If you happened to have been
in Bordeaux, in Southwest France.. last year
you might have seen a newspaper
in which the Headline on page one read
“Sarah's leg has been found!”
What did this mean?
Well, there is a Medical school in Bordeaux
and someone had been poking around
in the basement of the Anatomy Bldg
and had come across a preserved body part
which they somehow concluded.
was the leg of famous French actress
amputated by a Bordeaux surgeon in 1915.
A Spokesman for the medical school
said that Bernhardt’ leg had not been lost…
just forgotten. and now it had been found
and was to be put on display…
to honour famous actress.
Well, hold on here, not so fast…
A local historian pointed out
that the specimen was a left leg,
and it was the right leg
that Bernhardt had amputated.
The whole episosode was a little embarrassing
but nevertheless it serves to remind us
about this amazing woman.
Who was she?
Sarah. was French.
She was born in 1844…
Her parents were shady characters
was beautiful, talented, and hard-working…
and as well being
unconventional, extravagant, and emotional,
she was ideally suited for a life
as an actress in the theatre
She joined the Comédie Française
which was a sort of vaudeville comic Opera.
She did her first performance
at the Odéon Theatre in 1869.
The same, year, 1869
she met a medical student, named Samuel Pozzi,
who attended the Paris Faculty of Medicine.
There were lovers for the next 10 years
during which time they both became
she..in the French theatre
and he as a surgeon and famous gynaecologist.
They remained fast friends
for the rest of their lives.
Many years passed.
Sarah’s right knee became increasingly painful …
she had arthritis.
By 1914 she was 71 years
and she also had kidney disease,
but she was still working full time
and wanted to keep doing so.
So Sarah began to talk of
amputation…. and a false leg.
Dr. Pozzi had previously operated
on her to remove an ovarian cyst .
He had found the whole exercise stressful
so he was reluctant to proceed.
Instead, he put Sarah
in a plaster (of Paris) cast for 6 months….
1914 was of course the first year of WWI.
Georges Clemenceau ,
the French Prime Minister,
regarded Sarah as a “national treasure”
so he arranged for her to move to a villa
in the south of France, in Bordeaux.
as he did not want her to be captured
if Paris fell to German forces.
This gave Dr. Pozzi an out.
He referred Sarah to his former student,
Dr. Denucé, now a professor of surgery in Bordeaux.
When Sarah presented herself there
Denuce removed the plaster cast
and found that she had
tuberculous arthritis of the joint.
Sarah, ever the actress, pleaded with him:
I have perhaps ten or fifteen years to live,
why Condemn me
to suffering for another fifteen years?
With a wooden leg
I will be able to recite, maybe even perform…”
It was a compelling argument.
Telegrams flew back and forth
between Bordeaux and Paris
as the two physicians conferred.
The result was that on Feb 22 1915,
Bernhardt was wheeled into the
Bordeaux hospital operating room .
The anethestist happened to be
Mademoiselle Coignt, who later recalled
that at the time she herself felt
as if she was in the Acting theatre….
not the operating theatre.
The patient was wheeled in on a stretcher,
singing in bravura style the opening bars
of the French national anthem Marseillaise”...
“Ye sons of France…awake to Glory”….
She then declamed,
“Mademoiselle, I'm in your hands…
let's go, quickly, quickly.”
And to Dr. Denucé she said,
“Darling, give me a kiss!”…..
instead of which, they gave her an anaestheic..
some ether…tourniquet on, leg off in 15 min,
and the diagnosis of
tuberculosis of the joint was confirmed.
A few months later…
Bernhardt was back at work…..
A passionate French patriot
she supported the French troops
in any way she could.
Encumbered by a wooden leg as she now was
she had to be carried on a stretcher
by two porters, to get as close
to the battle front as she was allowed to go.
There she would set up shop…
in some old barn in a ruined French village.
Her Audience were French soldiers
who emerged from the trenches
to see her performance.
They would assemble in front of
a hastily constructed temporary stage.
The flimsy curtain would be drawn open
to reveal a wisp of an aging woman…..
propped up in a shabby armchair
so….at the outset,
the audience was not expecting too much.
as soon as Sarah began to recite
the opening sentences of some patriotic French piece….
a miraculous transformation would occur. …
Her genius on the stage…
illuminated the crowd
and by the end of her performance….
the men were on their feet cheering …
so inspired were they by her words….
It was the pinnacle of Bernhardt’s career…..
Bernhardt kept on performing
almost until she died in 1923.
On here gravestone in a Cemetery in Paris ….
is emblazoned a single word…..
Such was her reputation at the time..
nothing else needed to be written.