SARAH.Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale.Knopf.439...

THE DIVINE

October 06, 1991|By Judy Rose | Judy Rose,Knight-Ridder News Service

THE DIVINE SARAH.

Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale.

Knopf.

439 pages. $30. The exotic package of genius, talent, flamboyance, lies, glamour and self-promotion that was French actress Sarah Bernhardt has annoyed or fascinated biographers for 110 years.

Robert Fizdale and the late Arthur Gold are relentless researchers and unabashed fans. Their biography, at least the 20th on Bernhardt -- not counting the five books penned by the divine one herself -- is rich in personal detail and delivered wryly but affectionately.

Born in 1844, Bernhardt was the oldest of three daughters of a successful courtesan, Youle Bernard, a Jewish Dutch woman who moved to Paris with her sister, Rosine. Whoever Sarah's father was, he was not part of her life, though she invented a loving father for one autobiography. Youle was cool; she boarded out her daughter for years at a time.

As a teen, Sarah was skinny, homely, sick and self-dramatizing. First the Jewish girl wanted to be a nun, then an actress. Her mother and the powerful men who were her patrons insisted Sarah had no talent or beauty and tried to arrange a young marriage.

She showed them. She failed repeatedly before overcoming bad casting, bad costumes, bad nerves and hostile critics.

From her middle 20s until near her death in 1923 at 79, Bernhardt lit the stage with her performances and lit France with the glow of her candle burning at both ends. She was elegant, beautiful after all and more natural than the declamatory actors who were in style at the time.

Like her mother and aunt, Sarah was a courtesan until her middle years, when she began running theaters for profit and taking lovers just for sport.

Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Oscar Wilde, Jean Cocteau and Marcel Proust were among her friends. Victorien Sardou wrote "La Tosca" for her; for her, too, Wilde wrote "Salome," and Dumas "La Dame aux Camellias." Her lovers included artists and royalty of the day. But she loved only herself and her illegitimate son, Maurice, whom she supported extravagantly.

She married at 37, but actor Jacques Damala was a rotter who could not be faithful, curb his gambling or stay off drugs. Often broke, Bernhardt would tour England or America to replenish her purse.

Her leg was amputated when she was 72, and Bernhardt refused to use the clumsy wooden legs of the day, but had herself carried on a thronelike litter. Wearing garish makeup, she continued to perform the roles of young heroines and to take young lovers.

"The Divine Sarah" doubtlessly will be compared to Cornelia Otis Skinner's 1967 best seller, "Madame Sarah." Skinner's book is more snide, less authoritative. Gold and Mr. Fizdale convince us not only that Sarah Bernhardt was a great actress but that she deserved yet another biography.

Wry, affectionate biography of Sarah Bernhardt

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