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April 2, 2015 by

She Was Famous Almost 200 Years Ago—and Still Is!

Carol Ockman

Carol Ockman

On March 19, 2015, Sarah Bernhardt came to town. Or at least her magnificent, outsized spirit did, channeled by art historian Carol Ockman, who participated in an illuminating conversation with Jens Hoffmann of the Jewish Museum in New York. The conversation was part of an ongoing series in which the subjects of Andy Warhol’s Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century (1980) will be “interviewed” by prominent experts. Ockman assumed the persona of Bernhardt (1844-1923), who was arguably the most famous actress of all time; she also sculpted, painted, and generally lived her life on a scale most spectacular. (For more about the Divine Sarah B., see “When She was Good, She was Very, Very Good and When She was Bad, She was … Jewish.”) Using slides to augment her remarks, Ockman spoke from the inside out about fame, film, a woman’s role and Jewish identity. Later, Lilith Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough asked Ockman about her long history with the fabled diva.

YZM: You were involved in an earlier exhibition about Sarah Bernhardt, in 2005. How did that come about? 

CO: I was working on a book about Sarah Bernhardt when the Jewish Museum asked me to curate a show. I decided to forgo the book in favor of the exhibition and catalog. I chose Kenneth E. Silver, whom I’ve known since my first week in graduate school, as my collaborator. Starting in 2000 or so, we worked together, joined at the hip, every time we weren’t teaching, he at NYU and I at Williams College. After much sleuthing and negotiating, we settled on 250 objects in all media – painting, sculpture, drawings, prints, posters, photography, costumes, jewelry, furniture, ephemera, films and sound recording.

YZM: What kinds of research led you to all these treasures?

CO: I’d already done a lot of work on Bernhardt before the exhibition, including research at the National Library and Archives in Paris, the Harvard Theater Collection, and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. I had published my first essay on Bernhardt and given papers on her studio practices as sculptor and painter and her prescient uses of mass production and camp, among others. 

For the show, we traveled extensively—to Paris, London, the south of France, Austin, Texas, and Cambridge, Massachusetts—to look at objects and to negotiate loans. Bernardt’s famous snake bracelet, designed by poster wizard Alphonse Mucha and executed by master jeweler Georges Fouquet, was hand-delivered from Japan in its own custom-made suitcase. We discovered that Tony-award-winner Cherry Jones had a handkerchief given by Bernhardt to a great stage actress more than 100 years ago, and passed on to the likes of Helen Hayes and Julie Harris. Cherry Jones graciously loaned it to our exhibition. 

YZM: For this season’s event, how did it feel to channel the great Sarah B.?

CO: Amazing! I was surprised how easily her opinions and even her ways of speaking came to me. I don’t know that I’ve ever embodied anyone, except myself, in quite that way. And, I loved it!

YZM: Can you talk about Bernhardt’s Jewish identity?

CO: My first published essay on Bernhardt––”When is a Jewish Star Just a Star?”––focused on the virulent, and prevalent, anti-Semitic caricatures of her circulating well over a decade before the Dreyfus Affair. That said, Bernhardt, who was born to a Jewish mother, was baptized at a young age, attended convent school, and practiced Catholicism throughout her life. Yet, the morning after Emile Zola published “J’Accuse” in Dreyfus’ defense, she is said to have flung open the windows of his balcony to deflect detractors. There are numerous notes signed by her, along with other celebrities like the actress Réjane, in support of Dreyfus.

YZM: Are you planning to develop the Bernhardt persona in the future? 

CO: At the moment, I am finishing a personal narrative, entitled “Sarah Bernhardt’s Handkerchief,” which weaves together the hankie as talisman and my coming to terms with my father’s suicide. In addition to the book, I’ve created a one-woman show of the same title, in which I use objects described in the text. My plan is to take the show on tour—to colleges, universities, museums, and other performance venues—and I can imagine channeling Sarah Bernhardt as another performance opportunity. At the same time, becoming Bernhardt for an evening has made me think about whom else I might become.

YZM: What makes you think Bernhardt is still relevant for today’s audience?

CO: There are so many reasons. She is the model for celebrity as we know it. Hollywood stardom, pop stardom, some of the operas still in repertory today—“Tosca,” for example—female, and even male impersonators to some extent, are unthinkable without her example. She was a pioneer at the dawn of mass culture, harnessing mass production and publicity on a scale never seen before. She established the template for international stardom, traveling from Samoa to St. Petersburg, from Istanbul to Waco. Most important, at a time when women’s lives were enormously circumscribed, she defied all odds to become the woman she wanted to be: a star of stage and screen for 60 years, a successful sculptor and painter, fashion trend-setter and theater impresario, a model for health and beauty aids, and a publicist for products from beef bouillon to real estate in the Bronx. How many can lay claim to a phrase like “Who do you think you are—Sarah Bernhardt?”