Jan 18th 2009

The curious story of Sarah Bernhardt’s leg

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

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?


If you wish to comment on this article, you can do so on-line.

Should you wish to publish your own article on the Facts & Arts website, please contact us at info@factsandarts.com.

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "
Feb 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human rights abuses under Erdogan are beyond the pale of inhumanity and moral decadence. The list of Erdogan’s violations and cruelty is too long to numerate. The detention and horrifying torture of thousands of innocent people for months and at times for years, without being charged, is hard to fathom. Many prisoners are left languishing in dark cells, often in solitary confinement. The detention of tens of thousands of men and hundreds of women, many with their children, especially following the 2016 failed coup, has become common. It is calculated to inflict horrendous pain and suffering to bring the prisoners to the breaking point, so that they confess to crimes they have never committed."
Feb 20th 2021
Courtyard of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, circa 1670, (Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde).
Feb 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "Global regulators will no doubt be concerned about a potential volatility spillover from digital asset prices into traditional capital markets. They may not permit what could quickly amount to effective proxy approval by the back door for companies holding large proportions of a volatile asset on their balance sheets."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Since Russians began protesting opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment, the security forces have apparently had carte blanche to arrest demonstrators – and they have done so by the thousands. If Russians so much as honk their car horns in solidarity with the protesters, they risk personal repercussions. The official response to the protests goes beyond the Kremlin’s past repression. It is war."
Feb 6th 2021
EXTRACT: ".......like Biden, Roosevelt was certainly no revolutionary. His task was to save American capitalism. He was a repairer, a fixer. The New Deal was achieved not because of Roosevelt’s genius or heroism, but because enough people trusted him to act in good faith. That is precisely what people are expecting from Biden, too. He must save US democracy from the ravages of a political crisis. To do so, he must reestablish trust in the system. He has promised to make his country less polarized, and to restore civility and truth to political discourse. In this endeavor, his lack of charisma may turn out to be his greatest strength. For all that he lacks in grandeur, he makes up for by exuding an air of decency."
Feb 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Europe must not lose sight of the long game, which inevitably will center on China, not Russia or relations with post-Brexit Britain. China is already establishing a presence in Iran, and demonstrating that it has the capital, know-how, and technology to project power and influence beyond its borders. Should it succeed in turning the Belt and Road Initiative into a line of geopolitical stepping-stones, it might soon emerge at Europe’s southeastern border in a form that no one in the EU foresaw."
Jan 29th 2021
EXTRACT: "One sign of this change is that, unlike all recent Democratic administrations, Biden’s hasn’t paid obeisance to Wall Street by giving bankers top jobs. The new Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, is a former Federal Reserve chair and academic who has made it clear that she understands the country’s pressing social needs. Moreover, Biden consulted Warren on her economic views, and has named a former Warren adviser as Yellen’s deputy. Yellen’s appointment demonstrates that Biden shares the insight that enabled Trump’s rise: that too many Americans feel that they cannot get a fair share. "
Jan 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "Barack Obama cautioned in his final speech as president that, “Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.” Yet isn’t that exactly what America has been doing? In a decade punctuated by the global financial crisis, the COVID-19 crisis, a racial-justice crisis, an inequality crisis, and now a political crisis, we have only paid lip service to lofty democratic ideals. ... Sadly, this complacency has come at a time of growing fragility for the American experiment. Internet-enabled connectivity is dangerously amplifying an increasingly polarized national discourse in an era of mounting social and political instability. The resulting vulnerability was brought into painfully sharp focus on January 6. The stewardship of democracy is at grave risk. "
Jan 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, if cornered, any populist might resort to Trump’s endgame methods: trying to coerce elites into committing fraud to prevent a transfer of power, or deploying right-wing extremists on the ground to intimidate lawmakers. These desperate acts signaled Trump’s weakness. But it is important to note that most Republicans still did not disown Trump even when confronted with his blatant lawlessness on January 6. ... Other right-wing populists may well take notice of this fact. The recent events in the United States have shown that elites who are prepared to collaborate with authoritarians will tolerate quite a lot in the end. This ignominious precedent is especially likely to hold true in other countries where crony capitalism has implicated the business community in illegal behavior."    
Jan 21st 2021
EXTRACT: "May, a decent and honest woman, was far outdistanced by her successor and his colleagues in the Trump sycophancy stakes. In January 2017, Johnson’s senior fellow Brexiteer and principal ministerial fixer, Michael Gove (a former journalist with The Times newspaper), conducted an interview with then President-elect Trump that plumbed new depths of oleaginous toadyism. Gove wallowed in Trump’s endorsement of Brexit. It subsequently came to light that Gove’s then-employer, Rupert Murdoch, was in the room while the interview took place. And why not? The owner of Fox News as well as The Times was entitled to keep an eye on his two protégés."
Jan 21st 2021
EXTRACTS: "Does anyone really think that the vast majority of Republican legislators who could not bring themselves to object to the attempted coup at the Capitol — or any of the other outrageous antics Trump has unleashed on America for the past four years — will suddenly experience sleepless nights and pangs of conscience now that he is gone? Au contraire. This band of spineless, morally bankrupt congresspeople and senators are far more likely to follow Trump and carry Trumpism into the 2024 presidential election." ..... "A recent survey of Europeans revealed that the majority believe that America’s political system is hopelessly broken, that President Biden will be unable to halt its decline on the world stage, and that China will become the world’s leading power within a decade. What if they are right? America’s Trump-inspired death spiral has practically ensured any real recovery will likely take decades — and multiple terms with a Democratic president and Congress at the helm — to achieve."
Jan 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "What our polling tells us is that what the peoples of Middle East want is regional unity and investment in the future that can bring peace and prosperity. They’ve had enough of war and want ​stable employment, education, health care, and better future for their children. It’s time we start listening to them."
Jan 13th 2021
EXTRACT: "Trump intentionally and directly incited the insurrection of January 6. But he does not bear sole responsibility. Every one of his enablers, and the enablers of his enablers, is guilty. Fox Corp’s hidden backers, especially those who are so fond of touting their piety, must now ask themselves, as the Gospel of Mark instructs: What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? "
Jan 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "What’s astonishing is that the bottom 50% reduced their borrowing over roughly the same period, but their debt servicing costs increased. Over this time, smaller corporations saw their profit margins dip consistently into negative territory. The decades-long fall in interest rates appears to be the only thing that has kept smaller corporations afloat. Smaller corporations thus appear to be caught in a vicious circle. The fact that their debt-servicing burdens have increased sharply despite deleveraging and falling interest rates points toward rapidly deteriorating financial fortunes. This is reaffirmed by the severe losses registered in their negative profit margins."
Jan 11th 2021
EXTRACT: " The answer can’t be to pretend that the crisis is now over or to believe that the way forward can be found by simply impeaching the President or using the 25th Amendment to remove him from office. That will not do. January 6th had antecedents. And more than one man has responsibility for what happened."