What Can Be Done with Sarah?
You are just the huckleberry
Of our dreams . . .
—Anonymous, “An Ode to Sara”
Sarah Bernhardt claimed that when she was three years old, she fell out of her highchair and into a burning hearth. Acting fast, her nurse snatched her from the fire and plunged her into a pail of fresh milk. Dieu merci! The nurse, an old farm woman, treated Sarah’s burns in the only way she knew, by spreading butter on them. She also sent for the little girl’s mother.
Soon, there she was: golden-haired, showy, and looking like a saint to Sarah’s eyes. Once she was sure that her daughter would be fine, Sarah’s mother left the farm in northern France where the aging couple—the nurse and her husband—looked after the child for a fee.
Sarah’s beautiful mother! Her name was Judith, but she went by Youle, or sometimes Julie. She used the last name Van Hard, but the family name was closer to Bernard or Bernardt. Sarah would spell it Bernhardt. Sarah’s mother had been born into a Jewish family in the Netherlands. She and her sister Rosine left home as young teenagers. They made their way to Switzerland, London, and finally Le Havre, on France’s northern coast. Little is known about Youle’s early life, but records show that in Le Havre she gave birth to twin girls, who soon died.
Sarah Bernhardt’s first home was a Brittany farmhouse with a kitchen hearth much like this one.
The sisters moved on to Paris, where Youle found work as a seamstress. At sixteen she had another baby, a girl who lived. Sarah Bernhardt said that she was born on October 22, 1844, and maybe she was. A fire destroyed her birth certificate, so she can only be taken at her word.
In Paris, Youle and Rosine slipped into the demimonde.This was a level of society that thrived apart from “respectable” city life. Devoted to creativity and erotic pleasure, the demimonde had no physical boundaries; it was defined by its live-and-let-live approach to life. Proper ladies never ventured into the demimonde, although their husbands might seek its delights. Artists, writers, and performers frequented its dance halls. Gay men and lesbians found acceptance there. The demimonde was the world of the courtesans. These women earned a good living by offering companionship and sex to men who paid them handsomely. This was the life that Youle and Rosine found. Another sister, Henriette, also lived in France, but she had married a businessman and lived a conventional life.
Men commonly visited sex workers in the cities of nineteenth-century France. Often, a young man went to a house of prostitution for the first time with his father. This practice was considered part of a youth’s education, a way of teaching him about sex and female bodies. It was thought important for boys to acquire this knowledge, whereas girls—whose virginity had to be protected—were kept ignorant.
Just as a rigid class system divided society, there were levels of prestige among sex workers. At the bottom were streetwalkers. These poor, desperate women solicited customers from sidewalks and doorways. Above them were women employed in houses of prostitution. They lived and worked under the supervision of a madam, a woman with years of experience in the sex trade and an aptitude for business. Courtesans were at the peak of their profession. They catered to men who were wealthy, connected to royalty, or powerful in the sphere of politics, finance, or the arts. A visit to an ordinary prostitute was kept discreet, but a courtesan was to be shown off and showered with money and costly gifts. She was a status symbol, proof that a man belonged to the privileged class.
A courtesan offered more than sex. Customers paid lavishly to bask in her charm, escort her to the theater, and have her as a traveling companion. Some evenings, they gathered in her salon to engage in clever conversation and tell risqué stories. The money she earned allowed a courtesan to live independently in gracious surroundings and wear expensive clothes. “Honest work would never have brought me the luxury I craved,” said one courtesan. “I wanted to know the refinements and pleasures of artistic taste, the joy of living in elegant and cultivated society.” Her life was not very different from that of her clients’ aristocratic wives, but she would never have been accepted as their equal.
Courtesans were known for their beauty, intelligence, and nonconformist ways. They spurned marriage or respectable work in favor of a life that offered money and freedom. Many courtesans, among them Youle Van Hard, changed their names. Turning their backs on the past, they reinvented themselves. Some courtesans even became celebrities. These were women like Cora Pearl, whose real name was Emma Crouch. Pearl loved horses and owned as many as sixty. She maintained two homes, a sumptuous Paris apartment and a grand chateau in the Loire valley. Another famous courtesan, Liane de Pougy (born Anne Marie Chassaigne), bragged to the press about the value of her jewels. She owned a diamond-and-ruby serpent worth nine hundred thousand francs, she said, a pearl collar worth one hundred thirty thousand francs, and another pearl necklace valued at seventy-five thousand francs. Most courtesans, including Van Hard, never achieved this level of wealth and fame, but they did live quite comfortably.
By the time Sarah was five, she and her nurse were dwelling in a small, nearly windowless apartment in Paris. The nurse’s husband had died, and she had married again. Her new spouse was the building’s concierge, or superintendent. For Sarah, life felt “black, black!” In years to come, she would grow to love the beauty and cheery bustle of Paris, but not yet. She was homesick for the landscape she knew, the green hills and rocky coast of Brittany, in northern France. Mostly she missed her mother, whom she rarely saw. Youle Van Hard still paid the nurse to take care of Sarah. She, too, lived in Paris, but Sarah never saw her.
Finally, one day something wondrous happened. A carriage pulled into the building’s courtyard, and a stylish lady stepped out. She was someone Sarah knew: Aunt Rosine! The little girl ran to her aunt and wrapped her thin arms around her. Rosine gave money to the nurse. Then, with her errand completed, she tried to pry Sarah’s hands from her lacy sleeves, but the child could not be budged. Rosine promised to return for her the next day, and Sarah relaxed her grip. Seconds later, though, as she watched her aunt climb into the carriage, she worried. What if Rosine was lying? What if she was telling the truth but forgot to come back?
Desperate to stop her aunt from leaving, Sarah threw herself to the pavement in front of the carriage. She fell hard, blacking out and possibly breaking her arm. At least, that’s the tale she told when she wrote her memoirs as an adult. Another time she said that she jumped from a window onto the paving stones. Either way, it was a dramatic story, but when Sarah Bernhardt spoke about the past, it was hard to know whether all she sa...