Even now, Bernhardt in the spotlight

Special to The Times

WHEN Sarah Bernhardt had herself photographed at 35 in her coffin, she was already well on her way to becoming the best-known person of her era. By the time the legendary French actress truly died at 79, she had performed on stages all over the world, including four “farewell” tours of America, made eight films and endorsed face cream, cars and Bronx real estate. Incomparably famous for the 60 years she was on stage and screen, she saw life as one long photo op and enthusiastically pioneered the cult of celebrity.

“Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama,” on view at the Jewish Museum through April 2, chronicles Bernhardt as star, personality, tastemaker and icon. Filling museum galleries with paintings, posters, sculpture, photographs, costumes, jewels and souvenirs, exhibition co-curators Carol Ockman and Kenneth E. Silver make their point that for Bernhardt, “too much was always just enough.”

Ockman and Silver have accumulated 250 objects that adorned, captured or were created by Bernhardt. There are sculptures she made and sculptures of her, her first film and the film of her funeral, the ermine capelet she wore offstage and her dagger used as Hamlet onstage. Gorgeous jewelry by Lalique is in one gallery; postcards, cufflinks and stamps adorned with Bernhardt’s face are in another.

Los Angeles photography dealer Peter Fetterman, who collects photographs of Bernhardt, calls her “the Madonna of her day. She was a rock star. She was extremely beautiful, and she was larger than life, which added to the legend.”


Bernhardt was born in 1844, the daughter and niece of courtesans. Her illegitimate son Maurice was said to have been fathered by the Belgian prince de Ligne. Among her infamous possessions were not just her coffin but a human skull inscribed by Victor Hugo -- which is in the exhibition -- as well as a rug made of a bear she may or may not have shot in the Andes. During the Franco-Prussian War, she turned her Odeon Theatre in Paris into a makeshift hospital for wounded soldiers.

She was no less distinctive onstage. In their 1991 book, “The Divine Sarah,” biographers Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale note, among other things, that she was the only actress in history “to triumph as both Ophelia and Hamlet.” She traveled the U.S. in her own train, “Le Sarah Bernhardt,” and her vaudeville tours landed her on programs with the likes of W.C. Fields and Jack Benny. The amputation of her right leg in 1915 hardly slowed her down, and when she died in 1923, she was still performing and, in fact, working on her eighth film, “La Voyante” (The Fortune-Teller).

Bernhardt wrote several books including a memoir and, fortunately for her biographers, was quite a letter writer. Admirers and critics alike are quoted in the lively exhibition catalog -- among them Sigmund Freud, Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain. Glenda Jackson played her in the 1976 film “The Incredible Sarah,” and such actresses as Zoe Caldwell, Lee Remick and Liliane Montevecchi portrayed her on television.

Supporter of Dreyfus


SO why do a show at the Jewish Museum? It was a chance to explore not only celebrity, says associate curator Karen Levitov, but also Bernhardt’s Jewishness. Although the actress was baptized and raised Catholic -- a rosary given her by Pope Leo XIII is in the show -- Bernhardt was born to a Jewish mother. Levitov says Bernhardt talked publicly about her mother and grandmother “being of the Israelite faith,” was considered Jewish by supporters and adversaries alike and was the subject of many anti-Semitic caricatures.

Bernhardt was also a staunch supporter of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish French soldier falsely convicted of treason in 1895, and defended by Emile Zola in his legendary “J’accuse” of 1898. A supportive note Bernhardt sent Zola appeared in a 1987 Jewish Museum exhibition on the Dreyfus case, sparking curatorial interest. Nearly 20 years later, the document is in this exhibition as well.

The exhibition, which the curators believe to be the first U.S. show on Bernhardt in a major American museum, was four years in the making. Photographs and film clips illustrate Bernhardt’s classic dramatic style, honed at Paris’ Comedie Francaise, in such signature roles as Marguerite Gautier in “La Dame aux Camelias” (The Lady of the Camellias), which the curators say she performed more than 3,000 times, and her role as Napoleon’s son in “L’Aiglon” (The Eaglet). Museum visitors can also hear a recording of her voice, made around 1900, from “L’Aiglon.”

Guiding a visitor through the galleries shortly before the show opened, Silver pulls out photo after photo of their subject. “Keep in mind that Bernhardt is born within five years of the invention of photography,” says Silver, chairman of NYU’s Department of Fine Arts.

“She grew up with photography and instinctively sensed what its possibilities might be. Among the most photographed women in the world, she certainly knows how to pose for photographers the same way she knows how to act on the stage or in movies.”

So we find not just three rare prints of an early celebrity portrait by the French photographer Felix Nadar, but also a photograph of her with Harry and Bess Houdini and tourist-style photographs of her U.S. travels. Melandri’s 1880 photograph of “Sarah Bernhardt Posing in Her Coffin” is on view, and so is an image published in Literary Digest of amputee Bernhardt in her sedan chair on the front during World War I.

Besides paintings and lithographs by such artists as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Georges Clairin and, later, Andy Warhol, Bernhardt was also immortalized in a series of Art Nouveau posters by the Czech-born artist Alphonse Mucha. “How clever of her to have found her way to Mucha, the pioneer of Art Nouveau and the greatest poster designer of her era,” Silver says. “Once again It speaks of her uncanny ability to move toward that which will be theatrical, exciting and of quality.”

‘The first mass-media star’


FRIENDS since graduate school, Ockman and Silver met at Yale in 1973. Ockman, a professor of art history at Williams College, wrote an essay about Bernhardt in 1995 asking, “When is a Jewish star just a star?” and has long studied the actress and her times. Silver says Ockman was so enthusiastic about the show that four years ago he asked if he could work with her on it. “Great stars attract endless numbers of things,” Silver says. “It is like gathering up stardust. Our job became how to organize this constellation.”

Don’t forget the kitsch, Ockman interjects. Bernhardt “could commission Lalique and Mucha, but she also had these objects that were in very bad taste. One of our big points is how she bridged high and low art. She was this great tragedienne of the Comedie Francaise grounded in Racine, but also really involved with popular culture. Sarah Bernhardt is the first great legitimate actress to become a movie star, and her willingness to embrace the media and cross the line into pop culture made her the first mass-media star.”

“Sarahmania” tchotchkes and product endorsements attest to her promotional acumen, and Bernhardt was apparently always ready for the camera. Photographed in her artist’s studio, for instance, sculptor Bernhardt is shown wearing a white satin pantsuit, reportedly designed by couturier Charles Frederick Worth, and slippers with butterfly wings. Her work was included in Paris salons over the years and is represented in the exhibition by such Bernhardt creations as an Art Nouveau sculpture, a bust of the playwright Victorien Sardou and an inkwell self-portrait with griffin’s body, bat’s wings and a fish’s tail.

Bernhardt’s prized Art Nouveau snake bracelet, designed for her by Mucha and made by Georges Fouquet, is on loan from a Japanese museum, and other objects have been gathered from public and private collections in Paris, London, New York and elsewhere. One of her handkerchiefs embroidered with “Sarah” was loaned to the exhibition by actress Cherry Jones and has been passed from one actress to another along a line of luminaries including Helen Hayes, Julie Harris and Jones. Paris’ Bibliotheque Nationale de France was a major contributor to the exhibition, says Ockman, who estimates that nearly half of the objects came from there. Costumes from such performances as Theodora, Joan of Arc and Phaedra are on view, as are embroidered kid gloves, a feathered fan and topaz ring from Bernhardt’s personal collection. “We really tried to show examples from both her personal wardrobe and theatrical, and the way they bleed into each other,” Ockman says. “There’s no private Bernhardt and no public Bernhardt.”

The curators made several trips to Paris searching for unique items for the show. On one excursion, they were referred to a retirement home for actors an hour outside Paris, where they found a double eagle crown inset with opals, amethysts, and turquoise from “Theodora” and also the dagger and sheath from “Hamlet.” In the home of a Paris collector, they discovered a 9-foot standing mirror made by the 19th century furniture maker Edouard Lievre and decorated with enamel panels and Bernhardt’s motto, “Quand meme,” which Silver translates as “No matter what.”

The exhibition’s final gallery features Bernhardt references from films starring the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Ginger Rogers, Nicole Kidman and, of course, Sandra Bernhard. In Billy Wilder’s 1955 film “The Seven Year Itch, " Monroe is shown asking Tom Ewell if Bernhardt was “magnificent.”

Citing that reference, Ockman says, “When one examines her life and career, you can come to no other conclusion.”