A selection from
MY DOUBLE LIFE: THE MEMOIRS OF SARAH BERNHARDT
Narrated by Vanessa Hart
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running time is 10 minutes
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ARRIVAL IN NEW YORK — 1880
Finally the ship arrived on October 27, at half-past six in the morning.
I was asleep, worn out by three days and nights of wild storms. My maid
had some difficulty in rousing me. I could not believe that we had
arrived, and I wanted to go on sleeping until the last minute. I had to
give in to the evidence, however, as the screw had stopped, and I heard
a sound of dull thuds echoing in the distance. I put my head out of my
port-hole, and saw some men endeavouring to make a passage for us
through the river. The Hudson was frozen hard, and the heavy vessel
could only advance with the aid of pick-axes cutting away the blocks of
This sudden arrival delighted me, and everything seemed to be
transformed in a minute. I forgot all my discomforts and the weariness
of the twelve days' crossing. The sun was rising, pale but rose-tinted,
dispersing the mists and shining over the ice, which, thanks to the
efforts of our pioneers, was splintered into a thousand luminous pieces.
I had entered the New World in the midst of a display of ice-fireworks.
It was fairy-like and somewhat crazy, but it seemed to me that it must
be a good omen.
I took two days' rest before going to the theatre, for I could feel the
movement of the ship all the time: my head was dizzy, and it seemed to
me as though the ceiling moved up and down. The twelve days on the sea
had quite upset my health. I sent a line to the stage manager, telling
him that we would rehearse on Wednesday, and on that day, as soon as
luncheon was over, I went to Booth's Theatre, where our performances
were to take place. At the stage-door I saw a compact, swaying crowd,
very much animated and gesticulating. These strange-looking individuals
did not belong to the world of actors. They were not reporters either,
for I knew them too well, alas! to be mistaken in them. They were not
there out of curiosity either, these people, for they seemed too much
occupied, and then, too, there were only men. When my carriage drew up,
one of them rushed forward to the door of it and then returned to the
swaying crowd. "Here she is! Here she is!" I heard, and then all these
common men, with their white neckties and questionable-looking hands,
with their coats flying open, and trousers the knees of which were worn
and dirty-looking, crowded behind me into the narrow passage leading to
the staircase. I did not feel very easy in my mind, and I mounted the
On Monday, November 8, at 8.30, the curtain rose for the first
performance of Adrienne Lecouvreur. The house was crowded, and the
seats, which had been sold to the highest bidders and then sold by them
again, had fetched exorbitant prices. I was awaited with impatience and
curiosity, but not with any sympathy. There were no young girls present,
as the piece was too immoral. Poor Adrienne Lecouvreur!
The audience was very polite to the artistes of my company, but rather
impatient to see the strange person who had been described to them.
In the play the curtain falls at the end of the first act without
Adrienne having appeared. A person in the house, very much annoyed,
asked to see Mr. Henry Abbey. "I want my money back," he said, "as la
Bernhardt is not in every act." Abbey refused to return the money to the
extraordinary individual, and as the curtain was going up he hurried
back to take possession of his seat again. My appearance was greeted by
several rounds of applause, which I believe had been paid for in advance
by Abbey and Jarrett. I commenced, and the sweetness of my voice in the
fable of the "Two Pigeons" worked the miracle. The whole house this time
burst out into hurrahs. A current of sympathy was established between
the public and myself. Instead of the hysterical skeleton that had been
announced to them, they had before them a very frail-looking creature
with a sweet voice. The fourth act was applauded, and Adrienne's
rebellion against the Princesse de Bouillon stirred the whole house.
Finally in the fifth act, when the unfortunate artiste is dying,
poisoned by her rival, there was quite a manifestation, and every one
was deeply moved. At the end of the third act all the young men were
sent off by the ladies to find all the musicians they could get
together, and to my surprise and delight on arriving at my hotel a
charming serenade was played for me while I was at supper. The crowd had
assembled under my windows at the Albemarle Hotel, and I was obliged to
go out on to the balcony several times to bow and to thank this public,
which I had been told I should find cold and prejudiced against me. From
the bottom of my heart I also thanked all my detractors and slanderers,
as it was through them that I had had the pleasure of fighting, with the
certainty of conquering. The victory was all the more enjoyable as I had
not dared to hope for it.
I gave twenty-seven performances in New York. The plays were Adrienne
Lecouvreur, Froufrou, Hernani, La Dame aux Camélias, Le Sphinx,
and L'Etrangère. The average receipts were 20,342 francs for each
performance, including matinées. The last performance was given on
Saturday, December 4, as a matinée, for my company had to leave that
night for Boston, and I had reserved the evening to go to Mr. Edison's
at Menlo Park, where I had a reception worthy of fairyland.
Oh, that matinée of Saturday, December 4! I can never forget it. When
I got to the theatre to dress it was mid-day, for the matinée was to
commence at half-past one. My carriage stopped, not being able to get
along, for the street was filled by ladies, sitting on chairs which they
had borrowed from the neighbouring shops, or on folding seats which they
had brought themselves. The play was La Dame aux Camélias. I had to
get out of my carriage and walk about twenty-five yards on foot in order
to get to the stage door. It took me twenty-five minutes to do it.
People shook my hands and begged me to come back. One lady took off her
brooch and pinned it in my mantle — a modest brooch of amethysts
surrounded by fine pearls, but certainly for the giver the brooch had
its value. I was stopped at every step. One lady pulled out her
note-book and begged me to write my name. The idea took like lightning.
Small boys under the care of their parents wanted me to write my name on
their cuffs. My arms were full of small bouquets which had been pushed
into my hands. I felt behind me some one tugging at the feather in my
hat. I turned round sharply. A woman with a pair of scissors in her hand
had tried to cut off a lock of my hair, but she only succeeded in
cutting the feather out of my hat. In vain Jarrett signalled and
shouted. I could not get along. They sent for the police, who delivered
me, but without any ceremony either for my admirers or for myself. Those
policemen were real brutes, and they made me very angry. I played La
Dame aux Camélias, and I counted seventeen calls after the third act
and twenty-nine after the fifth. In consequence of the cheering and
calls the play had lasted an hour longer than usual, and I was half dead
with fatigue. I was just about to go to my carriage to get back to my
hotel, when Jarrett came to tell me that there were more than 50,000
people waiting outside. I fell back on a chair, tired and disheartened.
"Oh, I will wait till the crowd has dispersed. I am tired out I can do
But Henry Abbey had an inspiration of genius.
"Come," said he to my sister. "Put on Madame's hat and boa and take my
arm. And take also these bouquets — give me what you cannot carry. And
now we will go to your sister's carriage and make our bow."
He said all this in English, and Jarrett translated it to my sister, who
willingly accepted her part in this little comedy. During this time
Jarrett and I got into Abbey's carriage, which was stationed in front of
the theatre where no one was waiting. And it was fortunate we took this
course, for my sister only got back to the Albemarle Hotel an hour
later, very tired, but very much amused. Her resemblance to myself, my
hat, my boa, and the darkness of night had been the accomplices of the
little comedy which we had offered to my enthusiastic public.
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