When an employee at Bordeaux University was told to rearrange the morbid artifacts of an out-of-the-way store closet full of shattered skulls, guns, hangman’s ropes, and aborted fetuses of siamese twins in 2009, he moved a few jars to find, on the back of the shelf, a tall, sealed beaker covered with decades of dust. It contained the lost amputated right leg of the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt.
It is not in good condition, nor is it clearly marked. Flayed skin bobbed in the formaldehyde and toenail shards huddled in the corner of the glass. There is no nicely-printed label saying that this is the leg of the greatest female actress of all time.
This lack of a label has caused some to express doubts concerning the authenticity of the leg.
If it isn’t, it would not be the first myth to add to the mystique of “The Divine Sarah” whose 80- year career bridged the 19th and 20th centuries.
She was born in Paris to a high-class prostitute in 1844 and catapulted to fame at the age of 22 during a performance at The Odeon Theatre on the Left Bank in the role of Cordelia in King Lear.
From there, she flourished among the Paris intelligentsia, developing friendships with great authors like George Sand, Gustave Flaubert, and Leon Gambetta.
She was as beautiful as she was mysterious and fanciful. To prepare for her roles, she often slept in a coffin, and despite her successful career, still continued to suffer from bouts of stage fright. She also collected animals, cultivating a small zoo at her house in London that included a monkey, a cheetah, a parrot, and six chameleons.
She performed all over the world, most extensively for her 1891-1892 tour, which traversed much of Europe, Russia, North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and Samoa. Her personal luggage consisted of 45 costume crates for her 15 different productions and 75 crates for her off-stage clothing, including her 250 pairs of shoes. She carried a trunk for her perfumes, cosmetics, and makeup, and another for her sheets and tablecloths and her five pillows.
It was a big production, and there was a big payoff. The great actress, distrustful of banking, returned to Paris after the tour with a trunk filled with 3,500,000 francs.
Bernhardt’s later career coincided with advances in sound recording and video recording technology. She appeared in silent films and a few recordings of her voice, known in her time as “The Golden Voice of Sarah Bernhardt,” exist in a short 1903 gramophone recording of “La Samaritaine,” in which she recites French alexandrine lines which the dramatist Edmond Rostand had written specifically for her.
The legend goes that Fred Gaisberg, who recorded Bernhardt on the G&T session, said that when she heard the playback of her voice, she exclaimed:
“Oh my God! Now I understand why I am Bernhardt! My dear, what a voice! What an artist!”
Her reaction is justifiable. Her voice has a lilting delicacy that entrances as she hangs onto the final syllable of each line, keeping listeners ears perked on her mellifluous voice.
But her voice was only half of her talent. Her physique was powerful. A short 1899 recording of Bernhardt playing Hamlet in the final duel with Laertes demonstrates her flexibility and athleticism.
In the clip, her knickers expose her long legs. Hunching down into a deep stance, she parries with other actor with a dulled rapier. It is an athletic and convincing performance.
Actors have different sets of skills, but what all leading actors want most is an athletic frame and a beautiful voice. Bernhardt had both.
Until she didn’t.
In the midst of a three year long farewell tour, Bernhardt gave her final performance before the Brazilian public on Oct. 9, 1905, in Rio de Janeiro.
The show was La Tosca, a drama written specifically for her by playwright Victorien Sardou. It was not a work of genius. But a New York Times correspondent reviewing the performance said it was Sarah Bernhardt who made the audience fall in love with the story:
“There is not much of play, a mere outline at best, made to fit like a glove the talent and personality of Bernhardt who is all and everything, but who should or could complain? The interest never slackens; there is enough dialogue and apropos to keep both gratification and amusement entertained, and the story ennobles itself magically in the hands of the greatest living actress.”
That night in Brazil, the play was going according to plan. It was a veteran cast who had performed the piece countless times.
It was all going well, until the finale.
The final scene of the play takes place on the terrace of the Chateau Saint-Ange. Floria, Bernhardt’s character, discovers that her lover is dead. Maddened with despair, she admits to the guards that she has killed Scarpia. The Captain of the Guard, Spoletta, rushes at her to arrest her. She escapes, runs to the balcony, and throws herself off.
The play ended with Sarah Bernhardt suspended in air, 15 feet above the stage floor. Falling back to the stage, she looked down for the thick mattresses that have cushioned her fall for previous performances.
But they weren’t there. They were set too far away.
She landed on her right knee violently on the stage floor. The stage hands heard a crack. The pain overcame her, and she fainted. When the curtain fell, she could not come out to greet her public. Within minutes her leg was swollen, and she had to be taken to her hotel on a stretcher. Her manager and other members of her acting troupe begged her to stay in Rio for a few days and be medically treated, but she refused.
While in bed that evening, a ship’s doctor came to her room to examine the great actress. Seeing that he had dirt under his fingernails, Bernhardt threw a fit and sent him away.
Concerned friends and family were met with Bernhardt’s insistence that she only needed rest. Her wound was left untreated for three weeks. After that, she flew to Chicago and began the U.S. leg of the tour on Nov. 15 — the first day she was able to move on her own.
But those three weeks of neglect did irreparable damage to her leg. From there, her condition only worsened. By 1908, her each step caused her knee to throb. Her performances became feats of endurance as the actress tried to move as she once had.
By 1911, Bernhardt could not take a step without leaning on somebody’s arm. In a clip of her playing the starring role as Queen Elizabeth I from 1912, she is either sitting or bracing herself against tables and chairs.
By 1913, the scenic designers had to arrange the furniture on the set so the actress never had to take more than two steps. After each of these performances, Bernhardt hobbled off stage and flopped into a chair behind the curtain. Only after resting for a few minutes could stage hands help her back onto stage for the final bow.
Finally, in 1914, Bernhardt’s theatrical career was in jeopardy. Her knee was swollen so much that she could not bend her right leg or walk. Her knee was infected and shattered, and doctors had to seal into a cast.
Something had to be done. The infection was threatening the life of the greatest actress the world had ever seen.
Bernhardt decided to cut her losses and have her leg lopped off above the knee.
Mrs. Patrick Campbell, an actress in Bernhardt’s’ troup received a telegram in 1915 that read:
“Doctor will cut off my leg next Monday. Am very happy. Kisses all my heart.
The operation, conducted in Bordeaux on Feb. 22, 1915, by professor of surgery Dr. Jean Denucé. “The Divine Sarah” was 71. In preparation for the amputation, the doctor sawed off the plaster cast and saw Bernhardt’s knee, which was swollen to twice the size of her other knee.
“The least movement brought forth a cry of agony from the brave patient,” he wrote at the time.
His examination prompted his diagnosis of tuberculous osteoarthritis in the joint. If her leg remained attached to her body, it could kill her.
Laid up, without a cast to protect her leg, Bernhardt wrote to Denucé: “Much-loved friend, I am suffering as much after six months of total immobilisation as I was suffering before. So listen to me…I beg you to cut off the leg a bit above the knee…Don’t argue…I have perhaps ten or fifteen years to live, why condemn me to suffering another fifteen years? With a wooden leg I will be able to recite, maybe even perform.”
The day of the operation, Bernhardt woke as usual and went to the hospital with her family in tow. As a nurse wheeled her away into the surgery room, she began dramatically humming the opening of the Marseillaise, the French national anthem.
Mademoiselle Coignt, one of the first female doctors in France, administered ether to the patient, and as she lay on the stretcher, she began laughing and singing as she drifted into unconsciousness, but before she was fully gone, she implored Denucé to kiss her for good luck.
Denucé cut off blood flow as he wrenched a tourniquet around the top of her knee, and after 15 minutes, the leg dropped to the floor with a terrible thud.
From there, Denucé took the leg to his students to examine it for their pathology studies. And shortly afterward, Bernhardt received a letter from P.T. Barnum asking if she would sell her severed leg to him for $10,000 so that he could display it in his museum of curiosities. She declined.
After that, the leg vanished until 2009.
Bernhardt returned to the stage after only a few months of recovery. Originally thinking that she could get around with a wooden leg, the actress decided that a litter, a throne carried by porters in the style of Louis XV, suited her passion better.
A fellow performer from the Comédie Française wrote of a post-operation performance:
“The flimsy curtain fluttered open to reveal a wisp of an aging woman propped…in a shabby armchair. Then the miracle took place: Sarah, old, mutilated, once more illuminated a crowd by the rays of her genius. When she wound up her recitation two thousand men rose to their feet cheering. She is greater perhaps in this glowing twilight than in the sparkling days of her apogee.”
She no longer had her body. In a clip from her 1920 performance of Daniel, she sits on a chaise lounge with her single leg covered in leopard pelts while she recites her lines. The video is silent. A viewer can see nothing remarkable in her performance.
But she still had her voice. And until she died three years later in 1923, she continued to mystify audiences with her recitation.
Now, for the first time since 1915, we have her severed, shabby leg.
Mark Naida is a senior studying French and English. He still has both of his legs.
One thought on “Leg in a Jar: The Amputation of the World’s Greatest Actress”
By my calculations, if she was born in October 1844, as seems to be the consensus, she would have been 70 when her leg was amputated, not 71.