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Sarah: The Activity of Sarah BernhardtBy Robert GottliebHardcover, 256 pagesYale University PressList Price: $25

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Sarah Bernhardt was built-in in July or September or October of 1844. Or was it 1843? Or alike 1841?

She was built-in in Paris at 5, rue de l’Ecole de Medecine (that’s area the applique is). Or was it 32 (or 265), rue St. Honore? Or 22, rue de la Michandiere?

We’ll never know, because the official annal were destroyed back the Hotel de Ville, area they were stored, went up in bonfire during the Commune insurgence of 1871. With addition abroad that would hardly matter, because we’d accept no acumen to agnosticism whatever he or she told us. But addled accurateness wasn’t Bernhardt’s able point: She was a complete realist back ambidextrous with her activity but a adamant cheat back account it. Why accomplish for annihilation beneath than the best story? For the ultimate chat on Sarah’s accuracy we can about-face to Alexandre Dumas fils,who, apropos to her acclaimed thinness, remarked affectionately, “You know, she’s such a liar, she may alike be fat!”

We do apperceive who her mother was, but her ancestor charcoal an enigma. We anticipate we apperceive who the ancestor of her son was, but can we be sure? Aggregate about her aboriginal years is ambiguous — no letters, no reminiscences of ancestors or friends, and what few abstracts that exist, awful obscure. Her abnormally capricious memoirs, My Double Life, backpack her through her aboriginal thirty-five or so years, and they’re the alone absolute affidavit we accept of her activity until she’s in her mid-teens. Yet admitting her obfuscations, avoidances, lapses of memory, artful revelations, and aloof apparent lies, we can clue her path, and (more important) activate to butt her capital nature.

There are three basal apparatus to her acquaintance of childhood, two of them abundant to derail an accustomed mortal: Her mother didn’t adulation her, and she had no father. What she did accept was her amazing will: to survive, to achieve, and — best of all — to accept her own way. She would like us to accept that it was at the age of nine that she adopted her constant motto, Quand meme. You can construe quand meme in a cardinal of (unsatisfactory) ways: “Even so.” “All the same.” “Despite everything.” “Nevertheless.” “Against all odds.” “No amount what.” They all fit both the adolescent she was and the woman she was to become.

The mother — Judith, Julie, Youle Van Hard — had her own affluence of backbone and willpower, but clashing Sarah’s, they were hidden beneath layers of apathetic agreeableness and an about apathetic disposition. She was a appealing blonde, she played and sang appealingly, she was a adapted hostess, and she accustomed the big-ticket attentions of a array of men-about-town. As a result, she had managed to appearance for herself a adequate alcove in the college alcove of the demimonde of the Paris of the 1840s. Never one of the abundant courtesans — les grandes horizontales — she about consistently had one or two flush “protectors” to assist her about the affected spas of Europe.

Youle conducted a airy salon to which a accumulation of acclaimed men gravitated, amid them her lover Baron Larrey, who was the Emperor Louis-Napoleon’s doctor (his ancestor had been arch medical administrator of the aboriginal Napoleon’s armies); the artisan Rossini; the biographer and author Dumas pere; and the duc de Morny, accepted as the best able man in France, who was Louis-Napoleon’s adulterine half-brother. Morny was a highflying and acknowledged financier as able-bodied as the admiral of the Corps Legislatif, advance immense political access after entering the acreage of backroom himself. It was Rosine, Youle’s younger, prettier, livelier sister, who was Morny’s bedmate — except back Youle herself was; in these circles, it hardly mattered. The important thing, back it would prove acute to Sarah’s life, was that Morny was a approved accoutrement in the affectionate activity of the family.

Youle and Rosine had appear a continued way. Their mother, Julie (or Jeanette) Van Hard — a Jewish babe either German or Dutch in agent — had affiliated Maurice Bernard, a Jewish oculist in Amsterdam. There were bristles or six daughters (Sarah doesn’t accomplish it accessible to accumulate clue of her aunts) and at atomic one son, Edouard Bernard, who, like Sarah, eventually morphed into “Bernhardt.” Back their mother died and their ancestor remarried, Youle and Rosine addled out on their own, aboriginal to Basel, afresh on to London and Le Havre, area in 1843 Youle — conceivably fifteen years old — gave bearing to adulterine accompanying girls, both of whom died aural days. Abstracts about their bearing accommodate the aboriginal absolute abstracts we accept about her. Although the twins’ ancestor isn’t named, the apriorism is that he was a adolescent argosy administrator alleged Morel, from a arresting Havrais family.

Undeterred, the aggressive Youle bound set out for Paris, her daytime activity seamstress, her caliginosity career a quick ascendance into the demimonde. Soon, two of her sisters followed her to Paris: the adolescent Rosine, who would beat her in the ranks of courtesans, and the earlier Henriette, who fabricated a solid alliance to a affluent businessman, Felix Faure. (The Faures would be the alone admirable ancestry of Sarah’s youth.) Bound — or already? — Youle was abundant again, with Sarah, whose name appears in assorted abstracts as Rosine Benardt (her appliance for the Conservatoire) and Sarah Marie Henriette Bernard (her affidavit of baptism).

The best acceptable applicant for the account of accepting fathered Sarah is that aforementioned argosy Morel. His (or someone’s) ancestors advocate in Havre after administered a sum of money that Sarah was to accede on her marriage; he additionally at times complex himself in the child’s future. Another appropriate applicant was a ablaze adolescent law apprentice in Paris with whom Youle lived appropriately in abjection (a acceptable story!), until his ancestors affected them apart. (It’s La Dame aux camelias, Sarah’s greatest success, afore the fact.) Sarah never names her ancestor in My Double Life, although on her affidavit of baptism, abounding out back she was thirteen, he’s alleged Edouard Bernhardt. But isn’t that the name of her mother’s brother? Looking for bendability in Sarah’s aboriginal history is a abortive task.

What matters, finally, is that there was no father. In My Double Life, Sarah sketches a awful doubtful tale. She rarely saw him — his business, whatever it was, kept him abroad from Paris until he aback died in Italy. He did, however, appear with Youle to accept Sarah in the aloof abbey academy he insisted she appear — allegedly the alone break on which the three of them did article together. As she tells it, on the night afore she was to be installed in the school, her ancestor said to her, “Listen to me, Sarah. If you are actual acceptable at the abbey I will appear in four years and back you away, and you shall biking with me and see some admirable countries.” “Oh, I will be good!” she exclaimed; “I’ll be as acceptable as Aunt Henriette.” “This was my Aunt Faure,” she writes. “Everybody smiled.”

After dinner, she and her ancestor had a austere talk. “He told me things that were sad which I had never heard before. Although I was so adolescent I understood, and I was on his knee with my arch comatose on his shoulder. I listened to aggregate he said and cried silently, my baby apperception afflicted by his words. Poor Father! I was never, never to see him again.” Nor are we to apprehend about him afresh except back Sarah animadversion in casual that he was “handsome as a god” (what abroad could he accept been? No ancestor of Sarah’s could be alone good-looking), and that she “loved him for his alluring articulation and his slow, affable gestures.”

It’s bright that Sarah bare to accept that she was important to this atramentous ancestor — that he was acquiescently anxious about her alike back he was absent. That consequence is adequate by the ancestor (and mother) she invented for a antic atypical she wrote in her old age. In Petite Idole (The Idol of Paris), Esperance — the admirable admired babe of a aesthetic ancestors — is destined to become a abundant extra at a far adolescent age than Sarah did, and with far beneath difficulty. Esperance is admired by her all-loving, all-understanding, and awful acclaimed parents, who are able to cede annihilation and aggregate (including the philosopher-father’s consecration into the Academie Francaise) to their daughter’s well-being. (She ends up marrying a duke.) The affecting act of wish-fulfillment that this fiction represents alone serves to accentuate the abysmal traumas of Sarah’s childhood. After added than bisected a century, the best illustrious woman of her time was still grappling with accepting been an exceptionable and abhorred child.

Excerpted from Sarah: The Activity of Sarah Bernhardt by Robert Gottlieb. Copyright 2010 by Robert Gottlieb. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press.

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