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

Feb 11th 2019
The first step to defending Europe from its enemies, both internal and external, is to recognize the magnitude of the threat they present. The second is to awaken the sleeping pro-European majority and mobilize it to defend the values on which the EU was founded. Otherwise, the dream of a united Europe could become the nightmare of the twenty-first century.
Feb 7th 2019
Watching a sophisticated democratic society knowingly walk into a predictable and avoidable national disaster is a rare and alarming experience. Most British politicians are well aware that leaving the European Union with no agreement on the post-Brexit relationship will cause enormous damage to their country. They are not sleepwalking into the abyss; their eyes are wide open. A minority of deluded ideologues doesn’t mind the prospect of Britain crashing out of the EU with no deal. A few chauvinist dreamers on the right, egged on by sections of the press, believe that the bulldog spirit of Dunkirk will overcome early setbacks and Great Britain will soon rule the waves again as a great quasi-imperial power, albeit without an empire. Neo-Trotskyists on the left, including Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the main opposition Labour Party, seem to think that catastrophe will spur the British people to demand true socialism at last.
Feb 4th 2019
We’re off to the races - the 2020 presidential races, that is. Since the beginning of the year, at regular intervals, new candidates have been coming forward to announce their intention to compete for the presidency. Some are interesting and/or exciting, while others frankly leave me scratching my head and asking “What are they doing? How on earth do they think they’re going to be elected?”      
Jan 29th 2019
Extract: "As it happens, on that Friday night when Trump buckled, I was at a restaurant where Pelosi and her husband, Paul, were dining with another couple. When the House Speaker left her table, customers and staff alike applauded her. A waitress standing beside me was nearly in tears. She choked out, “We need someone who will fight for us.” "
Jan 28th 2019
Recognizing that opinion in Parliament is moving strongly against leaving the EU on the terms proposed by May, with a growing number of members even in favor of a second referendum to test whether we should leave at all, some right-wingers have flirted with the idea of trying to close down the House of Commons for a time. They want the government to be able to get its own way without any democratic opposition. It is a sign of their desperation to get Britain out of the EU whatever the constitutional or economic cost. Is May prepared to get to grips with this? If she runs away from the task, despite growing Parliamentary unease about the path we are on, Britain is in big trouble.
Jan 25th 2019
At the end of last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia had completed final testing of an “invincible” new hypersonic nuclear-capable missile, the “Avangard,” calling it “the best New Year gift” for his country. With Putin seeming to up the ante on his increasingly frequent doomsday rhetoric, should the world be bracing itself for a nuclear conflict?................In recent months, popular support for Putin in Russia has declined sharply, with his approval rating falling from over 76% to 66% in the second half of last year. At the same time, a kind of neo-medieval thinking, focused on the restoration of autocratic monarchy and the supremacy of the Orthodox Church, has been gaining prominence in Russia. Putin’s fire-and-brimstone rhetoric may actually reflect the mindset of these fundamentalists, who view nukes as a “practical solution” to the world’s problems.
Jan 24th 2019
Over the past three decades I wrote more than two hundred articles about Israel, envisioning it to be a democratic state, independent and free, a champion of human rights, a force of unity for world Jewry, united in its citizenry, admired by its friends, envied by its detractors, and above all at peace with the Arab states and especially with the Palestinians. My vision about Israel was founded on my deep sense of the Jews’ turbulent and tragic history and their yearning for a home of their own in which to live in peace and security. As the years went by, I became increasingly disillusioned with Israel’s endemic political disunity, its inability to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians, the growing public complacency, the loss of the country’s unity of purpose, and the abandonment of its moral responsibility.
Jan 22nd 2019
China’s strategy for economic growth has been a work in progress since Deng Xiaoping launched the country’s “reform and opening up” in 1978. While the last 40 years of reform have been far from error-free, the government has displayed a willingness to adapt, as well as a capacity for navigating complex transitions, supported by a healthy internal policy debate. But how is China’s development model likely to evolve in the future, as external conditions pose new challenges to economic growth? A defining feature of China’s four decades of reform has been the state’s evolving role in the economy, about which there is still significant domestic disagreement. Some argue that the state – and, by extension, the Communist Party of China (CPC) – must retain a prominent role, in order to uphold the social stability needed to sustain economic development. Others claim that spurring the innovation needed to reach high-income status requires the state to be less like a market participant and more like a referee, regulator, and arbiter of economic and social priorities.
Jan 16th 2019
Consumer studies academics have been picking up on changing habits for a number of years. This includes an increased ambivalence towards consumption itself: people are buying less often and less overall. This is particularly true in the clothing industry, where research shows that millenials are especially unforthcoming – even after you factor in the shift to online retail. A lack of bricks and mortar did not, for instance, prevent online fashion retailer Asos from shocking the City with a profit warning shortly before Christmas. The American car industry is another harbinger of generational change: sales are stalling because younger people seem less interested in ownership. The average age of a new car buyer in the US was 50 in 2015. Or to give one more example, witness Apple’s recent trading problems. People are not only opting for cheaper smartphones, but they are keeping them for longer. If the world’s first company to pass the trillion dollar value mark is showing signs of struggling, we ought to take note.
Jan 15th 2019
[Eurozone] trades mainly within itself, re-invests its own savings, and doesn’t rely on large transfers into or out of other regions. So if another financial or commercial shock sends the rest of the world running backwards, the unloved single currency area may defy gravity as stubbornly as it resists reform.
Jan 11th 2019
Nine years ago, Britain generated nearly 75% of its electricity using natural gas and coal. In 2018, this dropped to under 45% – a remarkable transition away from fossil fuels in under a decade.:
Jan 10th 2019
What would have to happen for this to be a tranquil year economically, financially, and politically? Answer: a short list of threats to stability would have to be averted.
Jan 9th 2019
In the past, the US, despite all its own flaws and criminal conflicts, still stood as a force for good. An ideal of American openness and democracy was still worthy of admiration. At the same time, again as in the case of Western Europe, dependence on US military protection has had a less positive affect. It made Japan into a kind of vassal state; whatever the Americans wanted, Japan ends up having to do. This can have an infantilizing effect on politics. In the age of Trump, America is no longer so dependable. This might at least help to concentrate Japanese minds on how to get on in the world without the Americans. But the US has also ceased to be a model of freedom and openness. On the contrary, it has become an example of narrow nationalism, xenophobia, and isolationism. Japanese nationalists need no encouragement to follow this model. If they do so, Trump certainly will not stand in their way. They will echo the worst aspects of contemporary America – and throw away the best of what the US once had to offer.
Jan 8th 2019
Swedish academic Hans Rosling has identified a worrying trend: not only do many people across advanced economies have no idea that the world is becoming a much better place, but they actually even think the opposite. This is no wonder, when the news focuses on reporting catastrophes, terrorist attacks, wars and famines. Who wants to hear about the fact that every day some 200,000 people around the world are lifted above the US$2-a-day poverty line? Or that more than 300,000 people a day get access to electricity and clean water for the first time every day? These stories of people in low-income countries simply doesn’t make for exciting news coverage. But, as Rosling pointed out in his book Factfulness, it’s important to put all the bad news in perspective.
Jan 3rd 2019
If hardline Brexiteers aren’t willing to do what it takes to maintain a frictionless border with the EU in Ireland, they need to acknowledge the likely consequences. Northern Ireland will then want to choose, in a referendum, whether to remain in the UK or to unify with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member.........Such a step would be allowed under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended the civil war and included a promise from the UK, Ireland, and the EU to keep regulations aligned across Ireland. Indeed, that deal leaves open the possibility of a reunified Ireland, if majorities in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland decide, by referendum, that that is what they want. In 2016, Northern Ireland voted by a clear margin of 56%-44% to remain in the EU. Though the minority Conservative government is being propped up by the ten MPs representing Northern Ireland’s pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party, an even larger majority of Northern Irish voters would probably choose the EU today..........Last June, when asked about business leaders’ fears over Brexit, Johnson infamously declared, “Fuck business.” If he were honest, he would apply the same crude dismissiveness to Northern Ireland and Scotland. At least then it would be clear where the Brexiteers actually stand.
Jan 3rd 2019

Many years ago, I came across an pre-Islamic Arabic poem describing a camel running across the desert. Suddenly, the camel freezes in mid-stride.

Dec 28th 2018
Extract: "..........the eruption of the Yellow Vest protests [in France] was less about the fuel tax than what its introduction represented: the government’s indifference to the plight of the middle class outside France’s largest urban centers. With job and income polarization having increased across all developed economies in recent decades, the unrest in France should serve as a wake-up call to others............To be sure, France, like a number of other European countries, has its share of impediments to growth and employment, such as those rooted in the structure and regulation of labor markets. But any effort to address these issues must be coupled with measures that mitigate and eventually reverse the job and income polarization that has been fueling popular discontent and political instability."
Dec 27th 2018
A fog of political uncertainty hangs over Britain after Christmas. Only four things seem clear. First, the Conservative Party will have growing difficulty accommodating its fanatical English nationalist wing. Second, to save the UK from disaster, Parliament will have to get a grip on the process. Third, life outside the EU will, in any case, leave Britain poorer and less influential in the world. And, lastly, whatever the outcome, Brexit will be a divisive issue for years to come. The Brexiteers lied. The costs of leaving the EU were always destined to outweigh the benefits. Alas, the responsible, imaginative, and inclusive political leadership needed to minimize the damage is nowhere in sight.
Dec 19th 2018
Over the centuries, Jews have been blamed for all sorts of ills in Christian and Muslim societies, from the Great Plague of the fourteenth century to the financial crashes of modern times. In 1903, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, produced by Imperial Russia’s secret police, “exposed” a diabolical Jewish plot to achieve world domination by promoting liberalism – and became a pretext for anti-Semitism in Europe. These narratives endure to this day, only now they are being projected onto a single Jew: George Soros............A disciple of the philosopher Karl Popper, Soros has promoted open societies as the ultimate guarantee of freedom from tyranny and religious or ideological indoctrination.....
Dec 17th 2018
Theresa May has survived a vote of no confidence in her leadership but to quote the prime minister: “Nothing has changed.” The Conservative Party remains just as divided as it was before. While divisions over Europe have been very prominent recently, they have been a thorn in the side of the party leadership for many years now. That said, looking at the situation today it’s hard to imagine how these rival ideologies have managed to coexist within the same party for so long.