Monday, July 27, 2015
THE LAST DAYS OF SARAH BERNHARDT
Bernhardt's close friends included several artists, most notably Gustave Doré and Georges Clairin, and actors Mounet-Sully and Lou Tellegen, as well as the famous French author Victor Hugo. Alphonse Mucha based several of his iconic Art Nouveau works on her. Her friendship with Louise Abbéma (1853–1927), a French impressionist painter, some nine years her junior, was so close and passionate that the two women were rumored to be lovers. In 1990, a painting by Abbéma, depicting the two on a boat ride on the lake in the bois de Boulogne, was donated to the Comédie-Française. The accompanying letter stated that the painting was "Peint par Louise Abbéma, le jour anniversaire de leur liaison amoureuse" (loosely translated: "Painted by Louise Abbéma on the anniversary of their love affair.")
In 1905, while performing in Victorien Sardou's La Tosca in Teatro Lírico do Rio de Janeiro, Bernhardt injured her right knee when jumping off the parapet in the final scene. The leg never healed properly. By 1915, gangrene set in and her entire right leg was amputated; she was required to use a wheelchair for several months. Bernhardt reportedly refused a $10,000 offer by a showman to display her amputated leg as a medical curiosity. (While P.T. Barnum is usually cited as the one to have made the offer, he had been dead since 1891.)
She continued her career, sometimes without using a wooden prosthetic limb, which she did not like. She carried out a successful tour of America in 1915, and on returning to France she played in her own productions almost continuously until her death. Later successes included Daniel (1920), La Gloire (1921), and Régine Armand (1922). According to Arthur Croxton, the manager of London's Coliseum, the amputation was not apparent during her performances, which were done with the use of an artificial limb. Her physical condition may have limited her mobility on the stage, but the charm of her voice, which had altered little with age, ensured her triumphs.
Sarah Bernhardt died from uremia following kidney failure in 1923. Newspaper reports stated she died "peacefully, without suffering, in the arms of her son." She is believed to have been 78 years old. She was the Meryl Streep of her generation even before Meryl Streep was even a thought...