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Posts Tagged ‘Sarah Bernhardt’

This blog has quietly passed the 10-year anniversary. We met many remarkable personalities along the way, and I want to recall some of them in this post. Not all were paragons of virtue, but they were bursting with enthusiasm, perseverance, and unlimited energy. The combination of all three is what leads to high achievement. Here then is a collection of five exceptional go-getters:

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Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, later Napoleon III

(1808-1873)

His megalomaniac uncle ravaged Europe, wasted a whole generation of Frenchmen on battlefields, and caused untold suffering to people across the continent, from Spain to Russia. Napoleon III, on the contrary, ruled for eighteen prosperous years with modernization and progress as his goals. For some strange reason, Napoleon the Great found his historical place among the admired personalities instead of being sent to hell along with Hitler. His industrious nephew, on the other hand, is called Napoleon le Petit (Napoleon the Small) by the ungrateful French. And yet! Where are the glorious conquests of Napoleon I now? Gone, long gone. Only the legend remains. The legacy of Napoleon III, far less glorious, but far more useful, is still with us. It’s time to do this remarkable man justice. His life story is just as colorful as his uncle’s. Read The English Courtesan Who Made a French Emperor

Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the man who transformed Paris

(1809-1891)

Better known as Baron Haussmann, this man was chosen by Emperor Napoleon III to carry out a massive urban renewal of Paris. Never before had a city been transformed so fast and so completely. Never again will we see such a ruthless urban upheaval for greater good. What was possible then, under the imperial absolutism, is no longer doable in a democratic state. Nevertheless, whichever way we look at it today, we cannot deny Baron Haussmann’s genius. Read more…

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Countess of Castiglione, professional beauty, secret agent, and pioneer of photography

(1837-1899)

Virginia Elisabetta Luisa Carlotta Antonietta Teresa Maria Oldoïni, the Countess of Castiglione by virtue of her marriage, and the most notorious narcissist of the century, led a busy life. Still in her teens, she became the mistress to a king who then sent her to conquer an emperor. After bedroom diplomacy in her youth, she spent the rest of her life posing for portraits of her gorgeous self. While doing so, she rewrote the rules of photography. Read La Castiglione: The Too Much Countess

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Charles F. Worth, father of the haute-couture and fashion dictator

(1825-1895)

When Charles Worth died, queens and other wealthy women around the world wept. In his egalitarian establishment, Rue de la Paix, royalty met with high-ranking prostitutes and the common language was money. This former printer’s apprentice, ended with 1,200 employees and a huge fortune. How did it all happen? Read it here…

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Sarah Bernhardt, the drama queen who conquered the world

(1844-1923)

The Divine Sarah as she was known worldwide, was a woman of many talents, and even more eccentricities. She possessed the energy of a power plant and an extraordinary courage to fight adversity. When she stood in the US Congress, pleading for America to join the WW1, no one had to ask who was this small, one-legged, old Frenchwoman. If you lived in a civilized country you would have heard her name. She’d made sure of that. Read The Inescapable Sarah Bernhardt here…

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After twenty years apart, the Three Musketeers reunite to right a wrong.

Madelon-la-Belle left Paris twenty years ago to escape her damaged reputation. She abandoned her infant daughter, Louise, in the care of her sister. Now she is back, a wealthy widow, and she plans to be a caring mother. Her idea of caring motherhood is to make Louise a high-born heiress. It only needs a little deception.

This does not sit well with Louise’s father, Captain d’Artagnan of the Royal Musketeers, who finds Madelon’s plan unsound. He wants to see Louise married as soon as possible, before she becomes a slut like her mother, and has already found a good husband for her. Unfortunately, the formidable Madelon does not agree with d’Artagnan’s choice. A battle of wills ensues, involving d’Artagnan’s long-lost friends, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis.

A screenplay inspired by Alexandre Dumas’s classic novel.

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If you lived during what the French call the Belle Epoque (1871-1914) in any literate country, you would have stumbled upon Sarah Bernhardt. There was no way of avoiding her name in print. She would shock you with her latest extravagancy or sell you a product of some sort.  People around the world would pay good money to watch Sarah die in French. She was very good at it. Never mind that you did not understand a word she was saying for there was plenty to look at for the price and you could tell with pride that you have seen the Greatest Tragedy Queen Ever.

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Just to show you the international weight of Sarah’s personality, here she is as an old lady in the US: urging America to enter World War One

What Bernhardt, also known as The Divine Sarah, meant to her own country is demonstrated in this video which shows that the French Republic staged a funeral worthy of a queen:

A sighting of Sarah Bernhardt in all her glory was a memorable event:

“…Into the gallery one day, as our obscure party moved about, there entered a Personage; a charming figure, with a following of worshippers. The lady was dressed in black lace, strangely fashioned. Though she was small, her step and carriage, slow and gracious as she moved and spoke, were queenly. She was a dazzling blonde, somewhat restored and not beautiful, as one saw her nearer. The striking point in her costume — and there was but one — was that the upper part of her corsage, or yoke, was made entirely of fresh violets, bringing their perfume with them. Everyone, artists and their friends, ceased their examination of the pictures, and openly gazed, murmuring their pride and joy in their idol, Sarah Bernhardt…”

Excerpt from the memoir of the American portrait painter Cecilia Beaux

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Quand Même, the motto of Sarah Bernhardt, can be translated in different ways but, in this case, it means Nevertheless. There may be difficulties on the path of life. Nevertheless, they will be overcome.

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One of the reasons for Sarah’s early success was that she was different in appearance.  While the beauty canon favored women of substance, she was thin. Where fashion dictated sculptured hairdos, Sarah’s hair was an uncontrollable puff of frizzy hair. Her Jewish nose was a little too prominent and her complexion a little too white. This difference, instead of being a burden, made her stand apart and therefore be noticed. Her thespian talent, along with her flamboyant personality, both on and off the stage, did the rest. In fact, there was no difference between the theater and the off-stage for wherever she was, Sarah never ceased to perform.

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Seduction was  Sarah’s main weapon on the road to fame. Seduction of the theatre critics, seduction of the theatre-goers, seduction of the press. And if the press reacted in a contrary way, that was good too. She was the first one to understand that bad publicity was better than none.

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After having opened her own theatre, Sarah hired a Czech-born artist Alphonse Mucha for advertising. His posters are successfully sold to this day.

A true Renaissance woman, Sarah had a second source of income: painting and sculpture. She was an excellent sculptor, to the point of making Rodin jealous. “She has the audacity to show this filth,” he was heard saying at one of her shows.  Really, Monsieur Rodin? Let’s scroll down to see what the venerable Master considered filthy:

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The Death of Ophelia by Sarah Bernhardt

Like the queen she was, Sarah had her court. Every change of place meant the shifting of a great many objects, animals, and people. In her Paris apartment, she kept a small zoo, which accompanied her on her travels. The live alligator Ali Baba and a coffin featured among her luggage.

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Sarah in her coffin. A publicity stunt, no doubt about it, the photo made the round of the world. Sarah kept the coffin in her bedroom and claimed she slept in it.  She died for real some forty years after this picture was taken.

Sarah was a woman of prodigious energy. As the manager of a theatre of which she was the principal attraction, she had little time for rest. She would see the author of a new play at two in the morning because that was the only time she could find in her busy schedule. Trips abroad meant careful planning and exercise in logistics. While everything was done to make travel as comfortable as possible—a special train containing a luxury wagon for Sarah alone was the standard—the conditions in the place were often primitive. She would play in circus tents, suffer cold in unheated dressing rooms, go hungry when food was not readily available, and she would forge ahead quand même. Her support staff might suffer from exhaustion but Sarah would take it all in a stride with one lung, one kidney and, toward the end of her life, with only one leg.

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Sarah during one of her overseas travels

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In the American West, cowboys greet Sarah (on the right, in the dark coat) on her arrival. Later, during the performance, they would manifest their enthusiasm with aiming shots at the ceiling

Sarah lived long enough to appear in the early movies. She hated to see herself on the screen: stripped of her voice, of her three-dimensional personality, and her interaction with the public, she was nothing more than an unappetizing shadow of her true self. By that time, she already suffered from excruciating pain in her leg. Furniture had to be strategically placed on the scene so that there would always be a point of support where she could take the weight off her aching leg. As her agony grew beyond endurance, she opted for amputation.

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Being without a leg at the age of seventy did not slow Sarah down. She purchased a portable chair and off she went to war.  Since the Franco-Prussian War, forty years earlier, Sarah harbored a hatred for the Germans. The French troops needed to be cheered up with a good tragedy play.

Sarah died of uremia after an agony that was partly caught on film. She left behind an unfinished movie she was making during her last illness. Ever the hard worker, she took only three days off work to die. She was seventy-eight.

I purposefully left out Sarah’s rich private life which would need a separate post. To understand her drive for success, it is necessary to say that she was the neglected child of a Dutch courtesan. Her father could have been any of the rich and famous men her mother had serviced, among them Rossini, Dumas the Elder, or the Emperor’s half-brother, the Duke de Morny. It was to the latter that the mother turned for advice concerning the future of her awkward teenage offspring. It was he who suggested the stage.  And it was there, on the stage, that Sarah found the love, the adoration, she missed in her childhood.

In my opinion, the truly successful women of that age had this in common: they were mostly illegitimate, without the father’s authority figure. They had a wide range of freedom and their talent was not stifled by the bourgeois set of morals.

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And now some free advertising: The model in the picture Sarah is painting is the protagonist of the novel Fame and Infamy by the author of this post. More on the sidebar.

Related post:

The Franco-Prussian War is described in The Bloodbath of the Paris Commune

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