The curious story of Sarah Bernhardt’s leg

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He is now based in Bordeaux, France, where he writes for the International Herald-Tribune and other publications. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine. In 1990 he was appointed chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique where he worked as Editorial Director for two years. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of four books and recently edited “24/7 Innovation” for an Accenture consultant and “Nokia: The Inside Story”, written by historian Martti Haikio, for the Nokia Corporation. A fluent French speaker, he also speaks Russian. 18.01.2009

It has been 94 years since the right leg of the great actress Sarah Bernhardt was sawed off by a Bordeaux surgeon. Still preserved in formaldehyde, it remains an object of great - if somewhat morbid - curiosity despite the passage of time.

The leg was rediscovered a few weeks ago in a Bordeaux University storeroom that holds such medical and judicial curiosities as skulls shattered by bullets, guns employed in grisly murders, hangmen's ropes, and aborted fetuses of siamese twins.

This is a gruesome resting place for the last relic of the "Divine Sarah", the biggest superstar of the dramatic arts in 19th and early 20th centuries. She was 71 years old when she ordered doctors to amputate. Her right knee had been injured by too many leaps off the parapet at the end of "La Tosca", Victorien Sardou's tragedy that later became a Puccini opera.

Sarah was fed up being immobilized by her painful knee, and insisted on the operation. (Ironically, the knee today could have been easily replaced in a routine procedure.) She reasoned that she could function better with a good wooden leg. Anaesthesia by ether, recently accepted in European operating rooms, was provided, and she fell asleep singing the "La Marseillaise".

The Sarah Bernhardt story has always fascinated me but I never expected to be so close to any part of her anatomy. When I saw a newspaper story recently about how her amputated leg had been misplaced, then finally located, I decided to launch my own investigation. Could the leg she lost really have been lost for years before being rediscovered?

It turned out that Bordeaux University was embarrassed by the media attention, and so by the time I started nosing around, the whole place was in information lockdown. It took me 23 phone calls to eight people to finally reach the president of the Science and Health faculty, Prof. Manuel Tunon de Lara.

"We never lost the leg," he insisted. "It was just forgotten. I have instructed a colleague to clean it up and prepare to put it on display. At the moment it is not in very good condition." He would not allow me a view it.

As the professor and his colleague restore the leg, they are besieged by doubters who believe it belonged to someone else. The label on the jar is apparently unclear. Surviving relatives are being asked to authorize DNA tests to clear up at the mystery. It is just one of many mysteries surrounding the memory of this very elusive lady.

The first question biographers ask is "Who was Sarah Bernhardt?"

I grew up in the American Midwest and thus have always been intrigued by what is known as the "Iowa Legend" about her.

As recently as last year, the Des Moines Register newspaper was still dredging up factoids to enrich the fairy tale of the simple French-Canadian girl, Sarah King, who worked in a hat shop in Muscatine, Iowa, at the age of 13. She was stage-struck when she saw her first play at 15, goes the story, and three years later surfaced in Paris as a superstar. Old-timers recall hearing that she returned to a cemetery in Rochester to visit her parents' graves when on a U.S. tour in 1905.

The paper covers itself by adding this at the end: "If indeed she was Iowa's Sarah King, she took her secret to her grave."

The more accepted version of her life is that she was an illegitimate child who shot to fame at 18 in the Comédie Française, then single-mindedly built a career in mainstream theatre in Paris. She steadily embroidered her life story and eventually became what her many biographers call the most celebrated actress the world has known.

Not truly beautiful, she nonetheless had a magical ability to connect with audiences. In her many surviving photographs, she appears to be a living pre-Raphaellite oil painting or a life-sized art nouveau swirl of tendons and fabric. Victor Hugo described her stage delivery as flowing from a "voice of gold".

More than 55 books have been written about her, and U.S. author-editor Robert Gottlieb recently reviewed 13 of them in the New York Review of Books. He is at work on a new biography of her, to be published by Yale University Press.

During her nine separate tours of the United Sates, and several visits to Latin America, she delivered performances that have been described as "thrilling". She spoke only in French but, according to French biographers, with a "slight English accent". The Iowa influence, perhaps?

Gottlieb's explanation for her immense success in the United States - despite the language barrier -is that she brought "a realism, an emotional truth that was absent from the more extravagant melodramatic style of the American theatre at that time."

He quotes author Henry James as writing, "It would take some ingenuity to give an idea of the intensity, the ecstasy, the insanity as some people would say, of (the) curiosity and enthusiasm provoked by Mlle. Bernhardt."

James modelled his heroine of "The Tragic Muse" on her, and Marcel Proust based his memorable "La Berma" on her in "Remembrance of Things Past". Oscar Wilde wrote Salome for her.

Sarah often played male roles, most notably in "l'Aiglon", which Edmond Rostand wrote especially for her. At the age of 56 in 1900, she played Napoleon's only son, who dies on stage at the age of 21. France was ready for this patriotic tragedy.

Writes Henry Gidel in the most recent biography of her, available only in French, "l'Aiglon" was one of the greatest theatrical successes ever achieved. "As the curtain fell each night," he wrote, "there was an uproar, a tumult, a deliriousness not seen since the Roman arenas of the caesars."

Sarah's career overlapped the beginning of the silent cinema. She acted in three films, excerpts of which can be found on YouTube and other internet websites. Also on the web is a curious monologue by Sacha Guitry, the playwright and actor, who praises Sarah for having reinvented acting despite 50 years of performing with one lung and 30 years of performing with one kidney. Eventually, she would perform her last nine years with one leg.

Her decision to insist on the amputation came amid World War I, following six months of wearing a cast to help heal her damaged knee. Gangrene was a danger, and it would have been fatal. She called her relatives together and asked their counsel:

"I don't want to suffer as I have been for the past few years. So you choose: either I kill myself or I have my leg cut off." The family quickly agreed to the amputation. On Feb. 22, 1915, she went under anesthetic and the leg was amputated above the knee.

Just eight months later she was back in Paris starring in "La Dame aux Camélias", moving about the stage in a wheelchair. Paris wits referred to her as "Mère la chaise", a play on the name of the Paris cemetery Père Lachaise.

Driven by her need to perform and to soak up applause, she worked tirelessly to entertain French soldiers at the front and again in the Paris theatre. She even managed a final U.S. tour of 99 cities.

Finally in 1923 at the age of 79, she died and was laid to rest in Père Lachaise. Hundreds of thousands turned out to mourn her, equalling the crowds at the funeral of her friend and admirer Victor Hugo 50 years earlier.

Sarah Bernhardt was dead but 86 years later we're still reading and writing about her. Will Madonna be as intriguing to our great-great-grandchildren in the 22nd century?

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