Sarah Bernhardt and Oscar Wilde
An extract from Sarah Bernhardt: My Erotic Life (Available at Amazon)
We took the train to Calais and from there we crossed La Manche to Folkestone.
I was absolutely astounded to see an adoring crowd of several thousands. In France, theatre goers will applaud and cheer you to the rafters in the auditorium, but outside the playhouse this is unheard of. No one is a prophet in his own country! But the reputedly cold and reserved English crowd openly voiced their delight and suddenly the cheering rose to a fever pitch. People began not only applauding but screaming their joy as well. We had not even played a single scene yet.
However, soon enough we became aware of some commotion to our left. A magnificent coach pulled over and what I assumed to be a royal couple descended. Someone mentioned that it was the Prince of Wales and his Princess. They were leaving on a royal ferry to France where they were going on some official business. It was for them, and not for us, that this big crowd had turned up. How inconsiderate of them to steal our thunder, I raged. I had thought that all these people had come to greet the Comédie Française. I had been so inured to the adulation of my admirers that I had ended up believing that the whole world owed me ovations and applause.
However, soon after the royal couple had taken their seats on the royal launch, most of the crowd dispersed, but a few hundreds did remain behind and they really had come to greet us. People began shouting Vive Sarah Bernhardt, Vive Coquelin, Vive La France, Vive Sophie Croizette. my deepest chagrin was that no one seemed aware of the reputation of Mounet-Sully, who was the best of the lot. I am sure he must have been thinking, “No one is a prophet in England!”
The crowd was converging towards us now, and it was quite impressive. I noticed a man tunnelling his way through the throngs towards us. His movement were, I thought, rather inelegant, and I thought it rude that he used his elbows and knees to clear space for himself. When he got to our level, he took off his hat and made a deep bow.
‘Mademoiselle Sarah Bernhardt, mes homages,’ he said in tolerable French. I was a bit put out because he seemed to have consigned my dear colleagues to an anonymity they did not deserve. I valued them dearly and had no wish to dwarf them. But I am an actress and we thrive on recognition and applause. I noticed that he had a bouquet of orchids in his hand, and this he gallantly pressed into my hands.
‘The famous writer Oscar Wilde, at your service,’ he said curtseying. He took my hand effortlessly, and brought it to his lips. Naturally he was one of the few hommes de lettres whose reputation had crossed the channel, and I, who had known, often in the biblical sense, princes and dukes, felt intimidated by the close proximity of one of England’s finest playwrights and wits.
I nearly said, ‘Say something witty to me, Monsieur Wilde,’ and he must have read my mind.
‘One member of the Comédie Française visiting England is agreeable, two delightful, three, stupendous, but to have Sarah Bernhardt as well, is … words fail me. Madame, you are divine!’ And so it was that, although I’m sure I don’t deserve it, people began to call me “La Divine Sarah”. This appellation would stick, I have exhulted in it, and I owe it to Monsieur Wilde.
I had made up my mind I was going to seduce him, and mentioned this to Jarrett (my impresario). Edward smiled and shook his head.
‘My dear Sarah, for some time now, he only takes men to his bed.’ Although many in the theatre world are Uranians, it had never occurred to me that the great Oscar Wilde might rank amongst them. My first reaction was disappointment, but then defiance took over, and I was more determined than ever to seduce the author of Lady Windermere’s Fan.
England never stopped surprising me. Everybody had told me that I was going to starve in London. ‘English fare is atrocious,’ they told me, but my own view is that their food is wholesome and does not need the disguise of the sauces that we French exult in. I was warned that our neighbours are cold and reserved. My experience was that once they got to know you, there developed between you an intimacy, a friendship that is quite endearing and meaningful. Does it rain all the time? No more so than it does in France. Come to think of it, why would it?
No doubt the English have misconceptions about us too, but they were too polite to list them in my presence.
We opened with Phèdre at the Gaiety, and the experience of appearing for the first time in front of an English audience was very daunting. I feared that many would have some difficulty following the text in a foreign language. The audience’s reaction is the spur which keeps us going. When the audience does not react, it is comparable to making love with a partner who is half asleep.
The English were, however, very helpful. I could see that they were making a superhuman effort to follow the play, and the much-needed reaction was readily forthcoming. They seemed to follow the evolution of the drama by watching us perform. We took this as a vote of confidence in our acting skills. The critics gave us positive notices in their newspapers. Everywhere we went, there were people loudly cheering us.
When we put on L’Etrangère following week, I was quite exhausted. Under the influence of my medication, I forgot large chunks of my dialogue which seemingly irked my confused colleagues more than it did the audience. Despite these problems, the English audience received it enthusiastically.
Mister Jarrett had also arranged some private performances for me and was acting as my agent. Further, he had managed to get my paintings and sculptures exhibited in a gallery whose owner he knew. Over one thousand people turned up to view my work, among them Mr Gladstone, the prime minister. I was greatly flattered by his visit and was delighted when he came to me and began to converse on a variety of topics. I was greatly heartened to discover that, like me, he was very much against the death penalty, and he believed in workers’ rights, like I do. I might add that he did not emit a single opinion with which I disagreed.
To crown it all, I found buyers for my entire collection of art, and they paid good money too. I was very flattered that Prince Leopold bought one of my most cherished paintings, La Petite Fille au Rameau. I preferred him to his notorious brother Bertie and I swear my reason for this was that the former was more refined. He was a real art lover, a thinking man who would have made an excellent king.
There I go again, a republican praising the monarchy!
Mr Wilde came to see L’Etrangère, and after the curtain went down, visited me backstage and invited me to supper at the Café Royal. I am not a great eater and had left most of the partridge we had ordered, uneaten on my plate. To my amazement, Oscar asked me if I had any objection if he finished it for me.
‘We don’t want the poor bird to think that it was not worth eating.’ Surreptitiously we exchanged plates and he devoured my leftovers. He realised that the waiter had not been unaware of our lack of decorum. Summoning him over, Oscar said, ‘My good man, I’ll have you know that it makes more sense in passing your leftovers to someone who’s still hungry than to commit it to the rubbish bin, wouldn’t you agree?’ The waiter smiled.
‘Mr Wilde,’ he said, ‘if I want to keep my job here, it makes more sense for me to agree with you than to initiate an argument, wouldn’t you agree?’ I don’t think the famous dramatist liked someone else being witty in his presence.
The trip was an unqualified success. People came to the shows in droves and the company made massive profits. Jarrett arranged for some of us to perform privately, which brought in a sizeable extra income. I bought a small cheetah in Liverpool and two lovely dogs for my menagerie. Someone also made me a gift of some chameleons. There’s a whole book to write about my fascination for our animal friends, but it will have to wait.
I got money and jewels from William, the Earl of Dudley, my first English client,who took me riding in Hyde Park. Whatever skills he lacked in the bedroom, he made up for by being an excellent instructor in horsemanship. Everywhere. I was greatly heartened by the great affection extended to me, and ever since have thought of England as my second home.
Can my vow to seduce Oscar Wilde be considered to have been fulfilled? The reader shall judge for himself or herself. While I was performing in London, he came to see me almost every night and if I did not have other engagements, we would go somewhere together. I had naturally made it obvious to him that his preferences notwithstanding, I could not imagine leaving London without having, to put it delicately, fucked him. At the Café Royal that night, he told me that when he was younger he had visited prostitutes to test whether he was truly a “pervert”. That was his word, not mine, of course.
‘And what conclusion did you arrive at?’
‘My conclusion,’ he said, ‘is inconclusive.’ He elaborated. He had managed both an erection and penetration, but he was unsure as to whether he had actually enjoyed the experience.
‘Maybe it was because they were prostitutes,’ I ventured.
‘But,’ he added sadly, ‘I have no doubt whatsoever when I indulge with rent boys.’
It was that night that he revealed that he was in love with a woman called Constance and that he meant to marry her and have children with her.
‘But Oscar, are you sure you want to do that?’
‘She is my soul mate, Sarah, I love her with all my heart.’
‘And will you be able to give her satisfaction?’
‘I mean to do everything in my power to _’
‘But it may not depend on you.’
‘You’re right. I met a young lad called Robbie Rosse and if my heart belongs to Constance, my senses, my body is a slave to that young devil.’
It was then that I told him that I had an excellent reputation as déniaiseuse, I would cure him of his homosexuality, if that was what he wanted. He nodded, and whispered, ‘That’d be exactly what I want. If the doctors knew of a potion, however bitter, to cure me of this curse, I’d go for it with my eyes closed _’
‘But make sure when you close your eyes you open your mouth.’ I interrupted. No, he did not like others in his company to be witty.
‘My dear Say-ra, it is a curse.’ I refrained from telling him that Sophie Croizette and I did not think we were cursed to when we enjoy together each other’s body.
He took me to his rooms in Cadogan Square, and he undressed rather quickly and self-consciously. He did not look at me, and once he was naked, he wrapped himself in a blanket. I was not going to just shed my garments and jump in bed with him. Instead, I raised my hands and twirled them round like I had seen Turkish dancers do at the Trocadero. I invoked some music in my head and started what I thought of as a seductive dance, swaying and gyrating my hips and derrière, and shedding one item of clothing at a time, and tossing it away with calculated insouciance.
Oscar watched me with increasing interest, and when I was as naked as a newborn babe, I walked towards him, moving my feet, swinging my hips, wantonly pushing my pelvis forward, shaking my shoulders and leering suggestively. I let him pick me up and toss me in the bed. His body seemed relaxed and he had a warm smile on his face. When we went under the blanket, I noticed that he was becoming more and more tense and detected a little trembling as well. I put my arms around him and he tentatively put his round me as well, but I detected no great enthusiasm in this.
‘Do you like derrières?’ I whispered.
‘Why y-y-yes, of course I do.’ I understood he meant men’s buttocks.
‘Squeeze me there,’ I urged, ‘and tickle my brown eye with your fingers.’ He did as I bade, but it did nothing for him. I took hold of his limp schlonk in my hand and he shuddered. I let go. We talked for a while and then I noticed that he was either falling asleep or pretending to. I accepted defeat that time and I too let go of him. I too must have dropped off pretty quickly. However in the middle of the night, I found that he was holding me tight and his regular breathing showed that he was contented. I fell asleep again and in the morning we were still entwined. Anybody would have taken us for a couple who had enjoyed a great night of love.
‘Do you know,’ he told me when he woke up, ‘I haven’t had such a peaceful night of sleep in a long time. I thoroughly enjoyed being with you.’
I promised to return to him next night, and we slept like affectionate sisters, our bare bodies interlaced. When I detected an erection, I grabbed his limp member and stoked it gently. I was relieved to feel it hardening and expanding but all too soon he began purring happily, and had either dropped off or pretended to do so.
Suddenly he opened his eyes and pushed me away gently. He explained that he had forced visions of Robbie on himself but could not keep up this fiction any longer.
Next night, I told him that if I detected an erection I would give him a pipe. He was happy enough with that. ‘If you wish,’ he said.
So I did just that, and although pleasurable sounds emitted from his lips, he did not manage an ejaculation.
‘I’ll keep trying,’ I said.
‘Why yes, of course,’ he said with little enthusiasm.
‘How are you going to keep your promise to satisfy Constance?’ He pursed his lips, frowned and said, ‘I will have to work on this. I know a hypnotist … let’s not talk about it.’
He paced up and down the bedroom listlessly while I tried to muster enough strength to get out of bed.
‘What shall we talk about then?’ I asked trying hard to hide my disappointment. His face lit up.
‘You know, when you were stripping and doing that suggestive dance, you reminded me of Salome, and an idea occurred to me. Do you want to hear it?’ I nodded absently.
‘I see you as Salome. You have a lithe body, and your movements somehow recall those of a serpent. I wonder if my French is good enough for me to write a play about her for you.’
I opened wide my eyes. To have the great Mr Wilde write a play for me, really? I jumped out of bed and flung myself at him, taking him by surprise. He collected me in his arms and we began dancing and jumping about like little kids.
‘Will you do it? I mean will you be able to get your theatre to _’
‘Mister Wilde, you are talking to a full sociétaire of the Comédie Française. She has a lot of power, you know.’
Thus it was that he wrote Salome for me shortly after. Although he wrote it in French for me, he wanted me to come and perform it in English in London. Sadly, the Lord Chamberlain banned it because he could not allow a biblical figure to appear on an English stage. I produced and played in its first performance in Paris and it is yet to be opened in England.
For many years Wilde and I had stayed friends, exchanging letters and gifts. He sen me a Christmas cake once, but crossing the Channel had made it mouldy.
Only one cloud spoiled the peerless sky of our friendship. Captain Alfred Dreyfus had paid for the crimes of the vile Count Esterhazy, and when it became clear that the latter was going to finally get his just desserts, as he had friends in high places, he was allowed to escape to England where he became an intimate friend of Oscar Wilde, going everywhere together. I never understood why the greatest living English dramatist felt that he needed to befriend a traitor who had destroyed the life of a good man. I wondered whether the Irishman was an anti-semite. I have given the matter much thought, and my conclusion as to whether he was a man who believed in nothing but himself was … inconclusive.
But I am too old to allow thoughts like these to occupy my mind. I much prefer to dwell upon the good times we had together, recalling our bons mots.