The Divine Sarah and her Divine Doctor

Circulating Now welcomes guest blogger Robert Gottlieb. Robert is a writer and editor, and the author of Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt; Balanchine: The Ballet Maker; Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens; and Lives and Letters. From 1987 to 1992 he was the editor of The New Yorker. Before that, he served as editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster and Alfred A. Knopf, and he has edited some of the most significant books of the twentieth century, from Catch-22 to Toni Morrison’s Beloved to Bill Clinton’s autobiography.

A posed photograph of a young Sarah Bernhardt.

Actress Sarah Bernhardt at the Height of Her Fame
Wikimedia Commons

When I was working on my biography of the great French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923) several years ago, I was startled to find on the Web a series of headlined stories in The New York Times charting her progress as she struggled to recover from the severe case of uremia that had landed her in New York’s Mt. Sinai hospital:

April 17, 1917: SARAH BERNHARDT MAY GO UNDER KNIFE
April 18: SARAH BERNHARDT IS OPERATED ON—SURGEONS RESORT TO ONLY HOPE OF SAVING LIFE OF ACTRESS SUFFERING FROM INFECTED KIDNEY—RESTS EASILY AFTERWARDS
April 20: MME. BERNHARDT BETTER—Actress’s Marvelous Vitality Gives Hope of Her Recovery
April 21: MME. BERNHARDT GAINS—Hope Now for Her Recovery—Queen Alexandra Sends Message

And so on, until April 28th, by which time she’s clearly out of danger. It’s the kind of coverage only a President or a Pope would receive. But then she was more famous—and was famous longer—than mere presidents and popes.

Now, from the historical collections of the National Library of Medicine, comes a clutch of notes and telegrams and hospital records from and about Sarah, and we learn that on April 17th, her temperature went up to 103° and that during the operation “six ounces of foul smelling pus obtained. Large irregular calculus in the pelvis, which was removed.” Sarah exaggerated about a lot of things (most things?) but not about the seriousness of her medical condition.

Equally fascinating is the series of notes and telegrams she dashed off during the ensuing years to her doctor of choice, the famous Emanuel Libman (1872–1946). Whenever she was in danger, or thought she was, she bombarded him with accounts of her condition and pleas that he rush to her side. “I know that you are resting from your great work and great devouement [devotion]. I am very ill in great need of your diagnosting [sic]. I will respect your rest if however chance would bring you in my neighborhood must I tell you of the great joy it would be to have you as my guest. With all my grateful heart and thanks.” A mistake-ridden telegram from her vacation home off the coast of Brittany:

OH MY DEAR Y HAVE GREAT TROUBLE IMPOSSIBLE TO TAKE BOT [sic] NORD BECAUSE THE SEA IS EURIOUS [sic] Y HOPE TO MORROW THAT SHALL BE POSSIBLE ALL MY LOVE.

If she wasn’t demanding his presence, she was sending him Happy New Year telegrams. When Sarah wanted a man, or something from a man, she pulled out all the stops.

Fortunately, the doctor was equally devoted to her. Among the portraits of famous colleagues and patients that hung in his home, two stood out: one of Sarah, signed with a florid acknowledgment in French; and one of Albert Einstein, signed in German, “To the noble-minded Dr. Libman with the secret-divining eyes.” As someone with no knowledge of medical history, I was fascinated to learn about this amazing doctor, whose diagnostic powers were world-famous and who was not only on the cover of Time magazine in 1935 but was the subject of a fascinating profile in The New Yorker (April 9, 1939) by the famous playwright and biographer S. N. Behrman. Libman, it turns out, was as eccentric as he was brilliant. It’s time for a biography.

But if it is the insights into Bernhardt’s medical condition and her relationship with her famous doctor that are the focus of these papers, what is most revealing to the lay person—and, in particular, to the biographer—is that when she wanted to, Sarah Bernhardt expressed herself in English. It has been a given in just about every account of her life that although she performed in England almost every year for decades and made nine extended tours of America, she spoke not a word of our language. Here is the proof that we’ve all been wrong: In this regard as in all others, Sarah did what she had to do to get her way. She may have used “Y” in place of “I,” but grammatical rules meant no more to her than all the other rules she flouted. If she needed English to bind Emanuel Libman to her, English is what she gave him.

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Mme. Sarah Bernhardt
NLM #D04177