cover image My Double Life: The Memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt

My Double Life: The Memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt

Sarah Bernhardt. State University of New York Press, $29.95 (345pp) ISBN 978-0-7914-4054-4

The most tempestuous and possibly the most famous actress of her time, Bernhardt (1844-1923) kept a coffin by her bedroom window in which she lay ""to learn my parts."" Needless to say, the border between acting and life was tenuous for her. Bernhardt's two-volume memoir was originally published in English in an anonymous translation in 1907; this new translation, gracefully accomplished despite occasional anachronisms (""gofer""), is an abridgment of the first volume. Bernhardt, illegitimate although with some family money on both sides, is presented as both melodramatic and frustratingly discreet. We never learn the identity of her father, nor anything significant about her son Maurice's birth (she doesn't even mention that he was illegitimate). A husband, unnamed, emerges only once from the shadows. Still, Bernhardt writes vividly and with apparent honesty about her ""thin and sorrowful visage,"" her troublesome failures to abide by contracts, and occasions when she ""performed very badly."" Most memorable is the German siege of Paris in 1870- 1871, when she turned her theater, the Odeon, into a military hospital, scrounged for provisions in the isolated city and burned the seats and props for warmth. Despite her failure to deliver on the teasing promise of her title, Bernhardt can be quite winning. She concludes by remarking, ""My life, which I had at first expected to be very short, now seemed likely to be very very long; and it gave me great joy to think of the infernal displeasure that would cause my enemies."" (Mar.)