Her name was Sarah Bernhardt and she was a woman like no other. She was descended from a line of wandering Dutch Jews who traveled about Europe as carnival acrobats, buskers and swindlers. The family patriarch, Moritz Bernard, was a petty criminal and chiseler who fathered six children, remarried a month after their mother, died then abandoned his children in the care of their stepmother. As a young woman in her twenties (not in her teens as most biographers’ note) Sarah’s mother, Youle Bernard, left Holland for France to join her brother and two sisters and pursue a career as an artiste musicale and later survived as a courtesan. Before Sarah saw the light of day, Youle had already given birth to twin girls who died in infancy. Sarah was born a year after their deaths and was probably fathered by an unknown patron of her mother’s. Like her deceased sisters and two siblings born years later, Sarah was illegitimate and was to spend much of her life reinventing herself. The Divine Sarah did such a stunning job of obscuring her past that the facts about of her early life are subject to conjecture and no one has or probably will, discover the truth. All of her biographers were unaware of her family origins and they remained a mystery until the Jewish Museum of Amsterdam published archivist Harmen Snel’s missive, The Ancestry of Sarah Bernhardt, A Myth Unraveled, in 2007. Though some French biographers have noted Sarah’s ten year on-again, off again affair with ‘the beautiful Pozzi’, their romantic relationship was completely neglected in all the English language Bernhardt biographies.
The two lovers couldn’t have been more different. While Youle appears to have been indifferent to Sarah, Samuel-Jean Pozzi’s family adored him from his first breath. He was born in the village of Bergerac, in southwestern France, the son of a Protestant minister, a golden child worshipped by his close-knit family. Charming, disciplined and extremely handsome, he obtained the finest education France could offer and at the age of eighteen set off on the path to become a surgeon. Samuel met Sarah in 1869 in the Latin Quarter where she was working. Sarah was part of the company at le Théâtre de l’Odéon and had already made a quite a splash on the French stage. Samuel was a student at l’Ecole de Médecine and his childhood friend, Gustave Schlumberger, had lodgings across the street from le Théâtre de l’Odéon. The two students would watch the movements of the young actress from the lobby window. Once the twenty-three-year-old Pozzi fixed his gaze on Bernhardt, he was unable to turn away. He was part of the army of students who worshipped Bernhardt from the upper balcony of the theatre. Luckily, he was able to meet his idol though another medical student, his friend, Paul Mounet. Paul had known Samuel since they chased each other through the cobbled streets of Bergerac as children and they met again in the Latin Quarter as medical students. Paul’s older brother was a bellicose young man with powerful body, booming voice and beautiful face, Jean-Sully Mounet. Jean-Sully was a member of the troop of actors at the Odèon and worked under the professional name of Mounet-Sully. Mounet-Sully was five years older than Samuel and had barely known the younger boy in Bergerac. Mounet possessed a rough-hewn masculinity that contrasted greatly with Samuel’s elegant beauty but like Pozzi and Schlumberger, was a Protestant and devout in his beliefs. It was through Mounet-Sully that the young medical students met Sarah Bernhardt.
Sarah did not possess the dark, voluptuous looks that were the feminine ideal - she was slim and athletic with a delicate, heart-shaped face framed by a mane of curly, strawberry blond hair that had been lightened from her natural auburn. Her eyes were an intense shade of blue highlighted by heavy lashes. She powdered and rouged herself then draped her sinewy body in the new bustle style, a fashion that fit her perfectly. For the first time in her life, Sarah’s eccentric sense of fashion and flair for the dramatic was fashionable and soon made her a style leader. She became an early Goth girl and had a fascination for coffins, skeletons and symbols.
According to Gustave Schlumberger, when Sarah finally met Samuel, their attraction was immediate and electric. At twenty-five Sarah was already sexually experienced and the single mother of an adored son. We know nothing of Samuel’s sexual initiation; as a 19th century gentleman, he would have found it inappropriate to write about his introduction into erotic life. Schlumberger never mentioned his friend’s early romantic peccadilloes and though Pozzi has been described as an early amour of both Judith Gautier and Genevieve Halevy, known to history as Madame Strauss, there is no documented evidence of romances with either woman.
It was in Mes Souvenirs, Schlumberger’s rambling autobiography that their romance was first detailed. Schlumberger, ever the gentleman, waited until both were long dead to write about their electric affair with its frequent break-ups and passionate reconciliations. Mes Souvenirs documents their most erotic encounter, in December of 1873. Sarah’s younger sister Regine had died at the tender age of eighteen after fighting tuberculosis for years. Dr. Pozzi was preparing for an examination as prosector, a doctor who prepares cadavers for dissection, a move that would advance his career. He wrote her a note explaining that they could not meet that evening. Sarah was reeling from the death of her younger sister received his missive and rushed to his apartment where she waited for him. When he arrived she occupied him for sixteen hours. As Pozzi’s biographer, Claude Vanderpooten, noted, “the examiners waited in vain for Pozzi, who never would become a prosector in the Faculty of Medicine in Paris, something he probably never regretted.”
Luckily, Samuel Pozzi kept the letters Sarah had written him and even the ones written towards the end of their relationship give us a glimpse of the fire that still consumed them. “My Sam, I love you, I love you, and I am yours. What a sad night you have made me pass. At last! Until this evening! Come and take me, if it can be done my joy will be great! Sarah Bernhardt, 1878.” In the same month she wrote, “My much desired Sam, my beloved master. I am yours to die of love for, I am yours unto madness. What is all this then? Anyway this evening I will see you…I slept but badly…my lips ring a wake-up kiss for you, your Sarah”.
Despite being separated by the Franco-Prussian War, the Siege of Paris, the carnage of the Paris Commune, Sarah’s peppery temper, other lovers, especially the volatile Mounet-Sully and their passion for their respective careers, their romance was to continue on again and off for almost ten years.
Their earliest letters are lost to us. Sarah had the habit of burning her correspondence and young Pozzi moved so often that the letters detailing their early romance have fallen into the black hole of history. Thankfully, Schlumberger detailed their early relationship. “A great history of love, as theatrical as one could wish, marvelously interpreted by two incomparable actors; one known throughout the world, the other, her Doctor God, resting in her shadow. Young but not too young - she was two years older than he was - beautiful, courageous, hard workers.”
Sarah was a woman of tremendous intensity who was very much a 19th Century prototype of Madonna; like the famed singer, Bernhardt defied the conventions of her time, choosing and discarding paramours at will. Legends adored her but she paid for her freedom dearly and was not greeted with open arms in all areas of Victorian society. However, Pozzi was never listed as one of her of lovers, their early passion transformed into an enduring friendship. He became her Doctor Dieu (Doctor God) or Doctor Cherie (Doctor Dear) after he saved her life when she turned to him for a gynecological issue.
Pozzi discovered a huge ovarian cyst, removed it, earning her undying gratitude. On February 20, 1898, after successfully operating on the Divine Sarah, Pozzi dashed off a letter from the Senate to their mutual friend, Count Robert de Montesquiou:
Dear Friend, Sarah is convalescing well, cutting corners as usual. Decisive, courageous, firm and obedient…she will recover more quickly than most. Having played every other role, from Phaedra to Joan of Arc, she wished also to play the role of surgical patient, which she has done to perfection! Her cyst was no common one - elegant, deep-seated, with numerous extensions into the broad ligament, from where I had to dig them out (excuse the vocabulary!) - it was quite a struggle. The cyst was the size of the head of a fourteen-year-old child. What a relief to have it done. I felt as “delivered”, as operated upon, as my dear friend. In six weeks she will be on stage again….
While it is clear that the Divine Sarah and Pozzi continued an impassioned correspondence and maintained an ardent relationship that spanned decades, Bernhardt, like many of the women in Pozzi’s life, eventually joined a small but select coterie of women who became his surrogate mothers, sisters and wives.
Claude Bourdet, Pozzi’s beloved grandson related a charming story about the Bernhardt/Pozzi relationship, a childhood memory.
One day, just before the First World War, I was coming out of the apartment block where my grandfather lived and where he had his consulting rooms, on the Avenue d’Iéna. There was a carriage coming down the avenue and it seemed to me to be an electric carriage because I was, I remember, struck by the fact that I did not see a horse. I was four or five years old, so long ago that I can’t be sure of real impressions at that time. But what I am sure of is that my grandfather, whom we had not found at home, jumped out of the carriage and took me in his arms very tenderly, as he always did. My governess was watching on the footpath. Then my grandfather more or less threw me into the carriage where I disappeared into a mass of silk and feathers that covered me with kisses. My memories of this event are entirely agreeable, but there was more to come. My grandfather retrieved me, and returned me to my governess, and spoke words that I have never forgotten, probably because they have been repeated to me a hundred times since: “You have just been kissed by Madame Sarah Bernhardt!”
At the time, this made no impression upon me. But later, when I heard of the relationship between Sarah and my grandfather, and even later, when I read the astonishing letters in which she called him “Doctor God,” I would say to my companions, with a certain satisfaction, that I, too, had known Sarah Bernhardt.
Claude BourdetThe two most acclaimed Bernhardt biographies, Arthur Gold and Robert Fitzdale’s, The Divine Sarah and Ruth Brandon’s Being Divine are handicapped by being written prior to the Internet which opened up the a great deal of research by historians and archivists. The only book written in English that deals with Pozzi in any great depth, Deborah Davis’s very entertaining Strapless, the Rise and Fall of Madame X is marred by a great deal of uncorroborated information. Claude Vanderpooten’s biography, Samuel Pozzi, Chirurgien et ami des femmes, has never been translated into English.
www.sarah-bernhardt.com - An interesting but somewhat outdated site
www.doctorpozzi.com - Much of the information needs updating but it gives a great deal of background about Samuel Pozzi and the fabulous personalities who were part of his world
www.carolinedecosta.com - Australian professor of Gynecology and Obstetrics and women’s rights activist, Dr. Caroline De Costa is also Dr. Pozzi’s biographer
www.jssgallery.org - An amazing virtual gallery dedicated to Pozzi’s friend, painter John Singer Sargent. His renowned portrait of Pozzi, Dr. Pozzi at Home, is currently hanging in the Armand Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.