”There are five kinds of actresses,” wrote Mark Twain. “Bad actresses, fair actresses, good actresses, great actresses - and then there is Sarah Bernhardt.” Among those who agreed were Sigmund Freud, D.H. Lawrence, Willa Cather, Lytton Stratchey. Her romances were famous; lovers included Napolean III, Edward the Prince of Wales and Victor Hugo.
Bernhardt began her training for the stage at age 13 and made her first appearance at the Comedie-Francaise in 1862. Ten years later, her double triumph of playing Cordelia in “King Lear” and the queen in “Ruy Blas” brought her to the top of her profession. She left the Comedie-Francaise for good in 1880 for her New York debut, in which she enjoyed immediate success.
Those world tours were famous, extending to Europe, North and South America, Australia and (quite frequently) Egypt. Famously accompanying her was a menagerie of animals that included dogs, a pet monkey, an alligator named Ali-Gaga (who perished from a steady diet of milk and champagne), and a pet boa (who died swallowing some sofa cushions and was put out of his misery by Sarah herself). As the author notes, “It was clearly dangerous being one of Sarah’s pets.”
Determined to be the best actress alive, Bernhardt worked hard and, by promoting her considerable talent and personality, became “an inextinguishable sun” to all those who gathered around - theater audiences, army troops or lovers in the privacy of her boudoir. It was not so much her beauty that attracted (the famous Nadar portraits astound) so much as her bravery and gaiety. For example, she decided to have her right leg amputated to relieve her of agonizing pain. After the operation, apparently P.T. Barnum cabled her, offering her $10,000 for her amputated leg. She replied, “If it’s my right leg you want, see the doctors; if it’s the left leg, see my manager in New York.”
Even the cynic H.L. Mencken, then a young theater critic, seemed enraptured by the aging actress. As she stepped out into the bright sunlight of Mount Royal Station in Baltimore one day in December 1905, he was amazed that the 62-year-old’s looks did not seem damaged by age (“The cheeks are still young, the neck still firm”). That evening, as he gazed at Bernhardt on stage, Mencken was transfixed by her voice. Contemporaries described it as “a golden bell” or “the silvery sound of running water.” We will never know what it really was like, and Gottlieb has not been wholly successful at giving a sense of what made it unique. For that, it is instructive to turn to Mencken’s 1905 newspaper account, where he described the voice as “extraordinarily soft and pleading.”
Now and then, he wrote, she would strike one note, and then, for sentence after sentence, hold to it. “Any other actress who tried that little trick would be in danger of arousing sarcastic laughs,” wrote Mencken. “But not so the divine Sarah.”
Other American actresses, such as Mrs. Patrick Campbell and Leslie Carter, imitated Bernhardt’s emotional acting - her shoulder shrugs, large sweeping movements, the tricks of voice. But by 1905, the style was being usurped by a more realistic, natural way of acting. If, toward the end of her life, people still flocked to see her, as they did that evening in Baltimore, it was, as Mr. Gottlieb notes in this book, less as an actress than as “a worshipped relic from another era.”
Surviving film footage of Bernhardt dates from 1912, from Adolph Zukor’s “Elizabeth, Queen of England.” Bernhardt’s participation was so well received at the time that it broke down the prejudice of theatrical people toward the silent screen. If you look at a segment today, however, to modern eyes she comes across as a ham. Yet there is no denying that her influence on acting, fashion and the arts was immeasurable. When she died in 1923, millions mourned.
“Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt” inaugurates a new series of biographies called Jewish Lives, by Yale University Press. At least 50 more interpretative biographies are projected for the next 10 years, ranging from Bob Dylan to Leonard Bernstein, Emma Goldman to Franz Kafka.
Mr. Gottlieb’s treatment of Bernhardt is in keeping with the tradition of Alistair Cooke’s “Six Men” or V.S. Pritchett’s “Chekhov.” The tone is erudite, his sentences are well-crafted, the text does not sweat of research. Nor is it ever superficial. Gottlieb displays a firm command of the material.
This feat has not been easy, since Bernhardt embellished and mythologized her life. Different versions abound concerning the date of her birth, the identity of her father and so forth. Nor has it been easy to sift through the legends about her eccentricities. With a sure hand, Mr. Gottlieb navigates them all, giving us a portrait of an amazingly modern and admirable woman who did not deny her Jewish roots, her illegitimacy or that of her son.
Mr. Gottlieb, former editor of the New Yorker and editor-in-chief of Alfred A. Knopf, is a gifted writer who also had an active hand, as he jokes, “interfering” in the book’s design. Thank God for that. With an unerring eye, he has made sure that the placement and quality of photos and the very craftsmanship of the book have been done with artistry and good taste. “Sarah” is a gem. If you buy several copies as gifts this holiday season, make sure to keep one as a present for yourself.