Sarah Bernhardt and Nadar
I could boast that I was the one who launched the amazing career of Nadar, the most famous photographer in the world, but he could just as easily assert to have made me. Although I used to make this extravagant claim, I am not going to revive this piece of fiction. We were both reasonably well-established when we met. Our collaboration was certainly a mutually fruitful one. My photographs _ God knows how many of them he took_ earned us both a lot of money, with handsome shared royalties, as the public couldn’t have enough of the divine Sarah’s likenesses. They kept them in albums, put enlargements, sometimes tinted, on the walls of their salons, and gave them as presents to their friends. Besides, seeing my photographs in all the librairies of Paris, enhanced my reputation in the eyes of my public. Nadar benefited from his association with me as the bourgeoises of Paris flocked to his studios to be photographed à la Bernhardt, wearing my style of clothes and striking my iconic poses. I have always thought it funny that even the distinguished George Sand would stoop so low, having Nadar photograph her, in a Sarah Bernhardt pose, with her hair specially coiffured by my erstwhile hairdresser Madame Frais-Bouton. Of course it was I who felt honoured. Madame Sand is a bigger romancière than I am a comédienne.
Nadar was not even his real name. He was born Gaspard-Félix Tournachon. A bon vivant, he mixed with a crowd of artists and writers, roistering and having fun. We the French have the habit of re-inventing common words, like calling Paris Panam or a Parisien a parigot, which explains his friends turning Tournachon into Tournadar, which gradually evolved into Nadar.
I am not sure about when I met him for the first time. He seems to remember it happening a whole year before the Gustave Doré’s birthday party where I remember being introduced to him by Gustave.
‘Madame Bernhardt,’ he began, but I interrupted him.
‘Sarah, s’il vous plait … entre artistes.’ Between artists.
He had struck me as a bit colourless. I had never heard of him before. At the time, Doré and I were living the dream. I had been expecting him to pop the question, but although he had told me he wanted to, his first priority in life was looking after his wheel-chair bound mother. Although she constantly told him that a carer was all she needed, he simply could not leave her in the exclusive care of a stranger.
At some point, an inebriated Gaspard-Félix sought me out. In an attempt to sound
witty, I had once proclaimed that I felt insulted if any man I met did not try to take me to
bed. With a smile, he put his hand on my shoulder and drew me into a corner.
‘Ma chère Sarah,’ he whispered, ‘I won’t go round four different routes, but can I drive you back home.’
‘Home?’ I asked stupidly.
‘Mine or yours?’
‘Monsieur Tournachon,’ I said, laughing, ‘I thought Gustave Doré was your friend.’ He seemed shocked.
‘I see. You m-mean Gustave and you are … t-together? I had no idea. He never said.’ I nodded.
‘In that case, I beg you on both my knees,’ not that he had flexed them, ’to forgive my faux-pas, and solemnly promise that never again will I presume so much.’
‘Oh, Gaspard-Félix, no harm done. You can try again in the future.’ He seemed shocked.
‘No, never. Never again, I swear to God.’
Shortly afterwards, Emile Perrin, my director at the Français suggested I let the famous Nadar photograph me, and I was happy to agree. In the first one, I was wearing a sort of white toga, seated, with my left hand resting on a small tabouret. I have an expression on my face which, I have been told, marries serenity with melancholy. This is not at all a contradiction. It defines me accurately. I don’t think any of the images Nadar produced did me greater justice. I admit to realising for the first time that I was stunningly beautiful.
The success of that picture was instantaneous. I wondered why people would want to spend good money for a mere photograph of me. Nadar who was an astute businessman wanted to do some more. I was not too sure, and had hesitated, but Youle could not believe my reticence.
‘But ma chérie, it will bring more money than you can earn by having to open your legs to those satyrs! What’s your problem?’ To Youle, money was the first consideration in all matters.
In the next few years, Nadar never stopped training his camera lens on me. Inevitably, as I am une petite vicieuse, addicted to la pine, always wanting one inside my privates or in my mouth, I began to hanker after Nadar’s. Not that he stirred great yearnings in me like previous ravishers, Mounet-Sully or Paul Porel, I suppose the fact that after his first clumsy attempt, he never came back was something I found unflattering. I admit to not liking it when I don’t instigate mad desires in a man_ or a woman. Am I losing my appeal? Sophie Croizette gets propositioned three or four times every day. And responds favourably to many of them.
I made up my mind to seduce him. But I was not going to do it brazenly. I can be quite subtle. Like, “Nadar, how about fucking me right here in the dark room.” I joke of course.
I often went to his studio at his garden apartment in the rue Saint Lazare, at first to be photographed by France’s most famous snapper, but as he liked talking about his art and I was always ready to learn something new, he was only too happy to give me hands-on practice. I often found myself in his dark room, a bit inebriated on the fumes of metol or quinone, or ammonium thiosulphate, which inevitably turned me on. I accidentally on purpose brushed my tits past his arms, or my little behind against his legs, but he
responded to them with too much tact, apologising for being so clumsy. I was too proud to voice my invitation in so many words. An artist who obviously knows how to read the expressions on the face of his subjects, he seemed completely illiterate when it came to reading my undeclared invitations.
I often wake up in the middle of the night and am unable to go back to sleep. The malicious, but sharp-witted Marie Colombier once wrote that, “when Sarah Bernhardt cannot go to sleep, instead of counting sheep, she makes a list of all the men who have fucked her, and if that does not send her into the arms of Hypnos, it at least keeps her busy until dawn.” Although I hated Colombier, I admired her wit and this had made me chuckle, which is perhaps the reason why we finally became reconciled and stayed friends until her death. That night I began to think up plans to bed Nadar. As I love playing games, I issued a challenge to myself : must drag the photographer into my bed without saying a single word or making a single obvious gesture which might be taken as an invitation.
I racked my brains but strategies would not enter. I decided to ask for advice from Youle. She had often accused me of being devious and sneaky, always planning something and never confiding in her, who had sacrificed everything for me. I am a giving woman, she wailed grandiloquently, but if my own daughter does not ask, my tap of generosity becomes rusty. So I decided to drink at her fount of wisdom.
One afternoon when I popped in to see her at the rue de Quimper. I had been living in my own apartment in rue de Rome, but visited her regularly, if only because I did not want to give her grounds for reproaches (“when their wings have grown they fly away and let you die alone”). I had brought her millefeuilles which she was partial to, and we were enjoying these with hot chocolate, when, looking away, I stammered my first question.
‘Ma p’tite maman chérie,’ I asked her, ‘when you fancy a man and he seems unaware_’
She did not let me finish, but exploded in indignation.
‘Such a man does not exist. Julie Bernard does not run after men. Do you take me for a vulgar whore?’
‘Perhaps not vulgar,’ I said. When she is upset she scowls and purses her lips. I decided that it was not worth pursuing my quest for the perfect snare, but I think her curiosity got the better of her.
‘So is there a man you’re after?’ I nodded.
‘Will he give you good money?’
‘That’s all you ever think of, maman.’
‘You’d be an even bigger fool than I have taken you for if you’re telling me you want to open your legs to a man who, first, does not find you attractive and next, who will not open his purse!’ After a short silence, she puffed up her massive breasts and shot this salvo at me.
‘I can swear on the bible and the torah, that I have never once opened my legs to a man without getting some payment, and I don’t just mean money, for my effort.’
‘Good for you,’ I said, and left without kissing her.
Next day Tante Rosine arrived at rue de Rome. She rarely comes to my apartment, so I was intrigued. I loved Tante Rosine to bits. I am much more at ease with her than with anybody else. I have always known how much she loves me, and to what length she goes not to show it when Maman is around, because she knows what a jealous nature Youle has. Why, she’s even jealous of my success at the Français.
‘You know I’m a great one for eavesdropping,’ she said with a laugh.
‘You mean you were listening yesterday when I was talking to Youle?’ She winked affirmatively.
‘So tell me about this fellow that needs to be seduced?,’ she urged. She listened to every single word I said.
‘So, if I’ve got it right, you want to take this Nadar to bed, but you want him to initiate it?’
‘Tante Rosine, you got it right in one.’
‘It shall happen, ma p’tite chérie.’ she promised, ‘your Félix is gonna go on his knees, his tongue hanging out, begging you.’
‘Easier said than done,’ I challenged. She pursed her lips and swung her head to the left in a gesture which meant, you’ll see what you’ll see. She elaborated.
‘In our métier, we … your maman and I, you better believe me, know a few tricks. One of them is never to let our clients lose face. What I’m saying is that if we feel that they are not up to performance standard, we know how to make them rise to the occasion, so to say.’
And Rosine explained that they had ingredients which they get sent to them by a discreet Laotian herboriste, on the Boulevard St Michel, and even the eighty-year old Cardinal P_ begs for her favours like a little puppy when she has put half a spoonful of this herb in his wine.
And she gave me a lesson on the magical powers of red ginseng, maca, horny goat weed and similar life savers for decrepit old satyrs.
‘But ma tante, how am I gonna get him to take the stuff?’ She pretended to get angry.
‘If you want me to do everything, I’d end up fucking him myself,’ she cackled. I was still in the dark.
‘Petite sotte,’ she said, ‘invite him for a grand repast, and cook him_’
‘But ma tante, you know what a useless cook I am.’
‘Don’t despair. Have you ever met my devoted soupirant Artus Le Breck?’
‘I think so. The chef?’
‘The fellow will do anything I ask. You choose the date, and I will arrange for Artus to come to you and prepare un vrai festin, for your photographer, oysters, champagne, ratatouille et rôti, cooked in exotic herbs and Rosine’s secret mixture. If after consuming that your photographer does not start crawling on all fives_ note I said fives, ma chérie _ and beg for release, Rosine Bernard will join a convent.’
In spite of appearances, I am quite demanding of myself. If I make a promise, I don’t find a wishy washy excuse to wriggle out of it. I reasoned to myself that if out of the blue, I were to invite Nadar for a little feast, it would be tantamount to an invitation to my bed, since we had never talked about such a prospect. And I had promised myself tact and restraint.
Happily luck was on my side. Next time we met, he was greatly excited by the news that a photograph of mine, the one in which I am wearing a black velvet robe, with my left profile on show, with an earring visible, had sold twenty-five thousand copies. Never before had he sold more than five thousand.
‘We’re gonna become rich beyond our dreams, ma chère,’ he said laughing.
I am a quick thinker.
‘Mon ami, we’ve got to celebrate this, by having a feast for just the two of us.’ He nodded happily.
‘I’ll organise it_’ he began, but I interrupted him.
‘Non, mon ami, you did all the hard work taking the photograph. I must do my bit.’
‘If you insist.’
Personally I have little interest in food and only eat to live, but I have put myself in the hands of Artus Le Breck.
When I gave him a mille franc note for the shopping, he opened wide his eyes.
‘I thought you said it’s for two people.’
‘Yes, but don’t bother to come back if you haven’t spent every single centime.’
He came back loaded with oysters, caviare, champagne, a goose, smoked salmon and many things I had never even heard of. Tante Rosine had given him the aphrodisiacs with precise instructions about how to use them.
Artus had worked all night making the preparations for lunch the next day. I wore an emerald green silk dress which Rosine and Youle (begrudgingly) had worked on for hours for the perfect look.
Rosine had shown me how to use jasmine and champaca, and when Nadar
arrived, a whiff of those fragrances had immediately put my photographer in the mood, I could sense that. Good start, I thought.
The oysters were the freshest Artus had seen in a very long time. The idea of swallowing a live piece of slime made me sick, but I took one gingerly, fiddled with it, whilst Nadar swallowed one after another barely noticing my reluctance to indulge. Deftly I dropped mine on the floor whilst he was doing justice to his tenth.
‘Don’t think I’ve ever had any half as good as these,’ he said. Artus filled his champagne flute and he inelegantly emptied it in one go. I was aiming to make my cup last the duration.
I had known him to be reserved and modest, but after the oysters he had become a different person. He started boasting about the innovations he had brought to photography. Years after his death, he said, people will be talking about his use of artificial light to photograph underground objects. Soon he was on his second bottle of Veuve Cliquot, and began talking about his project to go up in the world’s largest balloon to photograph the earth from the sky. A year later he would be the first photographer to do just that.
The goose was cooked with spices and herbs, an orange, garlic galore and celeriac mixed with Rosine’s powders. The sight of this golden goose combined with the aroma rising from it as Artus brought it in was overwhelming. Even I seemed to have worked an appetite. I notice Nadar open wide his eyes in wonder.
‘De-de-deserves to be ph-photographed in colour_ one day I will invent colour photography, ma petite Sarah …’
After having partaken a few mouthfuls of l’oie à la Breck, he turned to me earnestly.
‘Do you know what true epicureans say? They claim that the real connoisseur experiences a beautiful landscape, great music, nice food, the sight of a beautiful woman in the same manner. It all boils down to the senses. In the end all beauty arouses the libido. I think it was Rabelais who said that few things get him more aroused than his mistress scratching the itch between his shoulders. Diderot wrote of how they stopped serving marcassin doré to the nuns of St Eutrope after two young novices threw themselves in each other’s arms and started tearing each other’s habits, one Christmas, as the cook brought one to the table.’ He paused, checking that he had not outraged me by this kind of talk. I smiled happily.
‘Since I seem to have lost my inhibition, I don’t mind admitting that all these good things you have served have greatly aroused me,’ adding, ‘I mean sexually.’
‘Well mon petit Nadar, I’m delighted to hear that. What are we without our urges, eh?’
‘I will have to behave myself, ha! ha! ha!’
‘Only people who are not given opportunities know how to behave themselves,’ I said in my best Sybiline pose. I had promised myself that I would not utter a single word which might suggest an invitation, but everybody knows that La Bernhardt speaks more eloquently with her eyes. He looked at my eyes and blushed. He knew in no uncertain terms that I was ripe for plucking. I could see all the signs of a man in the throes of the wiles of Eros. But I was not going to say one word. He took me by the hand, drew me towards him, looked at me in the eyes and said:
‘Ma chère Sarah, I seem to have let our success go to my head … think of it … twenty-five thousand copies! And sharing this feast with the divine Sarah has finished me off. Excuse my indelicate language, but … but … I am now in such a state that unless I find release, I am going to start howling like a wolf in rut.’ I had won.
‘Is there anything I can do,’ I said taking hold of his hand.
‘Be an angel, send Artus to hire me a coach to take me to Faubourg St Honoré … you know, to the house of Marie-Agnes … or I’m gonna -‘
‘I know, howl like a wolf in rut.’
I sent Artus on this errand, and in a matter of minutes Nadar was gone o his mistress.
Artus had no doubt been indulging in his own preparations, for I read strange desires in his blinking eyes. I invited him to share a bottle of Meursault Genevrière, and we drank small sips in silence. Suddenly he smiled lasciviously.
‘What a nincompoop, that Nadar,’ he began. I stopped him short, rose from my chair and wordlessly I took his hand and led him to my bedroom.
I always valued Nadar’s friendship, but I think of him as the one who got away.