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19th-century actress Sarah Bernhardt had a flair for the dramatic — both on and off the stage. A new biography separates fact from the many fictions about her life. Diane and author Robert Gottlieb explore Bernhardt’s improbable rise to stardom and why audiences adored her.
- Robert Gottlieb Former Editor-in-Chief of Knopf Publishers and The New Yorker
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Most 19th century stars of the stage have fallen into obscurity, but not Sarah Bernhardt. She died in the early 1920s, but she's remembered today for her indomitable spirit and dramatic flair both on stage and in life. In a new book, writer Robert Gottlieb details Sarah Bernhardt's dramatic childhood, her defiance of social conventions and how she became one of the most famous actresses of her time. The new book is called simply, "Sarah." Robert Gottlieb joins me in the studio. You're invited to join us as well, 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to you, Bob Gottlieb.
MR. ROBERT GOTTLIEBGood morning, Diane.
REHMSo good to see you.
GOTTLIEBThank you. And before we begin, I have something I can either say or sing. Which would you prefer?
GOTTLIEB(singing) Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you...
REHMYou're so dear.
GOTTLIEBEt cetera. And to celebrate, I have brought you a tribute.
REHMOh, they're adorable. These are my friends, little, tiny, JuJu Bears, and they're in a little JuJu Bear bottle.
REHMThank you so much. You're so sweet. All right. Now, here's what I want to know about "Sarah." How in the world do you write a book about a woman whom you describe in the first paragraph of your book? Here's what you say. "Sarah Bernhardt was born in July or September or October of 1844, or was it 1843 or even 1841? She was born in Paris..." I can't even pronounce this. You don't know anything about her, truthfully, do you?
GOTTLIEBWell, we don't know anything truthfully about her beginnings because, as I go to great lengths to demonstrate, the truth just wasn't in her. I mean, not because she was -- liked to deceive, but because she liked great stories. So she would rather tell a fabulous tale than bother with mere data. And then all the business about her birth, the place, the year, et cetera, went up in flames when the archives burned up during the 1871 Paris Commune uprising at the Hotel de Ville. So there are no facts. You can have them any way you want, and people have had them every which way.
REHMAnd she created facts about herself, though?
GOTTLIEBOh, yes. She liked stories. Her autobiography, which takes her up to around the age of -- I don't know -- 38 or 36 or something, is brilliant and funny and charming and wonderful to read. It just doesn't have a lot of a factual basis, you know. If she thought of a good story, she told it. As, for instance, her story about -- on her first tour of America, on her way to America, there was a storm at sea. And a little lady almost falls down some steps in a storm, and Sarah rescues her from death. And this little lady announces that she is the widow of Abraham Lincoln and that she wished Sarah had let her die so she could join her husband. Of course, this is completely nonsense.
REHMAnd she totally fabricates it?
GOTTLIEBIt turns out that Mrs. Lincoln was actually on the ship, which is close enough to the truth for Sarah.
REHMWhy did you choose Sarah for this writing?
GOTTLIEBWell, if you grow up, as I have done, in a world that pays attention to theater and acting and dance and various performance modes, the name Sarah Bernhardt is maybe the most famous that there ever was. She was the most famous actress who ever lived -- the most successful, probably. And in France, she was -- I think it's fair to say -- the most famous French person of the century after Napoleon and, probably, the most famous French woman who ever lived after Joan of Arc. So that's quite a stretch from Joan of Arc to Napoleon.
REHMWow. Yeah, I should say.
GOTTLIEBBut she is totally fascinating and, even better, funny. So she's someone you can have a really good time with.
REHMYou also had this attraction to her because of your wife?
GOTTLIEBMy wife is, indeed, an actress.
GOTTLIEBAlthough she tells more truths than Sarah did.
REHMAnd your interest in dance?
GOTTLIEBYeah, mm hmm. Sarah's career is not like anyone else's. I mean, she defined her day, you know, and that lasted for many, many years. I mean, her triumphs lasted 50 years, perhaps. And, you see, she was never at home except when she needed to be because she toured the world. She made nine tours of America, the last one of which, during World War I where she -- her -- she had already had one of her legs amputated.
GOTTLIEBAnd she traveled across, barnstormed across the country. She did not have the wooden leg, as people have said. She had a little litter made for herself, and she was carried around in it. And she was deposited on the stage. She toured -- I think she did 90-odd cities in that tour. And while doing it, she was also doing tremendously useful propaganda for France and in an attempt to get America to help the war and, in fact, to enter the war, at which she was extremely successful.
REHMHow did she lose her leg?
GOTTLIEBShe had injured her knee early in her life, and, over a period of time, she would bang it up again. And she never got the proper attention -- or she never believed in it or whatever -- and, finally, the last calamity that happened to her leg. She was performing "Tosca," the play -- the original play, which was written for her. And, as you'll remember, when Tosca flings herself from the battlements at the end to death, she flung herself from the battlements, and the mattress that was supposed to be on the floor off stage wasn't there.
GOTTLIEBAnd so she fell on her bad knee. And over the succeeding years, the pain just got worse and worse and worse and worse until she, in her usual, highly practical mode, said, that's it, I can't live with this pain anymore. And her son was horrified at the thought of his mother losing her leg, and he begged her not to do it. So she said, okay, it's up to you. Maurice, it's up to you. I can have my leg off, or I kill myself 'cause I can't live this way anymore. So you choose. I'm happy either way. So he gave in.
REHMRobert Gottlieb, he's the author of the latest life of Sarah Bernhardt. It's titled, "Sarah," and, of course, he is someone who writes for The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker and other publications. His career in publishing as editor-in-chief of Simon and Schuster, Knopf and The New Yorker is legendary.
REHMAnd you can join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to email@example.com. And -- full disclosure -- I must mention, Bob Gottlieb, that you edited my book, "Finding My Voice" and our book that I wrote with my husband, "Toward Commitment." We had a good time.
GOTTLIEBWe're still having a good time.
REHMBob Gottlieb, talk about Sarah Bernhardt's childhood. What made it so miserable?
GOTTLIEBWell, she had a mother who she was sure didn't love her and didn't behave as if she loved her. And she had a father, whoever he may have been, who was more absent than present. In fact, he was almost totally absent. But, again, this depends on whose version you believe. They didn't know what to do with her. Her mother was a very young girl, 18 or 19. She had come to Paris from Germany and/or Holland -- you can take your pick -- we think, pregnant with this child.
REHMAnd are we sure about who the father was?
GOTTLIEBNot at all.
REHMNot at all?
GOTTLIEBNo. Many different stories about that.
REHMOkay. All right.
GOTTLIEBThe reality is, however, that she clearly felt she had no father and that she never really got over that. Her mother was indifferent. Her mother was climbing the ranks of the courtesans in Paris, and she attracted to herself a lot of very distinguished people, including the composer Rossini and Dumas, the father Dumas who wrote "The Count of Monte Cristo," et cetera. So she was well-placed with her various protectors. She was friendly with the most powerful man in France after the emperor and, in fact, the emperor's half brother, the Duc de Mornay. So Sarah's -- was not poor, but she was left -- she was sent off to a village in Brittany with a nurse when she was tiny, and, in fact, Breton was her first language. Her mother would turn up once in a blue moon and drop in and give her some candies.
REHMWho was paying for this?
GOTTLIEBOh, the mother. The mother had enough money because of her rich protectors.
GOTTLIEBAnd, finally, many incidents -- none of which seem to be true -- that Sarah relates in her memoirs. She was finally brought back in various stages to Paris. And then when she was 14, 15 she had been sent to a convent -- although her mother was Jewish -- to get a convent education and eventually to be confirmed as a Catholic. And she was brought back. She got through the convent. Her notion of being a nun was not a very realistic one, given her temperament and the trouble she was in morning, noon and night. And they didn't know what to do with her. So what were they going to do?
REHMAnd that's a question we'll talk about when we come back. The book is titled, "Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt," by Robert Gottlieb.
REHMAnd if you've just joined us, Robert Gottlieb is with me, a prolific writer, dance reviewer, book reviewer. His new portrait of the actress Sarah Bernhardt is titled simply, "Sarah," S-A-R-A-H, which is precisely how our granddaughter spells her name. And if you'd like to join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Just before the break, Bob, you were talking about the life of Sarah Bernhardt as a child. And then her mother had her educated in a convent, but she was not about to enter the convent.
GOTTLIEBNot if the convent could help it.
REHMShe was already demonstrating not only her independence, but her flare. How did she first get into acting?
GOTTLIEBWell, they didn't know what to do with her. Various people had various ideas. She couldn't marry an aristocratic Frenchman because she was the half-Jewish, illegitimate daughter of a courtesan. That wasn't going to work. Her mother would've liked her to marry a grocer or a, you know, bourgeois person, and then she wouldn't have to think about her anymore. But Sarah was having none of that. So she mooned around, being extremely adolescent and temperamental and driving everybody crazy, or at least her mother crazy, and according to Sarah's autobiography -- which as I've mentioned, we cannot believe a word of -- there was a family conference. And people came from everywhere, and somebody said this and somebody said that.
GOTTLIEBAnd the Duc de Mornay, the Emperor's half-brother, said, oh, why don't you send her to the conservatoire? So they said, okay, because whatever he said would go. Actually, later and more reasonable accounts suggest that one day at dinner, he casually said, oh, make her an actress. You know, there was no conference. There was no anything. And because he was so situated -- I mean, anything the Duc de Mornay said in France would go. They, of course, took her. She had an audition, but that was irrelevant, it turns out. They took her. They put her in the conservatoire for two years, and there she learned the fundamentals of acting.
GOTTLIEBThen she was automatically, as it was, sent to the Comédie-Francaise for her debuts. They went all right, not great, and within a year, she had left. She had quit the Comédie in an absolute fit of fury because her little half-sister had got into an entanglement with an older and much admired actress. The actress had slapped her. Sarah slapped her back, and that was it. She refused to apologize, and she was gone. And for several years, she really had no footing in the French stage. It was only three or four years later that her real career began.
REHMHow good was she as an actress when she finally got her feet on the stage?
GOTTLIEBWell, clearly, she was great. There really can't be much dispute about that. And in those early years of her career, until about 1880, she was the most famous, the most admired actress in France.
REHMAnd she was beautiful.
GOTTLIEBShe had a remarkable look, not like anybody else. First of all, she was famously, famously thin. Her features were extraordinary, dark. Her eyes were intense. She didn't smile. She didn't simper. She was just there, this gorgeous, strange creature. And by the time she left the Comédie-Francaise the second time, she was the most acclaimed actress there was.
REHMThis photograph of her on the cover of the book, no smile, her hand to the side of her head, her face, very curly hair, this lacy collar around her chin. She looks so thoughtful. She looks with these piercing eyes. What color were they?
GOTTLIEBNo one's quite sure again. They were sort of greenish, hazel-ish, blue-ish, anything.
GOTTLIEBPeople claimed they changed, depending on her mood, which wouldn't surprise me at all.
REHMSo you write then about her meeting with Victor Hugo.
GOTTLIEBYes. She -- her greatest early success was in the revival of one of Victor Hugo's plays. He was -- I don't know -- 45, 50 years older than she, but that didn't bother either of them. In fact, in her amorous career, nothing bothered her. She just plied it the way she plied the acting trade. And the reality is that in those earlier years -- really, up until she was 45 or 50 -- she was as famous not just in France, but around the world, for her behavior, her notorious behavior.
REHMSounds like some of the young stars we have around us today.
GOTTLIEBExactly. But she was more talented than Lindsay Lohan, and she did things, like, very notoriously sleep in a coffin. She...
GOTTLIEBWell, she was always attracted to the idea of death, actually. And she wanted a coffin, and she got a coffin. And she carried it around with her all around the world.
REHMAnd she kept it right next to a bed.
GOTTLIEBAt one point. When her little sister was dying, Sarah slept in the coffin 'cause there wasn't enough room in the bedroom for her sister in the bed and her. But it was more than that. It was her entanglements with untold numbers of well-known men and the supposition of what she was doing to earn the immense amount of money she spent -- 'cause she certainly wasn't earning it through her salary at the Comédie-Francaise. So her -- and then there was the way she dressed, up to and including the famous hat with a stuffed bat on top of it. Her doings were everywhere reported and argued about, and she was adored. And she was hated, and she was a phenomenon.
REHMRobert Gottlieb, and we're talking about his new book on Sarah Bernhardt titled simply, "Sarah," with a gorgeous photograph of the actress on the cover and many photographs of the people that Bob has talked about. Do join us, 800-433-8850. She clearly had a real gift for publicity and at one point, took this extraordinary balloon ride. How did she bring that about and bring all that publicity to it?
GOTTLIEBWell, first of all, publicity was looking for her. Because by this point, everybody was trailing around after her and reporting everything she did, wore, said, slept with -- didn't matter, really, as long as it was about her. But this was the heyday of the great air balloons that were -- in the 1870s were a new mode of transportation. It was very glamorous. It was very trendy. And at the fair, there was a tethered balloon, and people would pay to go up in it. But it was tethered, so they went up a little and then they came down a little. Nobody tethered Sarah Bernhardt. So she decided she would just go up, up, up. And with one companion and the pilot, she went up, up, up. And the balloon went off, off, off and drifted away, away, away.
GOTTLIEBWell, some miles, a number of miles. And she finally landed in a drenching rainstorm somewhere well out of Paris, to the astonishment of some peasants who were in the fields.
REHMTotally uncontrolled landing?
GOTTLIEBYeah, well, they could land by drop -- you know, with ballast.
GOTTLIEBI don't know how they did it.
GOTTLIEBBut she got down. She got back to Paris. And by this time, everyone in Paris knew what was going on. And, in fact, the head of the Comédie-Francaise was in a rage because his view was that his actors and actresses had no right to leave Paris without his permission. This was not her view.
REHMThis was not her view. What about the men in her life? Was there one who was truly important to her?
GOTTLIEBWell, they were all important to her at different times and for different reasons, often financially. She automatically had flings with all her leading men. That was just what she did, usually in the dressing room after the performance 'cause it was much easier and more practical that way. She -- as you mentioned before -- had something or other with the greatest French writer of the 19th Century, Victor Hugo. Sculptors, artists, perhaps a lady or two -- no one's quite sure -- but if she did, it was because she liked to please people. And if some lady liked her, why not, you know.
REHMShe did have a child.
GOTTLIEBHe was the love of her life.
GOTTLIEBMaurice. When she...
REHMWe have no idea who the father was.
GOTTLIEBWell, we think he may have been a Belgian Prince de Ligne.
REHMWhat's that mean?
GOTTLIEBWell, he was the prince, and it was his title, the Prince de Ligne.
GOTTLIEBAnd we think they look alike. She was 20 when he was born. She had no money, except the money she was scraped up. And she worshiped him and adored him from the first moment, and she raised him to be an ultraconservative Catholic prince as it were. She once said, the only thing I've ever asked of Maurice is that he be well-dressed. So she paid all his gambling debts, and she cosseted him and adored him. And he fought many duels to protect her honor. And he was there holding her in his arms when she died at the age of 79.
REHMBut, Bob, she was only 20 when he was born. Where was all the money coming from for her to offer him a life of luxury?
GOTTLIEBThat is the question. And in the early days, of course, nobody wanted to say anything. It's become clear in recent decades that she had, at various times, a group of men who sort of all clubbed in together to support her, pay for her apartment, buy her jewels, buy her dresses. And they all seemed to like each other, and they got -- in fact, one rumor has it that they were the ones who clubbed together to buy her coffin for her. So money was coming in. And eventually, of course, by the time she broke away and ran her own company in 1880, '81 for the rest of her life, she was making gigantic sums of money, all of which she immediately spent, so that sometimes she'd have to come home and put everything she owned on auction and sell it all.
GOTTLIEBBut it didn't matter. There was always more. She could always go on tour with the "Lady of the Camellias" or "Tosca" or whatever her great vehicles were.
REHMSounds like a great life, Bob.
GOTTLIEBIt is a great life.
REHMThe book we're talking about is titled, "Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt," and the author is Robert Gottlieb. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And it's time to open the phones, 800-433-8850. First, to Cincinnati, Ohio. Good morning, Steve. You're on the air.
STEVEGood morning, Diane.
STEVEI have a little anecdote about Sarah Bernhardt in her later years. She made the acquaintance of Harry Houdini the magician. And during a drive together, she very seriously and confidentially asked him -- said, Houdini, you can do such wondrous things. Could you restore my leg for me? Needless to say, he was kind of caught flatfooted and quietly admitted that that's something he couldn't do. And she responded, I didn't think so, but that's okay.
REHMHad you heard that?
GOTTLIEBYes, indeed. And oddly enough, I am even now starting to write a long piece about Houdini. So I've come across this anecdote in several places.
REHMHow interesting. Thanks for calling, Steve.
STEVEThank you. Bye.
REHMAnd to Rochester, N.Y. Good morning, Roy.
ROYGood morning, Diane. Good morning, Mr. Gottlieb. I was wondering about what you might have found about her and her photographers. Like, I believe it's Nadar, and was she in a carte de visite?
GOTTLIEBWell, it's a very important part of her life. Her iconography is almost as important as everything she did. She loved the camera. She loved being painted, sculpted, and she herself was a quite accomplished sculptress -- if we are allowed to use that word. Not a very good painter, but she had a studio which later became Picasso's studio. But the Nadar photographs are among the most famous photographs ever taken. They're ravishingly beautiful, and they were -- she was very, very young at the time, maybe 17, 18 -- nobody's quite sure.
GOTTLIEBShe, we think, was paid to model 'cause she was certainly in need of money. I think she was still in the conservatoire at that point. There's another very famous photograph that they thought was taken by Nadar. Now, it's somebody maybe in his studio, in which she's hiding behind a fan with one breast exposed. That's one of the most famous images of her. But through her life, both in person -- that is in her ordinary day-to-day life and in her costumes for her roles -- she is photographed thousands of times.
REHMGorgeous costumes. Does that answer it, Roy?
ROYAbsolutely. Thank you very much.
REHMAll right, sir. Thanks for calling. To Mary, who's here in Washington, D.C. Good morning to you.
MARYHi, thank you. I'm calling to say that I was at the National Museum of -- for Women in the Arts, where there's a lovely, lovely sculpture done by a Sarah Bernhardt. And as it has already been pointed out, she was a sculptor, which surprised me. It made me want to go home and know a little more about her, so I did do some research and was very surprised to find that she was incredibly creative. She sculpted. She painted. She designed her own clothing and costumes and jewelry and often the sets for the plays that she was in. So it was just a lot of fun (unintelligible)...
GOTTLIEBGood, that's wonderful.
REHMAn extraordinarily talented woman.
GOTTLIEBOh, amazingly so, yes. But more than anything, she had will. It's willpower that saw her through. Anything she attempted, she would achieve, and nothing could stand in her way. She was generous. She was funny. She was charming. But she was determined, and she couldn't bear to lose. The people who played games with her, like tennis -- she said, I know I'm childish and ridiculous, but that's the way it is. I have to win.
REHMShe has to win.
GOTTLIEBShe had to win, and so she won.
REHMNow, did that get in the way of friendships?
GOTTLIEBNot at all. She had lifelong friends, often her previous lovers, whom she kept with her. When she bought a house on a famous island off the coast of Brittany in her later years, she assembled all her loved ones, many of whom had been loved ones in more ways than one. And she built little houses for them, and they gathered together. She was a wonderful hostess. And interestingly enough, when she was there in Belle-ille, was surrounded by people, she never talked about acting. She went down. She fished. She didn't exactly cook, but she had a good time. They played games.
REHMRobert Gottlieb. Her new -- his new book is titled, "Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt." Short break. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. Here's an e-mail from Jennifer in Winchester, who says she's enjoying the show so much, she's going right out to buy the book today. She says, "I read a wonderful biography a few years back by Helen Sheehy about the great Italian actress, Eleonora Duse, who was..." -- pardon me -- "...reputed to be Bernhardt's great rival in every way, acting style, petite versus tall, brunette versus redhead and yet both celebrated divas. Would Mr. Gottlieb, please, comment on the two great actresses of their time? I understand Duse's style was the basis of Stanislofsky's more modern style of acting based on realism. Is Bernhardt the embodiment of a celebrity style?"
GOTTLIEBWell, that's partly true and partly not true. Duse was considerably younger -- 15 years or so younger than Bernhardt -- and Bernhardt was her original real inspiration when she saw her acting in Turin when Duse was young. Duse had been part of a theater family and was acting from childhood. When Sarah started working in the 18 -- late '50, '60s, '70s, she was considered the epitome of the new naturalistic style, as opposed to the highly melodramatic acting that surrounded her.
GOTTLIEBOver the years, her acting grew more stylized because -- since she toured everywhere to audiences who didn't understand French, her acting became more gestural and more flamboyant because they didn't understand the greatness of her enunciation, her delivery of French poetry, et cetera, et cetera. Duse, by the time she became famous, was now the naturalistic actress, and Sarah was the old-fashioned one. So people were torn by that. George Bernard Shaw -- at the time, a famous theater critic -- much preferred Duse in the 1890s because she was realistic, and Sarah just was, you know, hamming it up. However, it's more complicated than that.
GOTTLIEBAnd they were very polite about each other on the surface, extremely bitchy about each other in private. Duse was so scared of her reputation that she postponed coming to Paris after she had conquered the rest of the world. Finally, she turned up, and Bernhardt very graciously loaned her her theater or made her pay through the nose -- we don't know. And on the occasion of Duse's not very successful first performance in Sarah's most famous role "The Lady of the Camellias," Camille, when someone came up to her in the intermission and said, what do you think, what do you think? Bernhardt looked and smiled and said, one of the best.
REHMAh, one of the best.
REHMLet's go to Mark in St. Louis, Mo. Good morning, you're on the air.
MARKYeah, hi, Diane, I wanted to ask Mr. Gottlieb, was Sarah Bernhardt's life affected at all by the Dreyfus affair? I think they were contemporaries. And how did the far right -- for instance, Edouard Drumont's La Libre Parole, did they comment on her at all? Did she ever have to deal with traditional French anti-Semitism?
GOTTLIEBShe certainly did. And she was certainly involved with the Dreyfus affair, not to the extent that she claimed to be, but she was good friends with Emile Zola, the great novelist, who came to Dreyfus' defense with his famous article "J'accuse." And she supported him unreservedly. You know, Sarah was half-Jewish, although she was made into a Catholic. And she was very proud of being Jewish. As she put it, the Jewish blood that flows through her veins, she never for a moment denied it.
GOTTLIEBAnd at various moments and in various places, not just France, but in Canada, in Russia, in Germany, she had anti-Semitic incidents that ruffled the surface of her great triumphs. But during -- the main thing that happened to her during the Dreyfus affair was that her son, Maurice, who had been raised to be a conservative Catholic aristocrat, sided violently with the anti-Dreyfus people. It...
GOTTLIEBIt was the only time in their entire lives together that they split. And they were so enraged at each other that he actually left Paris with his family, went to the south of France and didn't speak to her for a year and vice versa. So it was a...
REHMFor a solid year.
GOTTLIEBYes. It was a violent crisis within the family, which simply reflected the violent crisis within the country.
REHMHow did they -- how did...
MARKWas Maurice -- yeah, Bob, was Maurice aware of the fact that his father was an aristocrat?
GOTTLIEBWell, we think he was told it. She certainly told it to others. On the other hand, she told other people other things. But, yes, and it -- there are all kinds of anecdotes much later, the prince wanted to acknowledge him, but Maurice said, no, my mother is Sarah Bernhardt. I don't need a father, you know.
MARKI won't take it any further, but my thought is that if he -- if Maurice thought that he was the son of an aristocracy, he would've known that he had to line up with the anti-Dreyfus (word?) as a matter of -- as a matter of good form.
GOTTLIEBVery possibly, yeah. Mm hmm.
MARKYou know what I'm saying. You know what I'm talking about. Listen, thanks, Diane. I'll get off.
REHMMany thanks, Mark.
REHMNow, to Key West, Fla. Good morning, Vanessa.
VANESSAHey, good morning. What an absolute joy and what a fascinating subject. I'm particularly interested. I'm an actress in Key West, currently in a play, and I was absolutely fascinated to see that Sarah Bernhardt, who has long since I was a little girl been sort of the icon of what every actress sort of aspires to in so many ways, such a wonderful modern icon from yesteryear. And I was fascinated to see that she has many quotes. It shows how eloquent she was. She specifically quotes this about an actor, that the curtain is raised -- once the curtain is raised, the actor ceases to belong to himself. He belongs to his character, to his author, to his public.
VANESSAAnd he must do the impossible to identify himself with the first, not to betray the second and not to disappoint the third, which I think is a great maxim to live by as an actor because you've got to be true to all three important components of a production. And I want to say congratulations on this wonderful sounding book. I think I must go out and get it immediately.
GOTTLIEBDo, by all means. The thing is, Sarah did say those things, and she meant them when she said them because she always meant everything she said when she said it. She's ignoring, really, the fact that it was her personal presence, her look, her temperament, her nature that, really, in the long run, won everybody -- even more than her art. You know, what she prescribed others to do, they might try to do, but they could never be her. And it was actually her -- to coin the disgusting word, her her-ness that gave her this amazing place in the theater then and now.
REHMBut she took that her-ness and played "Hamlet."
GOTTLIEBYes, indeed and many other men's roles. She loved being a man on stage. She said, I don't like -- she said, I -- it's men's minds that I like. You know, and she liked performing men, and "Hamlet" was a huge success and a very controversial performance.
REHMControversial in the sense that the audience may have had some problems with this glorious actress portraying a male?
GOTTLIEBWell, they had seen her in many, many male roles, and she went on performing male roles, really, her entire life.
REHMWhat did the critics say?
GOTTLIEBWell, they varied. In England, for instance, the famous Max Beerbohm thought she was fascinating, but couldn't believe it for a moment. Another of the most important British critics said, this is the greatest "Hamlet" I've ever seen. And there's a snatch of her in it on YouTube in the dueling scene at the end. You can see it anytime you want, and you see she's virile. It's not fakey. It's not campy. She's there. She's just, like, a minute long, but you get a sense of how she did sublimate her girlishness in this role.
REHMTo Teddy who's in Dorea, Ohio. Good morning to you.
TEDDYGood morning, Diane and Mr. Gottlieb. It's a pleasure to speak to both of you.
TEDDYMy question is, what -- and I -- what I know about Miss Bernhardt, you can put in a thimble, but I'm learning a lot thanks to your show today. Did she do any silent film?
GOTTLIEBYes. That's a very important question. She did appear in silent film. And, in fact, she was the first great international movie star. And in the Hollywood Walk of Fame, you will find her next to Joan Crawford. But she wasn't any good in the movies, you know, and she saw it.
GOTTLIEBShe was too stylized.
GOTTLIEBYou know, she basically replicated her stage performances, and they're stagey. There's one story that says she fainted when she saw herself on screen in "The Lady of the Camellias." And one of her films, the "La Tosca" film, I think she suppressed. So you cannot get a sense of what she was on stage from her movies because they're two completely different arts.
REHMHow would you -- recognizing that one was successful in film -- Greta Garbo -- how would you compare Greta Garbo's beauty to that of Sarah Bernhardt?
GOTTLIEBOn film? On film?
REHMIn any way.
GOTTLIEBWell, Garbo was not, after her childhood -- after her girlhood, a stage actress. She has a perfect movie face. The camera loves her face, and she loves the camera. Its exploration of her face is a miracle. It's one of the great miracles of film. Was she a great actress? Oddly enough, she is at her greatest in Sarah's most famous role, Camille. And that's a wonderful film, and she's wonderful in it, but there's no comparing them. Sarah did not have that quality at all. As I say, the camera essentially rejected her, and she knew it.
REHMBut this is a gorgeous face.
GOTTLIEBIn still photography, so that she understood. She understood how to have her picture taken.
REHMIsn't that fascinating? All right. To a caller here in Washington, D.C. Good morning, Laura.
LAURAThis is a marvelous hour.
LAURAI wanted to ask if Sarah Bernhardt was the original of Irene Adler in the famous Sherlock Holmes stories with -- which sort of stars an actress who becomes the only woman that Holmes has ever respected and is ever after referred to as the woman. He can't...
LAURA...even say her name.
GOTTLIEBWell, that's a very good question. It has certainly been suggested that Bernhardt is one of the models 'cause Conan Doyle could not have avoided her. She was so famous. She would've invaded his mind like the way she invaded everybody else's, including mine. She was also the model, we think, for Henry James' "The Tragic Muse" and for the great actress Berma in Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past." I mean, she was an icon for everybody.
REHMThanks for calling, Laura. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Now to Charlotte, N.C. Good morning, Joan.
JOANGood morning. And I must tell you I enjoy your show so much, and I'm really enjoying today's show.
JOANAbout 40 years ago, I started being active in a theater in Lancaster, Pa., called the Fulton Opera House, which is one of the oldest theaters in this country and a national historic landmark. And the divine Sarah appeared there many times. And there was a gentleman at that time who used to tell the story that his parents would never take him when she came to town because she was much too rich for his blood as a young man. And I also -- I started collecting a lot of actress and actor memorabilia at one time, and I have a photograph of Sarah Bernhardt's funeral. And I have never seen anything like it. I mean, she was buried like a head of state.
REHMHow did she die, Bob?
GOTTLIEBShe died of uremia, which she had suffered from for many, many years, and finally it just overcame her. Yes, there was a big to-do about her funeral. The -- for some reason, the government wouldn't give her a formal funeral, so the city of Paris did. And her...
GOTTLIEBShe had finally been given the Legion of Honor, and she was buried in the great cemetery Pere Lachaise.
REHMWhy wouldn't the French government give her...
GOTTLIEBWhat can I say? But there are various estimates of the crowds that accompanied the body from her home eventually to Pere Lachaise that go up to half a million people. And in the...
JOANIt was extraordinary in the picture.
GOTTLIEBYes, it's amazing. And that's the way it was.
REHMHalf a million people.
GOTTLIEBAnd who knows? We know from today...
REHMAnd who knows, yeah.
GOTTLIEB...they say a million people, and it's 24 people.
GOTTLIEBBut it was probably hundreds of thousands of people followed the body to the cemetery or viewed it as it was going by.
REHMAnd does the site of her burial still exist?
GOTTLIEBOh, yes. Yes, indeed. And the really remarkable thing, historically, is that this girl with no father, illegitimate, poor, nothing, troublemaker, a scandal, turned into one of the great icons of France and came to symbolize France through the world. That wasn't easy to do.
REHMAnd how did the people of America receive her?
GOTTLIEBWell, at first, they were scandalized and horrified at this monstrous woman with an illegitimate child and her crazy menagerie that she had -- you know, she had animals all over the place, boa...
GOTTLIEBBoa constrictor, whom she finally had to shoot because it swallowed a cushion and was not well, an alligator -- you name it. She had it. But she was -- slowly, slowly she morphed. She was very heroic during the Franco-Prussian War. She opened a hospital in the Odeon Theatre. She became a representative of France around the world. Heads of state, if they weren't in her bed, they were pinning medals on her. Emperors, czars -- didn't matter, you know. She was Bernhardt. That's who she was, and it sticks to this day.
REHMRobert Gottlieb, and he has portrayed Bernhardt in his brand-new book titled, "Sarah." Congratulations, Bob.
GOTTLIEBThank you, Diane.
REHMSo good to see you.
REHMAnd thanks everyone for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture and Monique Nazareth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our e-mail address is email@example.com and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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