BERNHARDT, SARAH (1844-1923, celebrated French actress)
Lot 21
BERNHARDT, SARAH (1844-1923, celebrated French actress)
£ 2,500 - 3,500
US$ 3,400 - 4,700

Lot Details
BERNHARDT, SARAH (1844-1923, celebrated French actress)
SIXTEEN-PAGE AUTOGRAPH LETTER SIGNED ('Mother'), to her only child Maurice, expressing her intense love for him ('My adored son my dear dear very beloved son...the violent and infinite love I have for you trained my will like a knight ready for a tournament, and I battled death, breath for breath, death rattle for death rattle, but love triumphed again...'), suggesting that this might be her last letter ('...I am writing you my last letter in case of a mishap...I nearly died, poisoned by an invisible poison which was in me...they came to tell me that they needed to operate that very evening at ten o'clock, that the plates had shown an enormous stone. They didn't conceal from me that the operation was of the gravest kind...') and giving a very full account of the symptoms of her kidney failure and the treatment she is receiving in the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, naming each of the specialists including her own French doctor [Felix] Marot, Dr [Leo] Buerger (1879-1943) and 'Lepmann' [Emanuel Libman] ('...the foremost diagnostic expert in the United States'), with details of her expenditure ('...I have spent an insane amount of money...At the Savoy Hotel, I had three hundred francs per day. Here it is two thousand francs for a week, without meals, which I have brought to me from Delmonico's...') and reflecting that Dr Pozzi who had operated on her eight or ten years earlier might have saved her leg from amputation had his X-ray apparatus worked and supported his instinctive diagnosis ('...He would have operated on me, and I would perhaps have kept my leg, for they are convinced here that the incessantly recurrent intoxications inflamed and augmented my arthritis. So four operations, all told; let us hope that this will be the last...'), and ending 'I embrace you, I love you, oh! how I love you!!', in French, written in pencil, 16 pages, quarto, on her headed grey-edged stationery bearing her initials and motto 'Quand meme', original envelope, [Mount Sinai Hospital, New York], no date [but April 1917]



    Maurice Bernhardt (1864-1928), a playwright, gambler and fencer, Sarah Bernhardt's only child, was possibly fathered by Charles-Joseph Eugene Henri, Prince de Ligne. Sarah absolutely adored, pampered and spoiled him. She died in his arms on 23 March 1923. He was really her raison d'etre, saving her from an early death similar to that of her sister Régine, a prostitute, at only nineteen years of age.

    Bernhardt had been dogged with ill-health from the time that she injured her knee in 1886. By 1910 it was causing her untold anguish all down her leg and in 1914 her doctors resorted to immobilising her whole limb in a plaster cast. When Dr Pozzi removed the cast he found that gangrene had developed and she had to have her leg amputated. On her last tour in America she suffered intermittent attacks of uraemia which resulted in the emergency kidney operation described in the present letter. 'They can cut out everything', she said, 'as long as they leave me my head.' When she was offered thousands of dollars for the amputated limb, she replied: 'If it's my right leg you want, see the doctors; if it's the left leg, see my manager in New York.' (Robert Gottlieb, Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt, 2010).

    '...Doctor Lepmann...declared that my lungs were of extraordinary quality, that my heart was aged twenty and of astounding vitality, then without saying more he took hold of the telephone, "Hello? Hello? Have Doctor Buerger come immediately! He's operating at the moment? All right, as soon as the operation is finished, have him jump into a car and come here to the Savoy Hotel; an urgent grave case; a world-famous, interesting personality"; then he hung up and said nothing more; his face of a disquieting pallor...his prematurely white hair seemed like damp marble illuminated by the moon; he didn't say a word in French. Finally Doctor Buerger was announced, and I saw a very young man enter...He is American, speaks French admirably, married to a French wife, charming, very great pianist. They chatted together with the other doctors; then the young man, who seemed to be 29 years old, but was 37, examined me for five minutes and declared that he was faced with a mysterious, but very grave case whose enigma he was going to untangle the next morning at nine o'clock with a nurse's aid. The next day at 9 o'clock he came again, actually with two nurses, and with the aid of one he did an examination of my poor kidneys; he declared immediately that the right kidney was in a perfect state, but it wasn't functioning anymore, as it was poisoned by the left kidney and that we were going to know why. He gave me cocaine to prevent pain during the examination, then he pressed firmly, called Marot and after a "Look, look this hardened blood clot is blocking the left urethra". With tweezers he drew out the blood clot, and a flood of pus filled three, four tubes. I was exhausted from this examination of over an hour, anaemic from 40 days of fever without eating anything. He left the nurse with me, giving her instructions to take my temperature every two hours. The next day at nine o'clock there was a consultation with Doctor Brouer, in addition; the latter declared that it would be necessary to expose me to X-rays the very next day, for he was of the same opinion as Buerger that they shouldn't lose another minute. I felt myself how true these words were. So I was admitted to the clinic of Mount Sinai on Monday. On Tuesday I was exposed to X-rays at 4 o'clock, and at five, they came to tell me that they needed to operate that very evening at ten o'clock, that the plates had shown an enormous stone...'

    Dr Libman (1872-1946) had many famous clients other than Sarah Bernhardt including Thomas Mann, Einstein, Mahler and Roosevelt.

    When Bernhardt died, half a million people lined the streets of Paris, kneeling and weeping.
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