Tag Archives: Maurice Bernhardt

Sarah Bernhardt & Damala the undead

One of the absolute stars of Wilde’s Women is French actress Sarah Bernhardt, a truly remarkable woman.

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In 1882, Sarah, who had no shortage of lovers, proposed to and married Aristides Damala, an aristocratic Greek army officer and playboy twelve years her junior. She should have listened to her son Maurice, who despised him and thought him an absolute scoundrel but she was besotted with him.

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Sarah Bernhardt with her son Maurice

The preening Damala had ambitions to act and, since no company would hire him, Sarah took over the Théâtre de l’Ambigu made him her leading man. The whole enterprise was a disaster. Damala, who had taken to calling himself Jacques by then, developed a voracious addiction to morphine and embarked on a very public affair with his leading lady. Sarah lost a fortune.

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Jane Hading and Aristides Damala, circa 1883 

Damala was a constant source of distress to his wife. On one occasion, one of his spurned lovers left her baby daughter, who she claimed he had fathered, in a basket on Sarah’s doorstep. In 1889, Sarah threw Damala out, but she took him back in order to nurse him as he lay on his deathbed at the age of thirty-four. He died in a hotel room in Paris on 18 August 1889, and you can read his death notice from the New York Times here.

Sarah, a very talented sculptor, created this marble funerary portrait of her husband in death:

It is well worth seeking out further information on their very turbulent marriage. For me, the most interesting legacy Damala left is his possible influence on Dracula. On one occasion, when Bram Stoker dined with Damala backstage at the Lyceum, he noted:

I sat next to him at supper, and the idea that he was dead was strong on me. I think he had taken some mighty dose of opium, for he moved and spoke like a man in a dream. His eyes, staring out of his white, waxen face, seemed hardly the eyes of the living’.*

Certainly, Stoker was influenced by friends in shaping his most celebrated story. It was Jane Wilde who suggested Transylvania to him.

* Stoker, Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving, pp.345-6

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Sarah & Maurice Bernhardt

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Sarah Bernhardt with her son Maurice

On 22 December 1864, Sarah Bernhardt gave birth to Maurice, her only child. She named him after her maternal grandfather Moritz Bernardt (the original spelling), although it is entirely possible that she never once met that unreliable vagabond.

Maurice’s father was generally assumed to be Belgian nobleman Charles Joseph Eugène Henri Georges Lamoral, Prince de Ligne, but Sarah refused to be drawn on this and joined in with humorous speculation as to her son’s paternity.

She seemed refreshingly unabashed by her status as a single mother; she gave Maurice her last name and never attempted to conceal his relationship to her, although many women of her time bowed to societal pressure and concealed their children from disapproving eyes.

For more on Sarah and her son Maurice, read any of the following:

Elaine Aston. Sarah Bernhardt: A French Actress on the English Stage.Oxford: 1989

Ruth Brandon. Being Divine: A Biography of Sarah Bernhardt. London: 1991

Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale. The Divine Sarah: A Life of Sarah Bernhardt. New York: 1991

Or Wilde’s Women.

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