Drama Queen

Article excerpt

Byline: Jeremy McCarter

Sarah Bernhardt was part Gaga, part Streep, even part Palin--100 years before any of them.

It's tempting to think that the gossip magazines and Web sites, the starlets and the heiresses, all the pieces of the modern celebrity machine, refine their dark arts over time. But they don't. Next to Sarah Bernhardt, our celebrities and the people who make a living off them look like so many pale knockoffs--like yokels.

Much of what the great 19th-century French actress did would be outre even now. She kept a coffin in her bedroom and rewrote fashion's rules: she sometimes wore a hat crowned by a stuffed bat. Her private zoo, parts of which followed her on her many trips around the world, included an alligator, a cheetah, a monkey named Darwin, and a boa (until it swallowed some cushions and had to be shot--by her). One of her many lovers was Proust's model for Charles Swann, another helped to inspire Dracula, and the emperor of France was likely a third. When she visited the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, her curtsy was cut short. "No," said the tsar as he lifted her up, "it is we who must bow to you."

Bernhardt captured the world's imagination because she had a flair for self-promotion--Henry James called her "the muse of the newspaper"--but also because she was a genius. As Robert Gottlieb recounts in Sarah, his immensely entertaining new biography, she didn't just out-Gaga Gaga, she out-Streeped Streep. She brought to the stage a revolutionary naturalism that was more vibrant, modern, and dynamic than the usual declamatory style. Her roles proved as distinctive as the rest of her choices. She played Hamlet when she was 56 and Joan of Arc as a great-grandmother. When her company took The Merchant of Venice on a tour of America, she alternated Shylock and Portia. That actually happened.

Though Bernhardt's life was messy and colorful enough to fill out a massive biography, Gottlieb's is modest, in both length and tone. Much of his work here lies in sifting through Bernhardt's version of her story, discerning what really happened amid her "obfuscations, avoidances, lapses of memory, disingenuous revelations, and just plain lies." Faced with a life as improbable as hers, he shrewdly relies on testimony from contemporary witnesses. To watch her play Phedre, Lytton Strachey wrote, was "to plunge shuddering through infinite abysses, and to look, if only for a moment, upon eternal light. …