EDITOR’S NOTE–This is another article on Findlay-area history adapted from a series written from 1959 to 1974 by the late R.L. Heminger, publisher and editor of The Courier.
By R.L. HEMINGER
The book “Madame Sarah,” published in 1967, constituting the life of Sarah Bernhardt, the distinguished French actress, holds interest locally for two specific reasons.
First, Sarah Bernhardt, popularly called the “Divine Sarah,” appeared in Findlay for a theatrical performance in 1917. Then, secondly, the author of the book, Cornelia Otis Skinner, herself an actress of distinction, was in Findlay in 1966 for a platform engagement.
The book is a most engaging account of the dramatic life of the talented French actress, who for so many years thrilled her audiences not only in Europe, but also in the United States.
Sarah Bernhardt was at the Marvin Theater on the night of Nov. 9, 1917, only a month after the United States entered World War I. She appeared in excerpts from a number of her plays including “The Merchant of Venice” and “The Death of Cleopatra.” She portrayed the role of Portia in “The Merchant of Venice.” She took seven curtain calls, it is recalled. Some years previously she had suffered the loss of a limb and when she appeared here she was reclining on a couch.
She traveled in her private Pullman car, which was unhooked from a through Nickel Plate train at North Findlay, or Mortimer. When she looked out she thought she had been stranded in the country and declared she would not get out. However, when it was all explained, she did agree to come to Findlay for the performance.
There were always reports she carried a rosewood coffin with her at all times to be prepared for death. She was said at the time to have had it with her in Ohio when she played here, but Miss Skinner in her book discounts the reports that she carried it with her on her trips.
Madame Sarah, according to the Skinner work, received the warmest praise when she came to America for the first time, appearing on the New York stage. Her voice was likened to “the cooing of doves, the running of streams and the falling of spring rains.”
She was besieged for autographs. One evening an overwrought girl held out her autograph book and when she suddenly realized that she had brought no pencil or ink, she bit into her own wrist and dipped her pen in blood.
On the journey to the United States by ship, a storm at sea made it difficult to get about on the vessel, the book relates. Once in going down a flight of stairs, the noted actress bumped into a rather aged woman and apologized profusely and then introduced herself. The other woman then replied:
“Pardon me, too. I am the widow of Abraham Lincoln.”
Mrs. Lincoln traveled widely after the president’s assassination and she was on one of her journeys at that time.
Madame Sarah was anxious to see and meet the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow when in New England. The famous poet received her at tea in his Cambridge home. He had with him on the occasion Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes and Mrs. William Dean Howells, wife of the famous Ohio author. She told Longfellow “Hiawatha” was a favorite poem of hers.
She liked animals and had them in sizable numbers about her wherever she moved. They included what some would regard as wild beasts, but they were somewhat tamed for her. She even liked snakes and insisted upon them being with her much of the time.
Sarah insisted on being paid in gold at all times. She carried vast quantities of gold with her in a strong box. When she appeared in Findlay, the Marvin Theater management had made arrangements with its bank to have gold on hand to pay her for her work. Her first American tour is supposed to have netted her $194,000 in gold.
When she appeared in Toledo once, she was serenaded by some admirers outside her Pullman car. They received a pitcher of cold water from her.
She like to have her jokes. She once told one group of dinner guests that she had, that very day, consulted an eminent surgeon to find out if it would be possible for him to graft a living tiger’s tail onto the end of her spine as it would be so satisfactory to lash it about when she was angry.