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Sarah Bernhardt

Act V: Curtain Call

“Life is short, even for those who live a long time, and we must live for the few who know and appreciate us, who judge and absolve us, and for whom we have the same affection and indulgence….We ought to hate very rarely, as it is too fatiguing, remain indifferent a great deal, forgive often and never forget.” -- Sarah Bernhardt

Sarah had been, for most of her life, in good health. When she had been a young girl, she had shown some signs of tuberculosis, giving her a haggard, worn look. One of her sisters had died of the disease and there was some conjecture on whether Sarah may also have suffered from it. Many modern thoughts on why Sarah needed her leg amputation was that she suffered from tuberculosis of the bone. What is known is that Sarah had complained about her right knee becoming progressively more swollen and painful to walk on. Her physician had applied a cast to her leg to immobilize it in order for it to heal, but when the cast was removed, it was discovered that widespread sepsis had set in. It then became necessary to amputate the leg from the mid-thigh in order to save her life. The surgery occurred in 1915 when Sarah was 70 years old. She recovered well from the surgery, though she found using a prosthetic leg painful and more often than not, used a wheelchair to perform her roles from then on.

For most of her life, Sarah had had an obsession with death. Because of her fragile health as a young girl and the belief that she may not live to adulthood, her fascination with death became a minor form of recreation for her. She asked for, and was given, a coffin which she kept in her home and where she would, on occasion, sleep. This was her way of dealing with her delicate health and her fears of dying. Needless to say, Sarah lived to be seventy-nine before her death. The existence of the coffin became a part of the Sarah Bernhardt legend. The photograph of Sarah lying with eyes closed in her coffin seems to be part and parcel of the package Sarah wanted presented to her adoring public. She had gotten over her fears of death and now was going to market an image that the public would find intriguing.

After her amputation, she looked for stage roles that would allow her to remain seated while performing. Her home was also turned into a film studio allowing her to still act while in the comforts of her house. Stage work was becoming more difficult for her and film work allowed her to stay active in acting. Film acting would also be available to a wider audience, enabling her reach a larger segment of the public. Always the performer, lacking a leg would never stand in the way of her connecting with her audience. She was the star and would remain so until her death.

During an engagement she had in Brighton, England during her last tour there her friend Elizabeth Finley Thomas aptly recorded her appearance:

The page threw open the door…a very old woman lay on a huge bed. An elaborate couvre-pied hid the lower part of her figure, and I noticed that its folds fell flat on one side. Her blonde hair, streaked by dye, had all its old vitality; but in the crude light from the window her face was ghastly. Instantly, however, the famous smile stretched its double line of red across the large teeth, yellowed by time. Smears of ill-applied lipstick gave her mouth a sanguinary appearance and increased her resemblance to a tigress. Her hands, claw-like and ill-manicured, rested on the counterpane, and the lacy dressing-jacket was soiled and shabby. The impression was both tragic and sinister, but immediately switching on her incantations like a light, she began to speak enthusiastically of her play, passing casually over the physical difficulties….Later talking in a matter-of-fact way about her loss of leg, “You remember my motto Quand Meme? In case of necessity, I shall have myself strapped to the scenery.” (Skinner, p. 330)

Never one to give in to mere mortality, Sarah persevered in her efforts to perform. Her last project would be a film called La Voyante, where she played the role of a clairvoyant foretelling the future. But her health was now complicated by a kidney condition that did not allow her to complete this film. She was taken to her bed where she would not rise from again. Her son Maurice was present during her final illness. Reporters camped out outside her home waiting for the inevitable. When she was informed about their presence, she replied “All my life reporters have tormented me enough. I can tease them now a little by making them cool their heels.” (p. 332) They were supposedly her last words. She would die the next day, March 26, 1923, from uremia.

The French government decided they would not put on a state funeral for their prime celebrity. The French public made their sorrow apparent when her unofficial funeral procession passed through the streets of Paris. Her funeral cortege stopped briefly in front of her theater in reverence before it continued on to Pere Lachaise Cemetery. There she was buried in a grave with just the words “Sarah Bernhardt.”

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