Sarah Bernhardt and the Dying Costumer: 1880


Sarah Bernhardt in Phèdre by Racine.

Sarah Bernhardt in Phèdre by Racine.

An episode from the life of the great actress:

I was given, on signing the contract, 100,000 francs as advance payment for the expenses of departure. I was to play eight pieces: “Hernani,” “Phedre,” “Adrienne Lecouvreur,” “Froufrou,” “La Dame aux Camelias,” “Le Sphinx,” ” L’Etrangere,” and ” La Princesse George.”

I ordered twenty-five costumes for town wear at Laferriere’s, with whom I then dealt.

At Baron’s I ordered six costumes for “Adrienne Lecouvreur,” and four costumes for “Hernani.” I ordered from a young theater costumier named Lepaul, my costume for “Phedre.” These thirty-six costumes cost me 61,000 francs; but out of this my costume for “Phedre” alone cost 4,000 francs. The poor artiste-costumier had embroidered it himself. It was a marvel. It was brought to me two days before my departure and I cannot think of this moment without emotion. Irritated by long waiting, I was writing an angry letter to the costumier when he was announced. At first I received him very badly, but I found him looking so ill, the poor man, that I made him sit down and asked how he came to be so ill.

“Yes, I am not at all well,” he said in such a weak voice, that I was quite upset. “I wanted to finish this dress and I have worked at it three days and nights. But look how nice it is, your costume!” And he spread it out with loving respect before me.

“Look!” remarked Guerard, [Madame Guerard, Mme. Bernhardt’s long-time family friend and assistant] “a little spot!”

“Ah, I pricked myself,” answered the poor artiste quickly.

But I had just caught sight of a drop of blood at the corner of his lips. He wiped it quickly away so that it should not fall on the pretty costume as the other little spot had done. I gave the artiste the 4,000 francs, which he took with trembling hands. He murmured some unintelligible words and withdrew.

”Take away this costume, take it away!” I cried to my petite dame and my maid. And I cried so much that I had the hiccough all the evening. Nobody understood why I was crying. But I reproached myself bitterly for having worried the poor man. It was plain that he was dying. And by the force of circumstances I had unwittingly forged the first link of the chain of death which was dragging to the tomb this youth of twenty-two—this artiste with a future before him.

I would never wear this costume. It is still in its box yellowed with age. Its gold embroidery is tarnished by time, and the little spot of blood has slightly reddened the stuff. As to the poor artiste, I learned of his death during my stay in London in the month of May, for before leaving for America I signed with Hollingshead and Mayer, the impresarios of the Comedie, a contract which bound me to them from the 24th May to the 24th June (1880).

Memories of My Life: Being My Personal, Professional, and Social Recollections as a Woman and Artist, Sarah Bernhardt, 1907

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: We have read about the Divine Sarah in these pages before, in the story of her visit to a séance. We have also read of Eleanora Duse’s exacting costuming demands on Jean-Phillipe Worth. Mme. Bernhardt set the bar high for histrionic behaviour. She was prone to rages and horse-whips, particularly when criticised. She used a skull as a letterbox and had herself photographed in her coffin, which was normally kept in her drawing-room. This pre-mortem photograph is said to have started a fad among young women. Here is a particularly dire example of Mme. Bernhardt’s self-centredness:

A Death-Bed Scene

Of all the stories about M’lle Sarah Bernhardt, her experience in a hospital is surely the most remarkable. The tragedienne was, it is said, anxious, for purposes of dramatic study, to see some people who were on the point of death. She was taken to the bedside of a girl who was not expected to live for more than few minutes. Now, it is needless to say, the actress is not exactly the picture of sunny health. Dressed in black with a long, pale face, which I am too gallant to call cadaverous, the lady might give a fright to a man of robust nerves if he met her suddenly in a lonely place. It is not surprising that to the poor creature whose soul was just leaving her body this apparition at her bedside was appalling. “Ah! I know you,” she cried; “you are the angel of death; you came the other day to take away one of my neighbors; but I am too young—I will not die. Begone, terrible specter!” And then in a paroxysm of fear the poor thing died. The actress fainted away at the foot of the bed. It was a dramatic tableau she could not have conceived in her wildest dreams. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 10 December 1881: p. 12

In fairness, this story is likely to be apocryphal; the newspapers were full of reports of the actress’s eccentricities and scenes. Still, one suspects that Mme. Bernhardt was a trifle disingenuous in claiming that she wept for the dying costumier. It is more likely she got the hiccoughs from sheer pique at the blood spot. Actors are notoriously superstitious so Mme. Bernhardt may very well have not worn the Phèdre costume. History records that she was quite lavish in her costume expenditures, requiring the finest embroidery and real jewels. (See her Lalique lily tiara here.)  Perhaps she was only crying over the wasted 4,000 francs? Mrs Daffodil has her doubts that the actress would have packed away any costume she thought would enhance her stage presence.   

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.



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