Ghosts

Robert Gottlieb has been editor of The New Yorker, as well as editor-in-chief of Alfred A. Knopf and Simon and Schuster. This is an edited extract from his latest book, Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt, published by Yale University Press in October.

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Fables grown in a boudoir haze

Sarah Bernhardt was born in July or September or October of 1844. Or was it 1843? Or even 1841? She was born in Paris at 5, rue d'École de Médecine (that's where the plaque is). Or was it 32 (or 265), rue St. Honoré? Or 22, rue de la Michandière?

We'll never know, because the official records were destroyed when the Hôtel de Ville, where they were stored, went up in flames during the Commune uprising of 1871. With someone else that would hardly matter, because we'd have no reason to doubt whatever he or she told us. But dull accuracy wasn't Bernhardt's strong point: she was a complete realist when dealing with her life but a relentless fabulist when recounting it. Why settle for anything less than the best story? For the ultimate word on Sarah's veracity we can turn to Alexandre Dumas fils, who, referring to her famous thinness, remarked affectionately, "You know, she's such a liar, she may even be fat!"

We do know who her mother was, but her father remains an enigma. We think we know who the father of her son was, but can we be sure? Everything about her early years is elusive – no letters, no reminiscences of family or friends, and what few documents that exist, highly obscure. Her singularly unreliable memoirs, My Double Life, carry her through her first thirty-five or so years, and they're the only direct testimony we have of her life until she's in her mid-teens. Yet despite her obfuscations, avoidances, lapses of memory, disingenuous revelations, and just plain lies, we can track her path, and (more important) begin to grasp her essential nature.

There are three basic components to her experience of childhood, two of them enough to derail an ordinary mortal: her mother didn't love her, and she had no father. What she did have was her extraordinary will: to survive, to achieve, and – most of all – to have her own way. She would like us to believe that it was at the age of nine that she adopted her lifelong motto, Quand même. You can translate quand même in a number of (unsatisfactory) ways: "Even so." "All the same." "Despite everything." "Nevertheless." "Against all odds." "No matter what." They all fit both the child she was and the woman she was to become.

The mother – Judith, Julie, Youle Van Hard – had her own reserves of strength and willpower, but unlike Sarah's, they were hidden under layers of lazy charm and an almost phlegmatic disposition. She was a pretty blonde, she played and sang appealingly, she was a congenial hostess, and she welcomed the expensive attentions of a variety of men-about-town. As a result, she had managed to fashion for herself a comfortable niche in the higher reaches of the demimonde of the Paris of the 1840s. Never one of the great courtesans – les grandes horizontales – she nevertheless always had one or two well-to-do "protectors" to squire her around the elegant spas of Europe.

Youle conducted a relaxed salon to which a group of distinguished men gravitated. Two of her sisters followed her to Paris: the younger Rosine, who would surpass her in the ranks of courtesans, and the older Henriette, who made a solid marriage to a well-off businessman, Felix Faure. (The Faures would be the only respectable bourgeoisie of Sarah's youth.)

The most likely candidate for the honour of having fathered Sarah is a young naval officer named Morel, from a prominent Havrais family. His (or someone's) lawyer in Havre later administered a sum of money that Sarah was to inherit on her marriage; he also at times involved himself in the child's future. Another suggested candidate was a brilliant young law student in Paris with whom Youle lived happily in poverty (a likely story!), until his family forced them apart. (It's La Dame aux camélias, Sarah's greatest success, before the fact.) Sarah never names her father in My Double Life, although on her certificate of baptism, filled out when she was thirteen, he's called Édouard Bernhardt. But isn't that the name of her mother's brother? Looking for consistency in Sarah's early history is a fruitless task.

What matters, finally, is that there was no father. In My Double Life, Sarah sketches a highly implausible tale. She rarely saw him – his business, whatever it was, kept him away from Paris until he suddenly died in Italy. He did, however, come with Youle to enroll Sarah in the aristocratic convent school he insisted she attend – apparently the only occasion on which the three of them did something together. As she tells it, on the night before she was to be installed in the school, her father said to her, "Listen to me, Sarah. If you are very good at the convent I will come in four years and fetch you away, and you shall travel with me and see some beautiful countries." "Oh, I will be good!" she exclaimed; "I'll be as good as Aunt Henriette."

"This was my Aunt Faure," she writes. "Everybody smiled." After dinner, she and her father had a serious talk. "He told me things that were sad which I had never heard before. Although I was so young I understood, and I was on his knee with my head resting on his shoulder. I listened to everything he said and cried silently, my childish mind distressed by his words. Poor Father! I was never, never to see him again." Nor are we to hear about him again except when Sarah remarks in passing that he was "handsome as a god" (what else could he have been? No parent of Sarah's could be merely good-looking), and that she "loved him for his seductive voice and his slow, gentle gestures."

It's clear that Sarah needed to believe that she was important to this shadowy father – that he was lovingly concerned about her even when he was absent. That impression is strengthened by the father (and mother) she invented for a ridiculous novel she wrote in her old age. In Petite Idole (The Idol of Paris), Espérance – the beautiful beloved daughter of a refined family – is destined to become a great actress at a far younger age than Sarah did, and with far less difficulty. Espérance is worshipped by her all-loving, all-understanding, and highly distinguished parents, who are prepared to sacrifice anything and everything (including the philosopher-father's induction into the Académie Française) to their daughter's wellbeing. (She ends up marrying a duke.) The pathetic act of wish-fulfilment that this fiction represents only serves to underline the deep traumas of Sarah's childhood. After more than half a century, the most illustrious woman of her time was still grappling with having been an unwanted and unloved child.

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