The definitive history of the Davenport Hotel by Tony and Suzanne Bamonte, Spokane’s Legendary Davenport Hotel,[i] contains a long and fascinating list of notable guests that includes American presidents, movie stars, and adventurers. Among them one name stands out as unique. The name is Sarah Bernhardt.
It’s not only that her fame long predates that of other celebrity guests. Harry Truman, Clark Gable, and Charles Lindbergh are all 20th century figures. Born in 1844, this French dramatic actress who first went onstage in 1861 was from a different age altogether. But there’s more. There have been lots of actresses but who else has ever been called “the most famous actress the world has ever known”? None of the many movie “superstars” have been given that distinction. And it is hard to think of any personage with such superlative legendary status ever having set foot in Spokane.
There is more than one puzzle here. How and when did she come to the Davenport and what exactly did she do in Spokane? More meaningfully, what was so great about her in the first place and how did she attain such a reputation?
The latter questions are hard to evaluate now because sound recording and cinema were barely being developed when she took part in them very late in her career and the quality is poor. We only have written accounts of her on stage, black and white photos, and posters.
But the posters may begin to provide a clue. Some will recognize Sarah’s name from the dazzling depictions of her in the famous Art Nouveau posters of Alphonse Mucha. Nothing like his majestic, seven foot tall design for her role in Gismonda had been seen in Paris before. It was in fact this first poster for her that launched his unmistakable style that came to epitomize Art Nouveau, and, though her career was well established, she had finally found in him an artist capable of representing the presence she sought to evoke.
There was something unique about her stage presence, performing both female and male roles (e.g. Hamlet), she cast a spell with her timing, her clothing and movements, her elocution, her voice. One English man of letters summed it up this way.
“The secret of that astounding utterance baffles the imagination. The words boomed and crashed with a superhuman resonance which shook the spirit of the hearer like a leaf in the wind. The voix d’or has often been raved over; but in Sarah Bernhardt’s voice there was more than gold: there was thunder and lightening; there was Heaven and Hell.” — Lytton Strache
But it was not only her acting that created the mystique of her celebrity. Hers was a cunning and eccentric flamboyance that would beat Madonna and Lady Gaga hands down. Lavish tales about her own life, traveling with exotic pets (including a crocodile), sleeping in a coffin, making no secret of her endless string of lovers that included the future King Edward VII, all added up to a fantastical public image that would make the most imaginative publicity agent turn green. Yet at the same time she operated professionally in the elite theatrical realm of classical high seriousness, moving her audiences to tears and raptures.
It took a bit of sleuthing to learn when “the divine Sarah” came to Spokane. It turns out that she came twice, the first time in 1891, 23 years before the Davenport opened, to perform her famous role as La Tosca, the play from which Puccini’s opera was derived. She came to the Auditorium theater, then billed as “the world’s largest stage.”
A description of her appearance onstage was printed in the Spokane Review the day after the performance.
“In the first act La Tosca [played by Sarah] appeared in a clinging robe of pale sea foam green daintily brocaded, caught up over a petticoat of green and pink satin, with the short waist outlined with a belt of green satin, and sash ends of pink and green. An enormous hat of pink and green with nodding plumes of the same colors, with the white La Tosca cane, which she had once made famous, as she has the Bernhardt gloves.
“The sinuous Sara [sic] . . . has not lost the art of wreathing her clothes about her, until in the second act she stood swathed in regal embroideries of gold on gleaming satin.
“The predominance of green in all of her costumes contrasted beautifully with red gold of her hair.
“She came up the great stage with a girlish airiness that could not be mistaken. The audience knew it was she before it had been given the first faint token of her art, and was pleased at the break in the monotonous French dialogue that had been carried on the for the first ten minutes before the tragedienne could be presented to the Spokane public. Then followed what is really the most charming scene in all of this tangled web of passion, treachery, torture and death.”[ii]
The Spokane audience was not euphoric. As the record goes, There was “a feeling of disappointment that could not be hidden.” Whether it was an off-day for her, her stage manager and the theater staff didn’t communicate well enough, or that Spokanites simply were not culturally literate enough to get what the thing was all about is impossible to ascertain. She was on her private train the following day, next stop Butte, Montana. [iii]
Miss Bernhardt’s second visit to Spokane was in 1918, the last of her nine American tours. A recounting of her time here remains to be uncovered. She was 74 years old, still performing, even though she had lost a leg. That she really did stay at the Davenport Hotel, which opened four years prior, is recorded in the book, The Life of a Chef, written by the hotel’s most famous chef, Edward Mathieu.
“Dear Mr. Mathieu, I want, before leaving the hotel, to express to you all my thanks for your culinary arts so delicate. This is quite rare in this magnificent America. Once more, thanks. Sarah Bernhardt, 1918.”
Many books have been written by and about Sarah Bernhardt. Brief further reading can be found in this review of a recent biography, “The Divine Sarah” review by Graham Robb in the New York Review of Books
Gottlieb, Robert. Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt. Yale University Press; 2010.
[i] Bamonte, Tony ; Bamonte. Suzanne Schaeffer. Spokane’s legendary Davenport Hotel. Spokane : Tornado Creek Publications, 2001.
[ii] Spokane Review. “Bernhardt’s Performance,” September 26, 1891, I-5. Quoted in Page, Michael A. “Sarah Bernhardt’s Visit to Spokane.” “Pacific Northwest Forum”. Second Series, Vol. V No. 1, 1992. pp. 128-140.