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Sarah Bernhardt

Act III: Friends and Lovers

“She drives me mad when I am with her. She is all temperament and no heart; but when she is gone, how I work! How I can work!” -- Alexandre Dumas fils

Throughout Sarah’s life she attracted the best and most creative of artists, the highest of royalty and the most indulgent of suitors. She hobnobbed with some of the most powerful and most creative of minds. She did not necessarily seek them out. They found her. To enumerate all the celebrated minds she came in contact with would be impossible. But she left a memorable impression on many of the movers and shakers of the latter 19th century and early 20th. She would have her detractors who found her talent and celebrity overdone, but most found her innovative and charming. She could exasperate and addle those who admired her, but many regarded that facet as part of her genius.

In 1880, on a ship bound for an American tour, she saved a woman from falling down a set of stairs when the ship lurched from the waves. The woman she grabbed before she was able to fall was Mary Todd Lincoln, the widow of President Abraham Lincoln. Mrs. Lincoln initially was very thankful for Sarah’s quick instincts in saving her from the fall, but when she was told of the identity of her savior, she became indignant and stormed off. Sarah described it as such:

I too recoiled, and a great sorrow overcame my entire being, for I had rendered this unhappy woman the one service she didn’t want….that of saving her from death. Her husband, President Lincoln, had been assassinated by an actor, and it was an actress who prevented her from rejoining him. I returned to my cabin and stayed there for two days, for I hadn’t the courage to encounter this touching soul to whom I would never dared have spoken. (Skinner, p. 151)

Even though her encounter with Mrs. Lincoln was somewhat lacking in admiration, Sarah had strong connections with many American notables. Thomas Alva Edison had the pleasure of showing her around his Menlo Park facility, but initially he was unimpressed by the French actress. She was determined she would endear herself to him and by her persistent questions and concerted interest in his work managed to win the inventor over. The American who seemed to impress her the most was Theodore Roosevelt. She had his letter that he wrote to her framed on her wall and was heard to say about him, “Ah! but that man and I, we could rule the world!” (Wagenknecht, p. 75)

Sarah was known for her friendships with the literati and artists of her time. Oscar Wilde is credited with coining the titles of “The Incomparable One” and “The Divine Sarah” to her. He wrote his play Salome with the lead expressly written for her. He was known to gush over her artistic sensibilities and was quoted as saying shortly before his death in 1900: “The three women I have most admired in my life are Sarah Bernhardt, Lily Langtry and Queen Victoria. I would have married any one of them with pleasure.” (Skinner, p. 124) Wilde rhapsodized about few people. Sarah was one.

Sarah had friendly rivalries with some of the leading actresses of her day. Eleanora Duse, the Italian actress, was known for her competitive nature and this was obvious in her dealings with Sarah. Sarah could give back as well. Sarah had a brief and unemotional affair with Duse’s lover, Gabriele D’Annunzio, which was enough to sour the duo’s future relationship, with Sarah coming out on top. Her relationship with Lily Langtry was cordial, but Sarah resented that Langtry earned more for her performances with less experience and minor acclaim for her acting. She had a warm relationship with the British actress Ellen Terry, who was to England what Sarah was to France. Terry called her “Sally B.” and considered Sarah a good friend. As she would recall of Sarah:

How wonderful she looked in those days! She was as transparent as an azalea, only more so; like a cloud, only not so thick. Smoke from a burning paper describes her more nearly! She was hollow-eyed, almost consumptive-looking. Her body was not the prisoner of her soul, but its shadow. She is always a miracle. (Gold, p. 190)

Sarah was credited with having numerous relationships with many artisans, writers, actors and royalty, whether male or female. It is hard today to establish which were real and what ones were made up. Suffice it to say that Sarah was a popular individual who courted power and company when it pleased her and when it could benefit her position in life. She wanted painters to paint her, writers to write for her, poets to write about her, playwrights to write plays for her and royalty to help her position in society. She was rumored to have had an affair with Prince Edward of Wales, but positive proof is lacking. But where there is doubt on a relationship, there is proof that many affairs did occur. But many of her lovers would find out that Sarah was fickle in love but loyal in her friendship with them.

On April 4, 1882 Sarah decided to try something she had never done before. She was married at St. Andrew’s in London to Ambroise Aristide Damala, a Greek-born actor twelve years her junior. She had proposed marriage to him and he had accepted. Many of her close friends, colleagues and family were upset over her marriage, worried that he would take her attention away from the stage. But even though she thought she could tame this young actor, she was sadly mistaken. They were unmatched in talent, with her star far outshining his, and both of their penchants for infidelity made marriage an impossible institution for both of them. Also, Damala had a strong addiction to drugs, which Sarah had little tolerance for. They separated after one year of marriage and he would remain a burden on her until his death in 1889. As Gold and Fizdale write:

Damala had lost his looks, his voice, and his strength, and at the age of forty-two he lost his life to morphine. Defeated and grief-stricken, Sarah sent his body back to Greece, along with a bust she had made for his tomb. She did not forget him. For some years she would sign her letters “the widow Damala.” And whenever she found herself in Athens, she called on his mother and visited his grave to cover it with flowers and weep over a marriage that had so quickly turned to ashes. (Gold, pp. 239-240)

Marriage was an undertaking that Sarah was never successful at. Marriage made the goddess mortal by weakening her power. She could rule the stage, maintain a family life with her son and grandchildren, and be France’s heroine of the heart, but she was unable to maintain one relationship for any length of time and was not cut out for the institution of marriage.

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