.  Ten people could be seated at the dining table, and two chefs prepared meals.

Her tour up the coast of California in 1906 avoided San Francisco, still cooling after the earthquake that had destroyed so much of the famed city just a few days earlier.  Instead, she played for 7,000 people at the Greek Theater across the Bay at Berkeley.  The interview published by The Theater Magazine the following month delved deeply into Sarah’s preparation for her roles.  “I read the piece through, and yes, the interpretation of the character I am to play comes to me at once when first I read over the play,” she replied in answer to a question.  “I see it as it is to be done at once.  If I cannot feel the part,” and here, says the interviewer, she pressed her jeweled hands to her heart, “I reject the play.  I know instantly.  If I do not catch the feeling I will not touch the piece.”

Except in California, her 1906 tour of the West was complicated by a syndicate of theater owners that refused to book her into their houses for economic reasons:  Whichever theater signed Bernhardt got all the crowds while the other houses stood empty.  Always aided by clever managers, Sarah instead played in whatever hall was available, including tents, all across the Southwest.  Such was her fame by then that, it’s said, a Texas cowboy demanded entrance at six-gun point to a sold-out house; inside he asked what this French “gal” did–sing or dance?

Farther north, in Butte, Montana, Sarah played in a huge, unheated roller-skating rink.  Fewer than 1,200 people bought tickets.  Canceling the appearance was discussed, but Sarah insisted the show go on, even though there would be no profits.  The Anaconda Standard of May 6, 1906, noted that the Holland rink was freezing, that the actors appeared in furs, and that the people in the audience were wrapped up against the cold.  As if that were not enough to discourage even the hardiest drama lover, “halfway down the hall not a sound from the stage could be heard,” said the Standard.  Still, at the end of the final act, “The freezing audience was as enthusiastic and warm as it could be, and the great actress was called before the stage repeatedly.”

It was her only appearance that year in Montana.  The Standard continued, “Mme. Bernhardt’s farewell appearance in Butte was under extreme difficulties, but there are at least a thousand people who are glad they had the privilege and opportunity to see her again and once more sit under the spell of her genius.”

A captive audience in 1913 sat rapt as she read for 2,000 inmates at San Quentin prison.  Between engagements in San Francisco, Sarah performed her son’s play, Une Nuit de Noel sous la Terreur (A Christmas Night under the Terror).  It concluded with prisoners being released from the infamous French prison, the Bastille.  Played in the prison yard crowded with men standing in striped uniforms, Sarah enthralled her audience.  A letter from the prisoners thanked her for an hour’s “perfect liberty” despite the high walls and the treacherous waters that kept the inmates confined.

Ever ready for adventure, during that same visit Sarah flew out over the Bay in a two-seater aircraft that promised the ultimate in freedom.

Despite changes in theatrical tastes, Sarah Bernhardt never retired.  Vaudeville was not too low for “the Divine Sarah.”  Instead of performing complete plays, she reprised scenes she’d made famous.  The shorter format fit the customary vaudeville bill, which included everything from trained-animal acts to black-face minstrels.  Unable to use the gestures and sinuous postures that were so much a part of her fame, she relied on her masterful voice, moments of silence, or a single lift of the hand to convey her meaning, and audiences responded deliriously.

Sarah was also seen on the silent screen.  Her first cinema appearance was at the Paris Exposition in 1900.  By then she was sixty-six years old, yet her interest in the new medium continued until her death in 1923.  She made eight films.  Her biggest hit was Queen Elizabeth, and she was shooting a film on location when she collapsed.  She died on March 26, in the arms of her son, Maurice.  That evening, theaters in Paris paid silent homage for two minutes.  She was buried in the rosewood coffin her mother had purchased at her insistence when she was but fifteen years old, sure that her life would be tragically short.